Updated December 2022
Who exactly are "at-risk" youth? Definitions vary, but this term generally refers to young people whose health, safety, and future prospects have been seriously compromised by situations beyond their control.
These situations may include abusive home environments, mental illness, or addiction—and lead to criminal behaviour and/or dropping out of school.
Overall, at-risk youth are less likely to transition successfully into adulthood by finishing school, entering the workforce, maintaining good mental health, and becoming contributing members of their communities. Their lives are often cut short by suicide and violence, or derailed by incarceration.
Community services workers who specialize in youth work help troubled teens map out a better future and take the often challenging steps needed to get there.
Considering becoming a youth worker after CSW training? These are some of the challenges you'll be helping clients face and the special skills you'll need to counsel and support at-risk youth.
Typical challenges faced by at-risk youth
Each young person you work with will have their own unique background and experience; however, there are some common factors or recurring themes CSWs often see when counseling at-risk youth. These typically include:
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, an estimated 1.2 million Canadian children and youth are affected by mental illness—and yet less than 20 per cent will receive treatment.
Pandemic measures like school closures and social distancing had a huge impact on young people's mental health. A Statistics Canada report noted that the percentage of those aged 15 to 24 who reported having excellent or very good mental health fell from 62 per cent in 2018 to 42 per cent during the pandemic—the biggest drop of any age group.
Unstable family life
At-risk youth often experience trauma and conflict at home. These issues may stem from domestic violence, addiction, frequent disputes stemming from the child's destructive behaviour, or other destabilizing factors. These problems often result in the youth running away or getting kicked out of the home. Some teens end up homeless and in trouble with law enforcement.
At-risk youth are often struggling academically, or have already dropped out of school. Instability at home, substance abuse, mental health struggles, and plummeting self-esteem make attending school extremely challenging, if not impossible.
Yet without a high school diploma and a pathway to post-secondary training or employment, at-risk youth are far more likely to continue destructive behaviours, putting themselves and others in danger.
Special Skills for Working with At-risk Youth
Young people are one of society's most vulnerable demographics. But they're also full of potential, with the capacity to grow and thrive amid the most challenging, seemingly hopeless situations.
Community services workers see that potential and are in a unique position to help nurture troubled youth toward opportunity and positive transformation—to open up pathways that can completely change the course of their clients' lives. But connecting with an at-risk child or teen and motivating them to take that better path can be extremely challenging.
These are some of the special skills CSWs draw on when working with at-risk youth.
Thick-skinned and resilient
A young person who has experienced abuse or feels abandoned or chronically unsafe is very likely to lash out at adults who attempt to intervene and offer help. They may swear and hurl insults, or simply shut down entirely and refuse to cooperate with the interviewing and assistance process.
CSWs who work with at-risk youth must be skilled at recognizing these defensive techniques, waiting them out, and identifying opportunities to start building trust.
Non-judgmental and compassionate
In order to build rapport and establish trust, CSWs working with youth must resist the urge to impose their authority and force change upon their young client. This includes "telling" the youth what they must do next, and listing the negative consequences of poor choices.
Instead, it's important to appear non-judgmental and empathetic; to listen openly and offer reassurance; to position yourself as an ally rather than just another disapproving authority figure. This can be really challenging, especially when the CSW feels pressure to make sweeping changes happen quickly.
Unfortunately, many at-risk youths have learned to mistrust adults. It can take time to break down those walls to show you genuinely care and can be counted on for helpful support and guidance.
Serving as an inspiring role model
It's crucial for youth workers to serve as positive role models for the young clients they support. At-risk youth need adult figures they can look up to, who provide proof that a better life is possible and worth striving toward. This includes being physically and emotionally fit, maintaining a positive outlook, and modelling effective communication skills.
Working with young people in distress takes a tremendous amount of strength, care, commitment, and patience. But it's one of the most rewarding CSW career paths. Effective youth workers can literally save lives, helping kids reclaim their futures and achieve things they never thought possible.
Are you interested in learning more about starting a CSW career?
Consider Herzing's Community Services Worker Training, delivered at our Ottawa campus. Click below to visit the program page, browse a complete list of courses, learn about admissions—or chat live with a friendly advisor. We're here to help!