Continued from the May 2015 issue of the Correctional Oasis.
How Staff Are Affected
If, on average, staff working with youth try harder to help their charges, attach more, and care more regarding outcomes than staff working with adult offenders, then they are also more likely to both be elated when youth make progress, and also more disappointed—even crushed—when something goes seriously wrong with the youth.
In a nutshell, when working with justice-involved juveniles, the highs tend to be higher and the lows lower than when working with older, adult offenders.
And even in the absence of current adverse incidents, just reading the youth’s files and hearing their stories is enough to stir up in staff grief, anger at perpetrators, and a sense of powerlessness to stem the tide of child abuse or neglect.
So staff who deal with young offenders have the dual task of needing to stay afloat emotionally themselves—managing their emotional reactions effectively, while also keeping the youth’s heads above water. And this must be accomplished in the context of experiencing acting-out incidents and other crises on a not infrequent basis, on top of other regular stressors of corrections work.
As they continue to deal with such incidents, may staff become progressively more negatively impacted—unless they learn effective ways to process the fallout of these events.
Think of how a staff member may feel when a youth (whom they have been helping diligently and consistently) for no apparent reason, suddenly assaults them or makes unfounded yet serious allegations against them.
Up to that point, that staff member may had come to believe that they had earned the youth’s trust and respect. They may have even thought that the youth might be grateful toward them for their sincere efforts to help them and for their obvious caring.
Assaults or unfounded accusations can, understandably, shatter the interpersonal bridges staff have so painstakingly been building to reach the youth. Because of the deeper emotional investment in their charges (compared with adult offenders), staff may feel personally betrayed by the youth, “stabbed in the back.” Staff may (most often inaccurately) conclude that no progress was made and that their efforts were all in vain.
Coming to believe that their hard work was to no avail would likely lead to staff building high psychological walls around themselves, becoming reluctant to care and invest emotionally in youth again. And on top of trying to work through the sense of betrayal, they now have to deal with the traumatic aftermath of the assault experienced and/or the stress of being under investigation.
Even though staff’s negative reactions are understandable—as none of us like to receive harm in return for good—if they become entrenched (not worked through), they will render staff much less effective at their work, and they will also drastically diminish the positive meaning and satisfaction they derive from their work.
Similarly, when youth attempt suicide or die by suicide—in spite of staff’s incessant efforts to help them work through their struggles—that is a crushing blow for staff. Staff may be also become deeply distressed when a tragedy strikes youth in the community, such as them being murdered or dying due to a drug overdose.
When youth commit new crimes, staff who have been working tirelessly with them may start doubting their ability to influence youth for the better. Their confidence in their professional skill sets and in their ability to facilitate pro-social change, and their sense of meaning and value of their work may be seriously undermined. They may ask themselves, “What’s the point of trying to help these kids? Either they get back in the system or they die.”
Additionally, compared to dealing with adult offenders, staff may take on more responsibility for youth treatment and intervention outcomes than is realistic or warranted. As a result, they may be more likely to experience false, un-founded guilt when justice-involved youth make another poor choice, thinking that they should have done more to help them.
It is difficult to allow oneself to care deeply over and over again, only to have one’s expectations fail to materialize, or only to be “paid back” with a verbal or physical attack. To protect themselves from disappointment and to be able to continue working with this population, some staff may take an all-or-nothing approach. They may “harden their hearts,” shut down emotionally, do the bare minimum, and lose the vision and idealism that initially propelled them to serve youth offenders. Others may also occasionally react by becoming verbally abusive in return to the more chal-lenging youth. Eventually some will quit, as the investment may seem to them to be too high for the meager returns. Others may be let go due to misconduct. And the not-often mentioned reality is that a number of staff may develop PTSD, depression and anxiety symptoms and even full-fledged disorders as a result of what they witness and what they experience in the course of working with justice-involved youth.
Solutions for Youth Workers
Effective functioning as youth workers depends on three main components: (a) finding and maintaining positive meaning and purpose in the work; (b) pursuing their own wellness; and (c) experiencing support and understanding by their administration.
Finding Positive Meaning and Purpose
Youth workers need to maintain the belief that it is indeed possible for justice-involved juveniles to improve and to have a better future. The fact that areas of the juvenile brain are still developing means that there are very real op-portunities and possibilities that at least some of them will acquire prosocial behaviors to some degree through posi-tive interactions as well as through experiencing consequences for their actions. Reminding themselves of these en-couraging facts can help staff remain open and willing to invest in youth in appropriate ways even after struggles and relapses.
Staff may also need to modify their expectations and their definition of success. Celebrating every tiny bit of pro-gress, while also factoring in setbacks as part of the norm, is a necessity. Reminding themselves to distinguish be-tween what they CAN influence and what they cannot change will help keep their expectations realistic and more likely to be attainable. It also helps for staff to re-main cognizant of the fact that they are not responsible for other people’s choices and that they cannot control others’ actions.
Staff need to remember that their calling involves doing their best (the level of which may vary from day to day), to sow good seed and continue to water it, and then let go of expectations regarding the outcomes. That means ac-cepting that some seed may sprout immediately, but not endure under harsh conditions; some may sprout and con-tinue to grow steadily; some may sprout much later; and some may not sprout at all. The good seed that sprouts—whether sooner or later, and to whatever degree—can make the effort worthwhile, as one person does matter, and one person can have a tremendous impact in their world, even for generations to come.
Staff need to balance their emotional engagement and investment in the youth with a degree of professional detach-ment based on understanding the process of a youth’s maturation and change, and given the context of neurological, psychological and spiritual damage that the youth may have already sustained.
Given the harsh reality of juveniles’ acting-out behaviors, some of which involve aggression against other youth and also against staff, to be able to continue working effectively in this field, staff have to have a way of letting go of grudges. They have to be able to forgive to some degree at least, so they can go back the next day and engage the youth as human beings under their care—not as monsters to avoid, hate or punish. That is a tall order, but it can be done, and it is being done across the country.
In addition to re-evaluating their understanding of what constitutes success, staff would benefit from adopting a strengths-based framework when dealing with youth. This involves identifying youth’s abilities and skillsets, acknowl-edging these strengths to themselves and to the youth, and working with identified strengths as starting points to encourage and empower the youth and to promote change.
The predominant way in which the youth is perceived by the staff is also critical, as it determines how staff will deal with them. In line with the work of Gordon Bazemore, are they viewed as helpless victims, villains who deserve to be punished, or as valuable resources that can be developed and redeemed, at least to some degree? Are they worth investing in and helping, or should they be simply warehoused and written off? This perception of youth is of course is shaped by staff’s exposure to trauma, as trauma can change the worldview of those affected by it. So staff need to be continually countering the tendency to overgeneralize from one youth (or a few) to all, and the tendency to draw sweeping, negative conclusions about the youth while overlooking, minimizing or dismissing positives.
Staff need to remember that we live in an imperfect yet beautiful world, where injustice but also goodness happen, and where some degree of recovery and healing is possible for most, if not for all. And, most importantly, that every amount of healing matters. Sometimes the steps forward that youth take may be so small that they are hardly notice-able. In that case they are what I call “ant steps.” But, as staff and youth persevere and keep moving forward in spite of stumbling and falling down at times, these ant steps add up, and ants can get to go to far away places!
I have spoken with staff who have experienced the betrayal of an assault by youth they had been helping, and worked through it successfully. After the dust settled, they chose to examine the situation objectively. If they took the attack personally at first, they stopped doing that. “Why did he do this to me after all I’ve done for him?” became “I know that this was not about me, and I think I understand where he came from.” That is, they were able to frame the inci-dent as it being due to what they represented (adult authority) to the youth; and/or due to the youth being torn about letting anyone get close to them emotionally. (Disruptions in the development of secure attachment may mean that youth become anxious and agitated when someone gets close to them emotionally, as they expect that to be the prelude to more pain. And so they react, violently at times, and push whoever they consider to be a threat away. They may do so in a flash, impulsively, and without thinking through the context of the relationship.) By reframing assault incidents in this manner, staff were able to let go of grudges, forgive the youth, and even analyze the situation with them. In all cases of assaulted staff I am aware of, the youth later expressed regret and apologized for their conduct.
Pursuing Their Own Wellness
As their career progresses, staff need to develop and maintain effective resilience-boosting strategies, so that they can deal with repeated letdowns and other high-stress experiences at work. Ideally, this parallels the staff’s efforts to teach youth to develop life skills for coping with adversity.
Staff need to aggressively pursue their well-being in every area—from getting enough positive social interactions in their lives outside of work to eating well to working out to sleeping enough to cultivating a healthy spirituality to getting enough time away from work to rest and play.
Wellness also involves balancing giving to others with taking care of themselves—to “refuel,” to process what they have experienced, and to remind themselves of basic truths. That is, staff need to ensure that they are regulating their own thought process and emotions in healthy ways, and that they “detoxify” sufficiently following difficult en-counters. And effective supervisors remind their subordinates of these truths, while also practicing them themselves.
Experiencing Administrators’ Support and Understanding
It is vital for line staff to be confident that their administrators understand the pressures of the job, and that they support them and look out for their well-being. Little could destroy morale more than coming to believe that the youth’s well-being is regarded as more important than theirs, or that youth are not held appropriately accountable for their actions.
Administrators’ support needs to be both verbal and action-based—both in word and deed, particularly regarding issues of staff’s physical safety. If youth workers have previously worked with adult offenders, they may struggle with the differences in how physi-cally violent behavior of these two populations is handled.
In summary, dealing with justice-involved youth may “tug at staff’s heart strings” more than when dealing with adult offenders. This leaves youth workers more vulnerable to disappointment and discouragement, even while providing them with more opportunities for satisfaction due to breakthroughs witnessed in the youth’s lives. To use another analogy, youth workers walk on an emotional tightrope more so than staff working with older offenders.
To maintain their effectiveness, they need to be making vigorous efforts at engaging wisely at the emotional level with the youth while maintaining professional boundaries—not too much and not too little, and depending on each individual case. They need to also redefine what professional success means in this line of work, seek ways to contin-ue deriving fulfillment in spite of challenges, and take deliberate, intentional steps at maintaining their own resilience and well-being.