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Don Pinnock on How to Talk to High-Risk Adolescents

In the appendix of Don Pinnock’s 2016 book, Cape Gang Town, there is a valuable toolbox specifically for parents, teachers and community workers who work with high-risk youths. It has ten sections (“How to talk to adolescents”, “Don’t demand compliance”, “How to build trust”, “Creating safe space”, “The hero’s journey”, “Using fear and ritual”, “Taking time out”, “Make ground rules”, “Giving feedback”, and “A programme is only part of the journey”), and in this post I’ll be sharing his five suggestions for talking to high-risk youth (which, Pinnock notes, were drawn from his 2014 book, “Wild Resilience: Working with High-Risk Adolescents using Wilderness, Ritual and Mentorship”)…

1) Allow young people to make their own decisions

Pinnock reminds us that adults “are programmed to protect” and so sometimes struggle to let young people make their own decisions. It’s important, however, that young people learn to be independent and take control over their own lives and story. Mistakes will, of course, be made, “but you have to allow for the natural consequences of a young person’s decision,” and that the time for exploring with them what went wrong is later.

2) Get them talking

While engaging adolescents it’s important to get them to open up and share their story so a new one can be paved. For many young people, especially those from traumatic backgrounds living in disadvantaged communities, sharing their story with an adult is difficult. Pinnock points out that this is often due to young people thinking they “have nothing to tell because their story is one of pain and shame and is hidden.” Being in honest dialogue with young people is the bedrock on which all else grows, and one way to create this foundation is to show how your own story parallels their own (“You need to let them know you understand and have been there before”); which, in turn, nurtures empathy.

3) Listen actively

Too often we listen in order simply to reply, but it’s vital to give young people all your attention and listen actively. A lot of the time we aren’t fully engaged in the moment; we’re distracted by the background sounds, music, happenings from throughout the day, or some or other intrusive thought that steals our attention away from the here and now. “To listen ‘actively’, you direct your full attention to what is being said,” writes Pinnock, “pay attention to what the young person is saying and you block out everything else.”

Paying attention and being present is key and by listening actively you can slowly start to weave trust into the relationship. “A young person feels respected and cared for when someone listens to them,” and if you’re putting distracting thoughts out of your mind, asking appropriate questions, paying attention to their body language, and generally avoid judging them in the process, then you’re more likely to fully engage with them in a trustworthy relationship.

4) Be genuine

Adolescents are very good at picking up if someone is being genuine or not, so if you’re not being honest they may detect it and hold back or disengage entirely. Being genuine means “being truthful and honest about how you feel and not trying to put up a front or be false, but absolutely ‘yourself’.” If you approach young people honestly you will avoid sending them mixed signals and help foster a healthier relationship that’s conducive to assisting them to take control over their own story.

5) Be empathetic not sympathetic

This is a particularly difficult point. Having empathy is when “you feel as though you yourself are having the same emotional experience,” it’s about trying to walk a mile in their shoes, as the saying goes. Sympathy, on the other hand, is when we feel sorry for them, but it “doesn’t show that you understand how they feel.” Showing genuine empathy, not sympathy, is about feeling with them.

What do you think of Pinnock’s suggestions? Do you have anything to add? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comment section below…


Chris Wheeler

26 October 2016

[IMAGE SOURCE: Daily Maverick]

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