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Do No More Harm; A Primer for Case Conferences with Youth

Do No More Harm; A primer for case conferences with youth

You Don’t Understand Me

Almost 20 years ago, in 1998, psychologist and founder of the Search Institute, released a watershed book called “The Five Cries of Youth.” The first cry was loneliness and Strommen said it could be summed up by the statement, “You don’t understand me.”

Having attended many talking circles and case conferences with youth, I find it critical to spend personal time prior to a meeting being mindful of the primary purpose of the gathering. It’s not about the placement of the young person or about the policies surrounding aspects of the youth’s care. The primary goal is to do no more harm to an already traumatized life and help the young person find a voice in their own future. Primarily to help the youth feel they are understood. 

This is different than giving a young person what they want. Too often, the placement of a child or youth takes precedence over their well-being and adults spend more time defending policies than helping young people express themselves.

Group Home Primary Worker Role

Just asking a young person, “What do you want?” or, “How do you feel?” is not sufficient, and could even be damaging as the young person already feels confused and excluded by many matters they don’t understand. Details of the case conference are known in advance and it should be the role of each Group Home to bring their youth to a conference prepared to contribute or, at least, express their emotions. 

The work of the primary staff member assigned to the youth should be to help the young person understand basic guidelines of communication and healthy expectations in negotiating what is, after all, their life. That staff member needs to know the primary desire of the youth’s transition aspirations and how that aligns with Ministry policies. 

Guidelines for Communicating—Youth Preparation

Here are some guidelines I suggest using to prepare youth to share their feelings and wishes. 

  • “Others can’t know what’s on your mind if you don’t tell them.”
  • “People can only act on what they know.”
  • “If you are honest in your communication, without tearing down the other person, you have done your responsibility. It is NOT your responsibility how THEY respond to your honesty.”
  • “Understand that all people may have hurt feelings in honest communication and may need time to comprehend what you said before they can respond properly.”
  • “Remember, you’ve been thinking about your words for a while and this may be brand new to the other person—give them space and time to respond.”

Recognizing that most adults, let alone youth, have a hard time articulating life goals off-the-cuff and under pressure, it is best to help young people write down their thoughts on a piece of paper. In a pinch, the young person can refer to their paper or ask someone to read it on their behalf. 

Affirm Youth’s Contribution

When young people share, stop the process to acknowledge the courage it took to speak in a room of adults. This is not agreeing with them, it is simply understanding them. Even if all you say is, “This must be painful and it is all right to feel ___, ___, ___.” (angry, sad, confused).

This is not the time to defend policy, policy needs no defense. It is time to protect the youth’s voice. The centerpiece of Case Conferences should be that the youth contributes her/his thoughts—especially around emotions. No child/youth should leave a case conference feeling, “They don’t understand me.” Part of the work of the youth’s primary Group Home worker is to clarify the difference between understanding and agreement. That is an important life-lesson for all adults. Even mature adults don’t always agree, but we should at least be able to understand each other without feeling threatened. 

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