The Relationship Dance with Complex Young People: How support staff can avoid becoming icy and bitter

  • Monday, May 16, 2016
  • Shona Innes Psychology

One of the many difficulties for support staff or carers assisting a complex young client is to establish, and then maintain, a healthy working relationship with them. Keeping a complex young person engaged is often very dependent on their relationship with support staff.In my experience, the efforts support staff put into building strong relationships with complex young people can sometimes fall flat. And in desperate attempts to help, some support staff may blur the relationship boundaries in dangerous ways.

How trauma affects relationships

Support staff usually enter the care field because they value warmth, like to help and want to make a difference. However if they expect warm and fuzzy feelings in their relationships with complex young people, they may experience a very long time between fuzzies and this can become problematic. Despite their best intentions and genuine care, when they come across a young person who doesn’t speak the same language of relationships, their care can be met with indifference. This is not because the young person is nasty, but because they have a history of relationships that tells them not to get close and to be cautious of shallow warmth and broken promises.

For young people who have experienced trauma, neglect and abuse, who have been hurt and let down by adults who should be keeping them safe and nurtured, relationships can be perilous or sometimes even just a means to an ends rather then something to value and nurture. It is not surprising that their history makes them disinclined to trust or prone to just being really angry, avoidant and prickly when it comes to any relationship that doesn’t have immediate purpose for them.

Instead of seeing relationship and trust issues as part of a normal response to a toxic upbringing, support staff who are often warm and keen to help will often take relationship indifference personally. They can end up feeling upset and angry with the young person. When support staff try to give them warmth and when this doesn’t work long-term, they may get angry and frustrated. They might even give up or go cold and start minimising their contact with the young person. They then get little out of their job and could turn out to be hard, cold meanies who treat the young person like just another sack of potatoes in their care. Worse than this, they could end up feeling that the young person should owe them for any care they have received, with thoughts like After all I’ve done for him! or That’s it! I thought that after I worked extra hours to take her on that special outing, she’d at least treat me with respect!

Support staff need education about the effects of trauma on the young. This will help them work out how best to channel their warmth and how to read and understand a young person. Support staff will learn to not personalise rejection and to remain open to what a young person’s behaviour is telling them about their needs.

In establishing and maintaining effective relationships with young people, support staff would also benefit from professional supervision, awareness of a young person’s behaviour, making wise use of incentives, and being reliable and punctual.

Shona offers workshops for support staff on how to develop effective relationships with complex young people. To find out more, call Shona Innes Psychology on 0400 150 106 or email