High Risk Adolescents, Residential Care, Staff-Client Relationships, Treatment for offenders, Youth Justice

Not fake news: High risk adolescents want limits

Practitioners become concerned when their staff, typically new staff, become too close to the young people (YP) in their care. Staff themselves believe, correctly, that a close relationship is necessary to bring about changes in the YP’s life. However, the relationship can transform into a ‘peer-to-peer’ relationship, i.e. both parties are ‘equal’ in the relationship and thus the worker is reluctant to set limits for fear of compromising the therapeutic relationship. This study argues against this line of thinking, namely that staff can have a therapeutic relationship and simultaneously set limits. Moreover, YP expect staff to set limits

Mandated services

This Canadian study investigates YPs’ expectations of relationships with staff members. The study interviewed 61 young people (34 males and 27 females) aged between the ages of 12 and 19 who were ‘mandated’ by the court to participate in child welfare, metal health,  juvenile corrections, alternative education or community-based programs for children at risk.  In Australia, we refer to these clients as ‘non-voluntary’ or ‘statutory’ clients.

Three types of staff-client relationships

YP described three type of staff-client relationships:

  1. “Informal supporters” de-professionalise their role and flatten hierarchies, emphasising empathy and enforcing few rules, e.g. one YP stated, “they are more like a friend than a staff member”
  2. “Administrators” enforce rules that are in the child’s best interest, but do so with little emotional engagement
  3. “Caregivers” who hold reasonable expectations and impose structures but are flexible in their negotiations with youth when rules were broken.

The results

Unsurprisingly, the young people preferred staff that provided the ‘worker as informal supporter’ type relationship. More surprising was the fact that they could understand the value of the other two relationship types: ‘worker as administrator’ and ‘worker as caregiver’. With regard to the ‘worker as caregiver’, the authors note:

We were struck during our analysis by how often young people resisted rules but still understood that rules were meant to be protective. In such instances, it seemed that worker-client interactions were easiest to maintain when they approximated culturally normative parent–child interactions.


Study participants described therapeutic relationships as most helpful if they mimicked an optimal parent–child relationship, with its ever-changing negotiations for acceptable behaviour, limit testing, and empathy. Youth expected workers to be flexible and supportive while still maintaining reasonable boundaries.

The authors also note:

  • no single relationship approach is applicable in all situations at all times
  • when compared to their non-mandated peers, mandated YP do not have the same ability to negotiate boundaries regarding risk-taking, therefore, by implication, less permissive approaches are required with mandated YP
  • workers need to balance the rights of the individual YP with the YP’s need for care and protection
  • moreover, whilst the YP might not appreciate this perspective in a heated discussion about limit-setting, nonetheless in calmer moments, they expect the adults to act in a ‘protective’ manner
  • there were many examples of instances where a positive relationship was maintained despite the imposition of limit-setting that the YP thought was unfair
  • the rules that apply to non-mandated YP should apply also to mandated YP.


A hard-line approach is not recommended

The authors are not arguing for a hard-line or ‘zero tolerance’ approach. This will not work and will further alienate the YP. However, limit setting based on the YP’s level of maturity and exposure to risk, when done in an empathetic and flexible manner, is both what is required to protect the YP and, equally importantly, what the YP expects from professional staff. Moreover, such an approach will not ‘damage’ the worker’s relationship with the YP.

The real questions is how do we train new workers to adopt this approach!


Ungar, M. and J. Ikeda (2017). “Rules or No Rules? Three Strategies for Engagement with Young People in Mandated Services.” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal 34(3): 259-267.



About graemembaird

I am a psychologist with a special interest in improving the outcomes of families, children and young people in the Out of Home Care and Juvenile Justice systems.
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2 thoughts on “Not fake news: High risk adolescents want limits

  1. These findings pass the common sense and practice experience tests. Young people want and need parenting and that’s what they should receive, in proportion to the amount of parenting their families are unable to provide them. The challenge to practice is reaching a social agreement on what constitutes good parenting. Some parenting styles are authoritarian.
    The findings would also seem to have applicability outside care environments. Do the courts and police also need to find this balance if they are to successfully engage young people? John

    1. John makes a good point about parenting styles. In an ideal situation, workers would utilise a Democratic style with the occasional recourse to an Authoritative style (but not Authoritarian). The democratic style would incorporate the notions of ‘flexibility’ and ‘empathy’ as described in the post.

      My only concern with referencing parenting styles is that it may lead workers to believe that they should treat young people in their care the same way they treat their own children. For example, some workers comment “I treat them (ie clients) as one of my own”. This can lead to potential boundary issues. Graeme Baird

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