The process of initiating, forming and maintaining relationships with young people requires a commitment to understanding them and genuine interest and care about what happens for them. Recent research with young people using drug and alcohol, and mental health services in Victoria found that good experiences of services were associated with perceptions of being genuinely cared for, actively listened to, and better ‘connection’ with workers who had lived or had personal experience that facilitated understanding (Russell & Evans, 2009). Similarly Bell (2006) found that young people with drug issues want service providers “who can recognise, mirror, and possibly even co-inhabit the young person’s life-world” (p432).

The establishment and maintenance of trust between a practitioner and a young person is based on these foundations. The process of building trust in relationship is integrally bound up with a core value of acceptance and respect, and the recognition that many clients have experienced a lifetime of neglect, abuse, rejection and social marginalisation.

Consistent with a client-focus the formation of a trusting working relationship cannot be forced, rather it must be allowed to develop according to the readiness of the young person. This is particularly important for clients who have experienced relationships with other service providers that have been subject to strong pressure or coercion from parents, courts or other authorities.

Taking this time to get to know each other helps build mutual understanding of and agreement about the nature of the therapeutic work. This mutual understanding and agreement is an essential element of an effective therapeutic alliance (Miller & Duncan, 2000).

Another key aspect of trust involves building confidence in the young person that we will not abandon them, irrespective of how challenging their behaviour may be or how many times they might fail to live up to perceived expectations for change.

The working relationship between practitioner and young person is often understood as broader than the classical counselling or therapeutic alliance and extends to include informal time and the creation of safe spaces. In their review of essential components of programs for homeless youth, Karabanow and Clement (2004) observe that successful programs achieve a ‘safe space’ by developing trustful, respectful, and safe relationships with street youth, among other things. In talking about the value of mentoring programs they note that mentoring provides the opportunity to build positive relationships, and that to be effective the relationship should last several years. In their recent study of youth work in Australia, Rodd and Stewart (2009) liken the relationship between a young person and a youth worker, particularly the informal time spent together, to the infrastructure or ‘glue’ that holds all of the work together, as well as being therapeutic in its own right. Respondents in their study described the relationship as a prerequisite to making other things happen, the foundation to the achievement of other youth work goals, fundamental, the key, and essential.

It is useful for practitioners’ adopt of an egalitarian stance that respects clients as experts on their own lives. Practitioners ‘walk alongside’ young people in the manner of a partnership, helping young people identify pathways through life or courses of action that are viable and consistent with their goals (Bruun & Hynan, 2006). It is important to note, however, that there are some destinations to which we cannot accompany the young person.

Strong, trusting working relationships perform at least five major functions:

Building a sense of security
A strong, trusting relationship also has various therapeutic functions pertinent to the needs of vulnerable young people. Primary among these is a sense of personal and interpersonal safety or security. It is important to distinguish clearly between the concepts of dependability and dependence here. The experience of being within a ‘dependable’ relationship within which young people can be confident of acceptance and commitment is a rare and highly valued one for many clients.

Many vulnerable young people have experienced severely inadequate, disrupted and harmful relationships. These experiences disturb the healthy development of dependence, independence and interdependence that should ideally unfold during the course of childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. Strong, dependable therapeutic relationships that extend over a sufficient period of time, are not intended to create ‘dependence’, rather the intention is to support cycles of relative dependence and independence during which young people can experiment with and practice trust and other skills that are needed to enter, build and maintain healthy relationships in various life domains.  In contrast to a relationship that induces dependence, a dependable relationship induces a sense of inner security. Thus it “can be effective without contact or close proximity. The knowledge that a reliable guide can be accessed when the going gets tough can add to a young person’s sense of security” (Bruun & Hynan, 2006; p20-21).

Teaching relationship and other life skills
Long term working relationships also provide a highly flexible vehicle for the provision of guidance as they can be adapted to suit changing needs. On the basis of a strong, trusting relationship, practitioners also act as models and mentors around a wide range of life skills. The relationship itself provides experience of and participation in trust, healthy communication, maintenance of boundaries, and various interpersonal competencies that vulnerable young people have not previously had the opportunity to learn.

Acting as a vehicle or platform for the delivery of various other psychotherapeutic interventions
Working relationships are also a platform or vehicle for delivery of various specific psychotherapeutic interventions. During the time spent in relationship with young people, practitioners utilise a wide range of counselling and other psychotherapeutic techniques as appropriate to the needs of the client. These include:

Foundation counseling techniques such as active listening; motivational interviewing aimed at assessing and enhancing young people’s readiness to address their substance use;

  • Enhancing self-awareness through journal writing and monitoring moods;
  • Cognitive-behavioural techniques such as challenging unhelpful cognitive patterns, reframing experience, and supporting behavioural change;
  • Strength-based techniques of identifying and reinforcing clients’ inner and external resources;
  • Narrative approaches in which young people are helped to explore the reasons behind why they do what they do, explore the function and meaning of behaviours, to reframe experience, and develop positive stories that contain alternative coping strategies.

The ongoing relationship between the worker and the young person provides a rich socio-emotional environment to support this work, and in combination with formal and informal activities such as art, camps, music and cooking, constitutes the infrastructure needed to support the provision of these psychotherapeutic interventions at appropriate points in time and client readiness.

Facilitating re-connection with a young person’s ecological community.
Over the long term a positive relationship experience with a particular worker, or the service as a whole, helps foster re-connection with a young person’s ecological community including social institutions such as schools, sporting clubs, work, and the resources and life opportunities that arise from the social connections that develop in these settings. In times of increased need for support, a strong pre-existing connection with a service facilitates return to service after periods of disengagement.

Facilitating engagement with services
A trusting relationship enables practitioners to facilitate engagement with other services as needed.