Focus Area 7: At-Risk Behaviors
3. Addressing Warning Signs: Talking with Youth

You are seeing warning signs of risky behaviors in a young person but you don’t have clear evidence. What should your next step be? The best step to take when you have a serious concern is to discuss it with your supervisor.

They can recommend various actions to take. This may include asking you to talk directly with the youth. Your supervisor most likely can provide you with tips on how best to talk with the particular youth.

What should you do if you find yourself in a situation when a young person says or does something on the spot that alerts you and you want to address it while it’s fresh but your supervisor isn’t there for consultation? In this case, it might be best for you to talk directly to the youth without waiting to talk with your supervisor.

In any situation where you believe a youth is in immediate danger (based on what you are observing or what they are telling you), it is best to find a way to keep the youth there while you somehow contact your supervisor.

Before such a situation occurs, it would be helpful to discuss with your supervisor about having a general plan for addressing various types of high-risk situations. A policy and procedure may already be in place. If not, discuss with your supervisor about developing one.


There are various approaches you can use when talking with young people about their behaviors that are concerning to you. But remember, do not take it personally when the approach you choose is not working. Instead, try an alternate method for engaging the youth. Flexibility is the key here.

Typically, one of the hardest parts of the conversation is just how to get it started. Some simple ways to break the ice and open up the dialogue are to: 

Express genuine care and concern

Simply state, “I’m a bit worried about you. You’re a good person AND…” and then name the concerns in observable behavioral terms when possible.

An example would be:

“Lately I’ve been noticing ___________________.” (e.g., noticing you have not been participating in activities much; you have shifted to a different group of peers, etc.).

Ask gently about how they have been feeling

 Examples include:

  • “How have you been feeling lately?”
  • “I’m sorry if you’ve been hurting lately. What’s been going on with you?”

    Let them know they are not alone

    • Share with them, “Believe it or not, many young people go through things like this. They just don’t always advertise it.”
    • Sometimes it can help to tell a generic story (without personal identifying information) about how other youth you have known that went through very similar things.

      An example: One of our staff members worked at a college counseling center and noticed a pattern where students in counseling sessions would say, “Everybody here drinks and I don’t. I feel so isolated.” Interestingly, the counselor actually heard this very same thing from quite a few students, so they really weren’t so alone! The counselor got in the habit of saying, “I certainly can’t give you names, but I can tell you I’ve heard that very same thing from many other students.” 

      Be there for them and let them know they don’t have to go through it alone:

      • Simply say, “Even though you might feel alone with it, you don’t have to be alone with it. I’m here for you.”

      If the young person seems to be clamming up, it may be best to back off for a while to give them some space. When backing off,

      • Tell the youth that you or another adult are there to listen, to talk or to problem-solve with them and provide resources.
      • It can help to say, “Can we check in again in X days?” 


      Talking with youth about warning signs and disconcerting behaviors is difficult. But there are ways to make the conversation less difficult and more likely to have positive outcomes.

      For example, before starting the conversation, a good strategy is to think back to when you were younger. As a teen, you probably did not think much about the decisions you made, what you did, or even about the consequences of your actions.


      Reflection Exercise

      Right now, take a few minutes to reflect back on your own adolescence:
      What are some things you did then that you now recognize as being unhealthy or risky?
      What are some choices you made then that would alarm you now if you saw a youth making the same choices?
      When you made those choices, were you trying to impress your friends or were you just trying to have new and exciting experiences?
      Asking yourself these questions will help you be more empathic and patient in your difficult conversations with youth.

      Other ways to make a difficult conversation with a young person more likely to have positive outcomes include:1

      • Promoting their self-esteem and self-respect. Youth with positive self-worth are less likely to be influenced by negative peer pressures. As a youth worker, look for opportunities where you can support the youth. Try affirming and acknowledging good behavioral intentions. Also, help them begin problem-solving in areas where behavior is risky.
      • Showing positivity and enthusiasm. Be positive and have an upbeat tone of voice during conversations. No one likes to listen to someone who sounds negative, authoritarian, or judgmental. Smile and show enthusiasm.
      • Adding a touch of humor. Laughter IS good medicine for the body, mind, and soul. Keep things light to ease tension. Add humor to your conversations, as long as you're laughing together and not at each other's expense.
      • Providing guidance and not criticism. Offer guidance that addresses the problem, behavior, or concern. Do not criticize, or label the behavior as wrong or bad. Instead develop an action plan to help the youth change the behavior. Make sure to ask the youth for input in developing the action plan.
      • Developing strategies with the young person. Talk with youth about strategies they can use in difficult situations. Helping them come up with a plan before they get into an unhealthy or risky situation will improve their chances for making better decisions and avoid getting into more dangerous situations. Here are two examples:
        1. Use hypothetical situations such as being offered drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes; being pressured to have sex; or being offered a ride by someone who has been drinking or using drugs.
        1. Teach youth to write a simple pros and cons list for difficult decisions. This may help them to be more thoughtful in their decision-making. It can also provide them with more time before acting on a choice. Another benefit is that the process can help create neural connections and experiences that will serve them well in making good decisions in the future.
      Reference Sources
      1 Adapted from: Adolescent Family Life Self-Directed Modules Series, Office of Population Affairs, US Department of Health and Human Services.
      Print Friendly, PDF & Email

      If you prefer to print this section of The Art & Science of Youth Work certificate course, click on the "Print Friendly" icon to select how you would like it to print. You can remove images and icons.