As someone who’s worked in youth residential settings for over seven years, I have learned many ways to therapeutically serve youth in a variety of settings, have developed a deep understanding of traumatized youth, and how to navigate the many situations that arise when working in this field. At this point in my career, I would like to focus on the staff and caregivers who interact with these youth every day and help them set and maintain healthy boundaries.
The struggle I see most in this caregiver/youth relationship is the desire to become the “Buddy.” Often there is a care dynamic with at least two adult caregivers. One takes on the role I affectionately call the “Structurer” and the other the “Nurturer.” The Structurer takes the lead, keeps the group together, and follows a schedule. The Nurturer helps with the behaviors that arise along the way so they can continue moving forward with the day or task at hand. However, the Nurturer can very easily slide into the Buddy role.
This generally happens when the Nurturer hasn’t been exposed to the types of abuse, grooming, or lifestyles the youth experienced. They often don’t understand the gravity of maintaining healthy relationships and there is a general bias of “they are just kids.” While this is very true, they are also kids who have been placed in these settings for a reason.
When a youth enters any sort of residential facility or new foster care setting, it is often the case that they have not had many positive role models in their immediate circumstance, or a good understanding of what safety looks or feels like. Because of this, keeping boundaries is imperative. Due to experiences like trauma, neglect, or poor role models, these youth’s brains are constantly in survival mode. They’ve quickly learned to assess the adults in their life and see who will keep them safe and who won’t, who is going to hold them accountable and who will let them push boundaries. They often don’t know how to create or maintain healthy attachments to the adults around them. It is our job as professionals and caregivers to model what a safe adult relationship looks like.
How Do Caregivers Build Relationships Without Being the Buddy?
The best way to gain respect and build relationships with youth is through having consistent responses and setting clear expectations. When youth know and can predict expectations, even about something as simple as what conversation topics are and are not appropriate, they are more likely to meet those expectations.
Have Consistent Responses
A youth asks for a hug. I often don’t give hugs as a personal boundary, so I tell them, “I can give you a high five instead!” and I give them a high five.
The next day, they reach toward me as if going for a hug and I offer my hand instead, reminding them that my boundary is a high five. Eventually, when they seek physical reinforcement, they will automatically remember my boundary, as I have never let them push me into giving them a hug. This is not only good for the relationship with that youth, but also a great way to model setting and keeping boundaries.
A Buddy will often tell personal stories to relate to the youth and try to form a more personal and casual relationship. It’s important that the youth feel heard, validated, and empathized with, but there are ways to do this without offering personal experiences. While it can seem fun to bend the rules and feel like friends, it’s simply not appropriate. Youth are vulnerable; they are not peers. Staff should not talk to them about their personal life, troubles, or as if they are a coworker.
When a crisis occurs, youth look for the adult that makes them feel safest. Staff or caregivers that bend the rules and are inconsistent are also unpredictable, and therefore, not safe when it matters most. Youth will gravitate towards the staff that follow a schedule, who hold limits and boundaries, and from who they know what to expect. Of course, there are times when it’s appropriate to drop or bend expectations to help a youth succeed, but you should still be holding them accountable, and return to the original expectation when the youth is ready.
Set Clear Expectations
A youth is refusing to go to school. They are throwing things around and you know that school is not an option right now.
The Nurturer drops the expectation of going to school for the moment and starts smaller, using trauma-informed practices to de-escalate the situation and use the outburst as a teaching moment.
First, they help the youth manage their current emotions. Once they are calm, sets the expectation that before moving on, the youth needs to clean up the things they threw. Once the youth is listening and returns completely to baseline emotions, the Nurturer revisits why they didn’t want to go to school and processes with them to figure out an appropriate next step. There could be many reasons for the behavior, and this is a great opportunity to learn more about the youth’s behaviors and what they need.
Now, say the youth does this again the next day – same behavior over the same expectation, but the Buddy staff person is there. The Buddy is more worried about maintaining the relationship than the confrontation or teaching moment, so they offer to let the youth watch TV instead of going to school. The Buddy drops the expectation and never picks it back up. This makes it even more difficult when the Nurturer comes back the next day and it is back to square one over the school behaviors. This creates a poor boundary between the Buddy and the youth because the youth now knows that this person will let them get away with something the Nurturer did not.
Sometimes, it is easier and less confrontational to be the Buddy, but this does not help the youth learn or show them how a safe adult acts. They cannot grow through their outbursts if staff avoid behaviors and placate them. Our role is not to be their friend; it is to set the bar, adjust as needed, and help them thrive through structure, expectations, and boundaries. When the time comes to let them go, hopefully they know what a healthy relationship looks and feels like.
This blog post was written by Maggie Justice, Milieu Lead at Southeast Regional Crisis Center (SERCC).
Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 50 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.