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Challenging Behaviors Should Not Define Youth


Challenging Behaviors are often the reason a young person is referred to a youth intervention program. Youth workers typically know more about a young person’s challenging behaviors than they do about the young person at first.

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      When challenging behaviors become labels

      Many young people get judged for their challenging behaviors and there are negative consequences that may cause lasting harm:

      • Adults around them write them off as people.
      • Young people themselves start to believe that what they have done identifies who they have become as a person.
      • Negative responses to behavior reinforce negative self-image and lead to more negative behaviors.
      • The young person is unable to see their own potential and their positive development is postponed or prevented altogether.

      As a youth worker, one of your most important skills is knowing the difference between behavior and personhood. Dave Wilmes is an expert in this area and he shared these best practice ideas for you.

      Your ability to see beyond a young person’s challenging behaviors is the whole heart of youth work. You see them for who they are. You see their potential. You support them in spite of what they do because you genuinely care about them.

      You help young people separate their challenging behaviors from their self-identity. Your relationship allows you to say, “OK, you’ve made some bad choices but that doesn’t define who you are. As I get to know you, I see something different in you. I see other alternatives, skills and strengths that you don’t even know you have.”

      Many of the young people who need you most were never able to develop a positive relationship with a dependable, caring adult. Youth workers have to be able to become that caring, dependable adult for the young people they work with.

      Within the context of that relationship, you’re going to see the other dimensions of that young person. But you have to do your own work first. You can’t form a relationship until you’re really comfortable with yourself.

      Four keys to honoring personhood

      1. Don’t accept the status quo: You work in a field that is new and you have to be willing to innovate. Always remember what you’re learning is what we in the field have done and found to work. It’s up to you to make it your own going forward. Be willing to be a pioneer.
      2. Cultural change is always prodded and started by youth: Almost every important social movement starts with young people because they inherently do not accept the status quo. The message that young people often struggle to communicate may be very important for the culture. We can’t stifle or inhibit just because it came across as challenging behaviors.
      3. You can’t help anyone if your own needs aren’t being met: You have to be an advocate for yourself. You have to take care of yourself. You can’t help others if you don’t have a solid foundation for yourself.
      4. Relationships are the foundation of everything we do: If you have relationships that are dragging you down, it’s very difficult to be an effective youth worker. It’s almost impossible to provide youth with that trusting, dependable, caring adult relationship if you don’t have those relationships in your own life.

      You can hear Dave Wilmes talk about this and more in our podcast episode “I See Something Different in You.”

      About the author

      Barbara Van Deinse is the operations director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!

      To ask Barbara a question or share your feedback about this blog, email

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