Family Relationships Quarterly No. 18

AFRC Newsletter No. 18 – March 2011

Communication with young people in a family services setting

by Elly Robinson and Robyn Miller

There has been an increased emphasis on child-inclusive and child-focused practice in family relationship service delivery in recent years. Yet there has been little discussion about how engaging with children may differ according to the age and developmental stage of the child (see Box 1). Engaging young people successfully in a family counselling setting, for example, will often require a skilled use of communication that incorporates an understanding of the intricate nature of adolescent development and how this relates to the issues for the family.

This article looks at some of the issues related to communicating with young people, and practice tips which may help to make the conversation run more smoothly. The article is adapted from sections of the Department of Human Services Specialist Practice Guide - Adolescents and Their Families <>.

Practitioners in family support services may need to engage with young people as part of a family counselling or support session, or as part of negotiating a parenting plan in the case of family breakdown. Adolescence is a time in which relationships with family change, as the adolescent becomes more autonomous and forms more intense friendships and partnerships outside of the home (Christie & Viner, 2005; Daniel, Wassell, & Gilligan, 1999). Yet family relationships remain critically important, and trauma or conflict within the family is likely to have an impact on young people that may not always be communicated in a straightforward way.

It is useful to understand the types of behaviours or actions that adolescents may engage in - and why they may engage in them - and offer open lines of communication to the young person. This may not only help the young person express their emotions, needs and desires, but can also help to model good communication skills to parents. We often ask questions in a way that can silence young people. We can also become so focused on getting a literal response that we miss the things that they are telling us through their behaviour or actions. The following tips may help workers to engage in more respectful and supportive conversations with young people that will better allow them to express themselves.

Box 1. Phases of growth in adolescence

A common way to differentiate the phases of growth in adolescence is by labelling these phases as early, middle and late adolescence. Less commonly, a pre-adolescence and youth/young adulthood phase are also identified at either end of the adolescent "spectrum" (Breinbauer & Maddaleno, 2005). Each of these phases is differentiated by the degree to which physical, sexual, emotional and social development has occurred. At each phase, interactions at school and home, as well as biological, socioeconomic, cultural and environmental factors, will influence development. For example, in Western society, puberty is often seen as the beginning of adolescence at around 11 to 12 years of age (biological marker) (Christie & Viner, 2005). A recent study shows that around half of Australian Year 12 students have experienced sexual intercourse (Smith, Agius, Mitchell, Barrett, & Pitts, 2009), indicating that sexual development accelerates in middle adolescence.

The "completion" of adolescence is less clearly marked, but may be characterised by things such as being able to drive or vote (cultural markers), or leaving the family home (social and environmental markers). More subtly, things such as cognitive and moral development are less "visible" markers of growth, and are more likely to test practitioners' abilities to judge competency to engage in aspects of service provision, such as decision-making around involvement in counselling, post-separation parenting arrangements and making positive social connections.

Engagement - How will I start?

  • Let the young person be the expert of his or her own world - it may help to consider initially working from a "one-down" position, that is, the worker as student. Remain open and curious.
  • Be creative. You can engage in conversation with a young person when sitting in a park or a cafe, shooting hoops, walking, patting a dog, driving in a car or hiding under a table. Movement, a change of scenery, companionship, and activities or behaviours that involve limited eye contact can help to encourage communication.
  • Be clear about your role and the reasons you are talking to them, but also talk about normal "safe" things, such as clothes, sport, music. Enjoy getting to know the young person.

Delivery - How should I ask questions?

  • Be authentic rather than "cool".
  • Honesty and straightforwardness is appreciated and appropriate. Ask the young person's permission to be "upfront"; respond to the non-verbal cues:

"Is it okay to tell you what I'm thinking?"

"Tell me if I got it wrong."

"Is this the wrong time to be having this conversation?"

"The look on your face says that ten minutes of this conversation is enough and then we'll get a milkshake - deal?"

  • Avoid using jargon.
  • Talk about the "talking about". Help the young person to have a sense of control about the timing and pace of difficult conversation.

"If we were to talk about when your mum and dad told you that they were separating, what would be hard about talking about it? What would be good about talking about it?"

"I reckon you might think that if we talked about the fighting and yelling at home it would get even louder inside your head ... or that the nightmares would be worse ..."

  • Try not to ask direct questions - use observations and give space for the young person to respond.

"Some kids hate talking about the bad or hard stuff but then once they do, they find that they sleep better."

"Seems like there's a lot of stuff bottled up inside you that just boils over and you're finding that pretty hard to cope with."

Technique - What else may help?

  • Let the young person know that you like him or her. Find something to like!
  • Plasticine or play dough can be useful at times for showing or modelling family events or as a soothing device to squeeze as they are talking about difficult things.
  • Similarly, things such as chewing gum, taking a break, eating chocolate, or getting a warm drink can help the young person manage an intense session.
  • Talk out loud about what you imagine they would say to you if they could.
  • Use existing props in the room, or non-verbal cues to answer questions.

Suggest to the young person who doesn't want to talk that if they shrug their right shoulder, this means "yes"; a left shrug means "no".

Use arm gestures to suggest how big the sad, angry or confused feelings might be.

Ask him or her to show you on the wall where the sad feelings would come up to, or how much of the room his or her anger would fill up.

Encourage the use of drawing, poetry, story writing or movement to enable the young person to externalise what has happened - for example, ask what his or her sadness would look like in a drawing.

Competence, coercion and confidentiality

The gradual transition of power for making decisions that affect their lives is an important part of adolescent development that prepares young people for independence. Parents and carers have a role in supporting young people to make this shift to independence, and professionals can support this. As young people develop autonomy and self-mastery, their views on decisions that affect them will need to be given more weight. However, this developmental shift is gradual, which means that issues such as competence, coercion and confidentiality need to be regularly considered in service delivery (Larcher, 2005). These issues become even more pertinent when a practitioner is required to work one-on-one with a young person.

Competence: Is the young person developmentally ready, willing and able to contribute to his/her own engagement with the service?

Competency includes an ability to understand:

  • simple terms;
  • the nature, purpose and necessity of proposed action and any alternatives that may be available;
  • the likely benefits and risks of the proposed action, and possible effects of non-action; and
  • how the information applies to the person (Viner, 2005).

Recent research on brain development in adolescence provides additional insight into what a young person may be competent to make decisions about and what may still be difficult for their age and stage of development (see Box 2). Competence may also be situation specific. For example, a young woman may perform well in her job but regresses in situations that require her to deal with conflict. In this sense, a young person may have the competence to make some basic decisions alone but may need support and help from parents or carers to make others.

Coercion: Is the young person making decisions of his or her own free will and upon consideration of all the information presented to them?

If you are providing the opportunity for young people to be involved in decision-making, it is important that they have time to consider information and feel that they are making an informed choice, free from external pressure (Viner, 2005). Failure to provide adequate time or facilities to receive and reflect on information may be a subtle form of coercion. Practitioners also need to consider whether the information has been understood, and the impact of cultural norms, such as traditional or cultural relationships between young people and authority figures (e.g., Aboriginal elders).

Confidentiality and information sharing: What happens to the information provided by the young person?

Confidentiality is rated very highly, considered very important by adolescents and is crucial to practice (Viner, 2005). Young people have a right to confidentiality and where it is limited, to have those limits clearly explained. Clarity regarding confidentiality policies and practices, including across services, needs to be established. A young person's involvement with a range of services is not in itself a justification for information sharing between practitioners.

Box 2. Brain development

Recent research indicates that there is a development and strengthening of the areas of the brain that involve self-regulation (of behaviours and emotions) during adolescence and early adulthood (Steinberg, 2009). The parts of the brain influencing levels of mature judgement, long-term planning, consideration of the consequences of (and alternatives to) behaviour and self-regulation are still developing into the early twenties (Patton & Viner, 2007). Therefore, brain immaturity may impact on a young person's emotional and impulse control. An example of this is when a young person can sometimes later explain exactly why something happened in the way it did, but couldn't make the connection at the time of the event. Brain growth research gives us new insight into a biological basis for adolescent behaviours, which may help parents, carers and practitioners understand adolescent behaviour. It also provides some guidance regarding a young person's capacity to make his or her own decisions (competency).


Young people are in a unique period of development that encompasses their increasing individuation from parents and desire to make their own personal decisions. This may be reflected in family counselling or similar sessions, and effective communication with the young person can help them to engage in the process of change. Respecting the young person's feelings, needs and desires in a way that is appropriate to their developmental stage will help to build good working therapeutic relationships with young people, and additionally may serve to model effective communication skills to parents. Considerations of competency, the subtle effects of coercion and confidentiality will also help in times where a young person wishes to engage in one-to-one communication in a counselling or similar setting.


  • Breinbauer, C., & Maddaleno, M. (2005). Youth: Choices and change. Promoting healthy behaviors in adolescents. Washington, D.C.: Pan American Health Organization.
  • Christie, D., & Viner, R. (2005). Adolescent development. In R. Viner (Ed.), ABC of adolescence. London: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Daniel, B., Wassell, S., & Gilligan, R. (1999). Child development for child care and protection workers. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • Larcher, V. (2005). Consent, competence and confidentiality. In R.Viner (Ed.), ABC of adolescence. London: Blackwell Publishing.Patton, G., & Viner, R. (2007). Pubertal transitions in health. The Lancet, 369, 1130-1139.
  • Smith, A., Agius, P., Mitchell, A., Barrett, C., & Pitts, M. (2009). Secondary students and sexual health 2008 (Monograph Series No. 70). Melbourne: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University.
  • Steinberg, L. (2009). Should the science of adolescent brain development inform public policy? American Psychologist, 64(8), 739-750.
  • Viner, R. (2005). ABC of adolescence. London: Blackwell Publishing.

Elly Robinson is the Manager of Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse and the National Child Protection Clearinghouse.

Robyn Miller is the Principal Practitioner for the Children Youth and Families Division of the Victorian Government, Department of Human Services.