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Don Pinnock On How to Build Trust With High-Risk Youth

Building trust with another human being is challenging under the best of circumstances, but it’s especially difficult when high-risk youths are involved. The stakes are indeed high, and unfortunately many young souls in this country have few places to turn to for support, love and understanding.

“[M]any young people have parents who are inadequate role models or who are simply ‘not there’ for their kids,” writes Don Pinnock in his 2016 book, Gang Town. His book is revealing for anyone concerned about the state of Cape Town’s youth, for those who wish to understand the depth and urgency of our current youth crisis, but for those whose work directly involves improving the lives of high-risk youth, it’s essential reading.

Gang Town is broken up into six chapters—“Gang Town: Sowing the Seeds of Segregation”, “Cape Town’s Gangs”, “Understanding Adolescence”, “Families in Crisis”, “Toxic Neighborhoods”, and “Towards Resilience”—but Pinnock has also included a highly valuable and concise toolbox for parents, teachers and community workers as an appendix. I’ve already written a blog post about his thoughts on talking to high-risk adolescents, and in this post we’ll look at what Pinnock has to say about the challenge of building trust.

Trust, writes Pinnock, is “a fragile thing, it needs to be earned and cannot be simply expected,” and unfortunately many of our youth have good reasons not to trust adults and are “torn between their own human need for love and affection and feelings of anger, resentment and anxiety”—but they need you, they need us, to keep trying and succeed.

What does “trust” mean in these circumstances? It means believing that the other person will be “considerate, protective and helpful and not betray you or lie to you or hurt you intentionally,” and respect can only be nurtured once you’ve established this foundation—it’s earned, in other words, through honesty and open dialogue. And the rewards of building such a relationship are well worth it, not just for the parties involved, but for our young democracy at large.

Once you’ve established trust in the relationship, “they’ll be open and speak about their lives, feelings and experiences”; this is vital for any parent, teacher or community work, because without an open and honest exchange, the problems being address will continue to be obfuscated by a thick fog of suspicion and doubt.

Young hearts and minds are (hyper) sensitive to communication cues, and any indication of judgement can result in communication channels being slammed shut, maybe even sealed from within; like a Venus flytrap when you curiously poke it, high-risk youths will abruptly shut up shop, making it extremely difficult to reestablish quality lines of communication in the future.

An honest acceptance of the young person is, therefore, key. “Trust is formed when we feel that people accept us for who we are and is increased through cooperation,” and where trust exists, “a person feels safe to say what they really think and fell and now it is regarded as important. This builds self-confidence.”

How is trust broken or threatened? “Trust is broken when you try to manipulate or coerce and when you use guilt trips and threats.” Pinnock has some useful advice here on what to avoid that can easily be remembered with his “LOSER” acronym:

Laughing at a person when they say something about themselves.
Openly judging or moralizing another person’s behaviour.
Silent, detached, unemotional and rejecting actions.
Evaluating another person in your response to them.
Refusing to reciprocate in openness and sharing.

Again, high-risk youths can be extremely tuned in to the interpersonal cues of others, so ‘faking it till you make’ simply won’t cut (or at least not for very long): “you have to find ways to be a friend without being threatening,” “accept the young person for who they are, without judgement,” and realise that “building up a relationship with a troubled person takes time and patience.”

And, yes, “teenagers can behave horribly and say cruel, hurtful, abusive things,” but “mentors must be able to not take these to heart”—and know “it’s not really you they’re talking about.” I appreciate Pinnock’s emphasis here on “mentors” rather than “role models” because mentors are right there with them in the trenches; role models, on the other hand, are somewhat distance figures (idols) whose apparent perfection will get exposed sooner or later, so placing a significant amount of value on them can be risky down the line.

Here’s one final piece of advice for discussing sensitive issues/topics with high-risk youths: “mirror it by repeating what they tell you”. This strategy allows them to (1) see that you are actually listening to what they are saying, (2) it demonstrates that you understanding what was said (by paraphrasing what they’ve shared), and (3) it “helps them reflect on what they’ve said.”

I would again like to encourage all teachers, parents, social and community workers who deal with high-risk youths to pick up a copy of Pinnock’s landmark book. It’s easy to read, informative, and will no doubt empower you with the right tools and perspective to help our youth rise and shine.


What do you think of Don Pinnock’s advice for building trust with high-risk youths? Do you have any advice of your own to add? Let us know in the comment section below.

Chris Wheeler

22 February 2017


[IMAGE SOURCE: Daily Maverick]

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