According to the Department of Justice, nearly 425,000 youth — kids under the age of 18 — are arrested each year. Approximately 48,000 are held in detention on any given day and 265,000 are on supervisory probation. That is a lot of kids in the system. And of these kids, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 90% have histories of trauma. Not only is this a staggering number, but it presents an extraordinary challenge.
Trauma stems from direct victimization, witnessing violence and experiencing other forms of extreme hardship. It impacts young people’s ability to function productively, from handling intense feelings to trusting others to setting and achieving goals that involve positive outcomes. This has a lot to do with a sensitized stress response, where challenges or stressors that may seem typical to some end up invoking alarm, fear and terror for that young person. As a result, they may feel compelled to defend themselves. This is when conflict behavior arises — aggression, resistance and noncompliance that can lead youth into more trouble with authorities, increase trauma and contribute to negative life outcomes.
Over the past three decades, there has been a shift in approaches to youth intervention, where both academics and practitioners on the ground have identified key elements that work to reduce youth offending and recidivism. While there are still an outsized number of young people in the system, the number has fallen 84% since its 1996 peak, with dramatic declines in the last decade or so.
To understand how to bring these numbers down even further, and to support the youth who are in the system in developing their journey toward productive adulthood outside of the system, I spoke with Jarriel Jordan, mentor, advocate and executive director of Jacob’s Ladder Youth Foundation (thejacobsladder.org) in Prince George’s County, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. In his experience, the most important intervention for young people is to “prepare younger generations to understand how to sustain themselves, which takes mentoring, teaching, listening and above all supporting them by creating meaningful connections.” To do this, it is important to prioritize three key strategies: bringing a conflict perspective, building trust and motivating a positive mindset.
Bringing a conflict perspective
Bringing a conflict perspective is essential. Given the high rates of trauma, youth in the system are more likely to escalate conflict reactively than manage it productively. While this is challenging for the adults in their lives, adults can remember that fundamentally, conflict behaviors — aggressive, resistant, noncompliant and even disengaged or dissociative behaviors — are decisions to defend in response to feelings of threat.
What we need to do when we encounter these difficult behaviors is to engage them so that we can learn what is going on with the young person. This will help us support them. The first step is to notice conflict behavior when it’s coming at you. Noticing helps us remember that conflict behavior is a decision to defend in response to perceived threat. It gives us space to step back, rather than getting pulled into an escalating conflict.
Once we’ve stepped back by noticing, we can engage the conflict behavior productively by acknowledging what we are noticing — both the feelings and the behaviors. For example, we might say, “I can see this is upsetting you,” or “I’m hearing that you don’t want to participate in program today.” By acknowledging in this way, we let the young person know that we are listening and trying to understand them from their perspective. We’re also inviting the young person to correct us if our interpretation is off the mark. This reduces threat and begins to build connection where conflict has made it fragile.
From that point, we can get curious and activate critical thinking in the face of stress to help direct the interaction toward a positive, thoughtful outcome. To get curious, we want to ask about the feelings and behaviors — for example, “What about this is upsetting?”, “What makes you not want to participate?” or “What are you worried will happen if you do?” Getting curious allows the young person to reflect on their feelings and actions and gives the adult valuable information that they can use to help.
Bringing a conflict perspective helps to build trust, which is the next essential strategy for supporting youth in the system. “Building trust is critical from the beginning,” Jordan says. To build trust, you have to be transparent, humble and curious, and show that you are there to help. According to Jordan, “These days, kids can see right through you. They know a genuine person. They know a genuine heart, and they can see it coming a mile away.” When we share our stories and give the young people a look into our lives — how we’ve stumbled, how we’ve achieved — it begins to humanize us and build trust.
Not only do we need to show them that we’re trustworthy, but we also need to show them that we trust them. It’s important to give young people a chance to lead, and not always be the expert with all the answers. We also need to be curious — ask them what their experience is, what they need and if we are giving them what they need, and then follow through with helping them. These actions support the youth and provide a foundation of trust that many of them have not reliably had.
Motivating a positive mindset
Once we have trust, we can begin to motivate young people toward a positive mindset. “Many of our youth haven’t seen many positive, productive choices or decisions in life,” Jordan says. “Many were born into an environment where they were never encouraged, where the expectations were very low, which gave them the mindset that they would never amount to anything.” In response to this, Jordan’s work through Jacob’s Ladder makes sure that “no matter what they’re seeing, no matter how negative it is, we try to empower them. We have to be patient with them, show them and encourage them that they can be anything they want to be and do anything they want to do, because they can.”
When we offer support, build trust, and give young people the opportunity to see their own achievements and experience what it feels like to win, they become motivated to strive and break out of the negativity that has led them into the system.