Working With At Risk Teenagers as a Social Worker

by Jesus Vasquez, MSW, November 2015


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I have been fortunate enough to have worked with a very wide range of clients which has provided me with valuable experiences and learning opportunities to say the least. The fact that social workers get to work with so many types of people, from different areas and backgrounds, lends itself to interacting with numerous people on an intimate level.

One of the most challenging facets of my work has been my efforts with teenagers. My clients were often referred from the school system, juvenile justice system, and self-referrals from parents, who need help with their out-of-control teenager. From all of my interactions with this client group I have come to some conclusions. I would like to share these observations in hopes that it can help future social workers and their work with this complex and often misunderstood population.

Teenage Clients Are Looking for Social Acceptance

My first bit of advice is to throw all of the myths and misconceptions that you have heard about or read about teenagers. Of course many of the teenagers you will encounter and work with will be referred to you by school staff, the court system, and Juvenile Justice System, so there will be some mental health issues, psychosocial issues and behavioral issues to work through.  Regardless of where the referrals are coming from, you will find that the majority of teenagers are looking for social acceptance and understanding.  Adults need to understand that they will do the opposite of what they are told, looking for their place in the world.  

Teenage Clients Respond to Genuine Interactions

As we know the period of being a teenager can be an awkward time full of turmoil, uncertainty and rebellion. Bear in mind that many of the teenagers referred to you will be labeled as troubled and resistant. I have found success with building a working relationship through being genuine. Regardless of their upbringing, culture, or gender teenagers want to be heard. I have had long discussions with teenagers that have been labeled as troubled, having relational issues with their family and parents, who say that they are tired of being told what to do! They have reported that "no one listens".

Social workers have to use our listening skills to facilitate a trusting relationship. Remember we are viewed as part of the "system" so we have to earn their trust and respect.  At a time when teenagers feel that they have no one they can depend on you.

Be Consistent When Working with Teenagers

Always do what you say you are going to do. This is so important. If you can just imagine that for some of these youths they have been let down and disappointed by adults over and over again. They already have put up their "defenses" as a way to cope so if you are making promises that you cannot keep then they will notice. Teenagers do care, contrary to their attitude and demeanor saying otherwise. We should not think that just because they don't say anything that they didn't notice. They will hold it against you. Teenagers are keen observers and do not miss much.

Set Clear Boundaries and Stick to Them

Social workers must set clear boundaries. I repeat, we must be crystal clear and firm with boundaries. Many times adults think that you have to be cool and hip to understand or make friends with teenagers. Please remember that being fake is quickly caught and then dismissed and it can seriously hinder the working relationship. Parents and other adults also think that using reverse psychology works on teenagers but I believe that this has caused more tension in relationships and also is a way of trying to “fool” them to get them to do want we want.

Teenagers complain and also change their mind usually without a moment’s notice.  This is nothing new and should be accepted. We must be non-judgmental, sincere, and empathetic. Social workers can model patience to parents who are having issues with their teenagers. This doesn't mean that you have to be a drill Sargent but they must understand that we have expectations of them just as they will have expectations of us (although they may not tell us). Keep in mind that many of these youths have had someone telling them what to do, how bad they are, what they are doing wrong. I'm sure we would be no different if we become preachy and didactic instead of supportive and accepting.

Social workers wear many hats when working with teenagers and one of the more important roles is that of teacher/mentor. If you have the pleasure of working with teenagers we must keep in mind that many have not had many positive influences to guide them or they’ve had caring parents but the parents are too rigid and unwilling to give a little. We must take every opportunity to mentor them and use modeling behavior. Social workers have their own style albeit that each also has their own personal views and experiences with teenagers that can present issues. Again, we must remember that teenagers are observing what we say, how we interact, and how we treat people. 

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