Even as a key worker, or other professional who supports care leavers it is understandable to find it difficult to engage with and develop strong, trusting relationships with those who you are working with. You may be feeling that the relationship is not developing as you would like or you could be concerned that a young person will become too attached if you show too much attention and that you care. Finding the balance can be difficult but it is key to building a positive connection.
Care experienced young people can struggle to develop strong connections as they have often experienced continuous changes in their social worker, carer and others who have been there to support them. This can become a significant barrier to building new relationships. Having an awareness of their background, trauma, past experiences that may influence their interactions, trust etc…many care leavers have felt let down on many occasions and fear it will happen again and close themselves off as a form of self-protection. You may also feel that you will not be able to give those you work with all the answers and that this might be detrimental to building a relationship, however showing you care is the biggest step. Where you work may not naturally support strong relationships with young people and this can act as a barrier. Do not be scared to discuss relationships openly, challenge where you feel it is possible to do so and understand your organisational culture. Using a relational approach is essential to breaking down these perceived barriers and letting the young person know that you care.
You should think about the space and place for engagement, the timing and the types of engagement you can use. This may seem obvious but it is essential to ensure you are creating the best setting to start to get to know the young person, and for them to get to know you. They will possibly feel nervous, angry or uninterested and the more you can do to set the scene the better for early interactions. Types of engagement can vary by young person and also by the stage of your relationship. Developing an understanding of when to use digital, text, face to face methods is essential (or a blended approach can be good, but has to meet young person needs, capacity and capability) and may be better further into the relationship. Involve the young person in the planning, perhaps even see it as their planning where appropriate. There are times when your approach can either be person-led or person-centred and involving them in the decision making, or at least the rational for decisions and explaining these to them will be key. It will also be useful to understand the barriers that young people may face when developing relationships. Changes in social worker, care staff throughout their life may have left them feeling unwanted, disengaged or just part of a process. Due to unstable family connections they may not know or understand what a healthy relationship is. You can help them develop that understanding so they can bring it into their own lives. While it is true that care experienced young people are more likely to have experienced negative relationships, you should not make assumptions about the person you are supporting. Meet them with curiosity and openness and trust that they know their pace best.
It is probably most import is to be honest, open, consistent and committed. Make sure you listen, observe and converse form the start of the relationship and keep this going throughout. Communication is key and will enable you to better understand the young person and in turn better support them in their journey. If you get to know them you can learn to read them, their reactions, what is working and what are they responding or not responding to. They will hopefully learn to trust you and be able to open up and discuss the things that are important to them or worrying them. Be sure to set expectations and discuss these as it’s very important to ensure everyone knows what the relationship will do and bring to each person.
And finally, maybe think how you like to be interacted with – a warm, empathetic, informal approach where someone shows they care?
There are several relationship models that can be used as guides to understand, develop and strengthen relationships. One example being the Erickson 4 stage model (Erickson 2018) of
If you are unsure it might be an idea to do some research and find a method or model that works for you, and helps you to develop your own approach to ensuring your relationships are.
Also explore the our guide on relationships-based practice.
Relationships are an important part of everyone’s life. For example, everything we learn as children depends on others teaching us. But did you know that good relationships also have an influence on our physical and mental health (Griffith, 2017)? Relationship-based practice combines what we know about childhood development, trauma, resilience, and relationships to promote the best for children and adolescents.
Early life experiences shape our mind and body in ways that we are understanding more and more, especially when these experiences are traumatic. Trauma-informed practice takes this knowledge and creates a holistic framework for practitioners and organisations to create healing and safe spaces and ways of working.
First introductions matter. It matters when, how and where they happen. Many young people speak about transitions are often the most difficult times. In this Guide we explore how transitions can be done from the lens of relational practice.
What do IT systems and relationships have in common? Both usually run in the background and are easily taken for granted. Perhaps surprisingly, IT systems can have a big influence on the quality of relationships and relational practice in general.
When you know your goal you do whatever you need to do to reach it. But what if you defined the goal in the wrong way? In this Guide we explore how the goal affects your actions and how you can make sure that you are measuring your success in the right way. Are you meeting an outcome or are you filling a need?
One of the first things you learn when you start your job is when you need to arrive and when you need to leave. Have you ever considered that the pattern of your work affects the relationships you are building?
Organisational values influence the working culture. They can inspire workers to follow the organisation's mission. However, for them to have an impact they need to be developed with staff and young people.
It is important to keep learning and growing. Recognise your staff’s value and expertise by developing internal training and discussion sessions. Enable staff to learn and train more. Training should not be a tick-box exercise but a place for growth and reflection.
As is often said, hurt people hurt people – it is even more important to consider the flipside: supported people support people. Working with young people and caring for them can be a demanding role, especially in under-resourced and stressful environments. A truly relational organisation also invests in the relationships between managers and staff, creating a positive environment for everyone.
Relationships do not just depend on one person, but rather on a network of people and the culture of an organisation. Sometimes one person who simple ‘doesn’t get it’ can put barriers in the way for an entire team to become less relational. So, it’s easy to see why recruiting the right people is so important to create and maintain a relational organisation.
Relationships are essential to all parts of life and encompass both our professional and personal lives. They are a vital part of the support networks for our young people and the stronger the relationship the better we can all do our jobs, perhaps making them feel less like a job and more like a vocation. And perhaps more importantly, the stronger the relationship the more important a young person might feel.