Considerate conversation

There’s so much we can do, right now, to make a positive difference in the lives of young people in care. Some of these things might seem small or insignificant – but the truth is that they have a huge impact.

Why some words, phrases or questions might be difficult for young people in your church.

Our teenage years are such a unique season of our lives. It can be really exciting; we explore new levels of independence, we deepen existing relationships and explore new ones, we figure out more of who we are and develop our interests. It can also be tough. Our bodies and our minds grow and change, and with these changes our hormones go a little wild. We can find ourselves faced with big questions: Who am I? Where do I fit in? It’s a lot to navigate.

For young people with lived experience of care, there can be some additional layers of complexity. Questions about belonging can feel overwhelming when parts of their story are painful, confusing or unknown, or if their current situation feels unstable or insecure. Trauma’s impact on the brain can mean that what might cause normal ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) for one young person could create a huge sense of rejection for another. If someone’s brain works a little differently, or their communication style is a little different; if they respond differently to sensory input or certain environments, young people can quickly feel isolated from their peers. Many young people experience mental ill health in their teenage years; research tells us that a large portion of children who experience mental ill health are also known to social services.

As the Church – perhaps especially as those who interact with young people regularly, like youth leaders – we have a brilliant and important opportunity to walk alongside young people in our community with empathy, care, understanding and support. But if we’re honest, it can be hard to know where to begin growing our understanding and knowledge in order to offer a care-experienced young person the best support we can (if you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to take a read of our Understanding Adolescence blog series – part 1, part 2 and part 3).

Caring well for these teenagers will be a journey; there’s no one quick fix we can share with you to help you be a better leader or friend to them. There will be things that their foster carer, parent or supported lodgings host will be better positioned to support them with, and there will be times when professional support will be more appropriate.

But there’s so much we can do, right now, to make a positive difference in the lives of young people in care. Some of these things might seem small or insignificant – but the truth is that they have a huge impact.

One of these things is the things we say.
The words we use and the questions we ask.

Words are powerful things. They can be really harmful things. They can hurt. For those with care-experience in particular, words have labelled; words have excluded; words have blamed; words have created and built stigma and stereotypes. Sometimes this hurt is inflicted on purpose, but often it happens unintentionally.

In the Bible, in James 3:5-10, James talks about the tongue having the power to be really destructive. But I think the flipside of that is really hopeful, and that’s that we can use our words to be constructive, restorative. Yes, words can be used as weapons. But they can also be really healing, soothing, comforting. Yes, they can build walls, but they can also build bridges. Yes they can exclude, label and blame, but they can also invite, encourage and empower.

So, with this in mind – here are three things you might want to think twice about before saying to your youth group, and three things you might want to say instead.


1. “Is your mum picking you up today?”

    This is one we might use a lot, without really thinking about it. Sometimes the vocabulary we use can become so ingrained. When I was a youth worker, ‘mums and dads’ or ‘parents’ was one of those cases. “Is your mum picking you up today?” I’d ask. Or, “I bet your dad will love that craft you’ve made.” Or, “Don’t forget to ask your parents to sign your permission slip!”

    I didn’t realise that by using these words, I was excluding the young person in the room who didn’t live with their mum or their dad – they lived with a grandparent in a kinship care arrangement. Sure, they were able to figure out what I meant by what I said, and they were generous in taking my words as they were intended, rather than as they sounded. But with every mention of ‘mum’, ‘dad’ or ‘parent’, that young person was reminded that they were different.

    What if we were to say ‘adults’ or ‘grown-ups’ instead? “Which grown-up is picking you up today?” “I bet your adult at home will love that craft.” “Don’t forget to ask your adult at home to sign your permission slip!”

    It’s a small tweak. It doesn’t change the meaning of your sentence at all. It doesn’t affect how your words will land with young people who live with their birth family. But it could make a huge difference for those who live with a foster carer, who have been adopted, who live in supported lodgings or in another arrangement away from their birth family.


    2. Questions about identity

      Think about the conversations you have or activities you engage in with your youth group that require your young people to think about their identity, their family or their history. Perhaps you’ve played games involving baby photos. Craft activities will likely focus around the word ‘mum’ when March rolls around, and ‘dad’ in June. Or maybe you’ve engaged in an activity that involved creating a family tree?

      Perhaps it’s not always so formal – you might ask a young person who in their family they get their lovely red hair from, or if others in their family share a skill, a talent or an ability to do something weird like roll their tongue or wiggle their ears.

      These activities and games aren’t bad – they can be really fun and help us communicate a point or lesson. But they can be incredibly hard for young people for whom ‘identity’ is a particularly complex thing. Some children with care experience won’t have any baby photos of themselves, because they weren’t passed on from a former foster carer. Some will have had many ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ figures in their lives; others will be really missing someone they’ve known as a parent. Some may not have the information to hand that others will remember easily, like who their granny was married to or where their relatives come from. Some will feel awkward in having to explain that the reason they’re the only ones in their family with blue eyes is because they’re not biologically related.

      Questions about identity and family can be really hard for care experienced young people to navigate. We can’t make those questions go away – and nor should we. But by being a little more careful and intentional with the things we say and the questions we ask, and they way we frame our activities, we can show teenagers that they’re seen, they’re valued and they belong, however they feel about who they are or where they’ve come from.

      I’ve seen some groups explore ‘circles of love’ instead of ‘family trees’ – instead of those connected through DNA, they explore the groups of people who care about them. Others choose to explore the family history of someone famous, rather than themselves. You can ask questions that aren’t related to genetics – favourite music, food, movies. We can think more broadly when it comes to special occasions, and encourage all of the teens in our groups to think beyond ‘just’ biology when it comes to those who care about, raise and encourage us. It will help those with care-experience feel included – but it will also broaden minds and understanding among your whole group.


      3. Personal stories

        Conversations about birth family, previous relationships and homes need to be encouraged and journeyed through – in sensitive and appropriate ways – because those things are vital building blocks, a significant part of who they are and their story. When foster carers, adoptive parents or supported lodgings hosts work to create a culture of openness in their relationships with the children in their care, where any question is OK and no subject off limits, it stops their identity and story being something that needs to be hidden, talked about in hushed tones or feel ashamed of.

        However – it’s vital for us to remember that there is a time and a place for these conversations, and the truth is that that place may not be at your youth club with you and their peers. Not everyone needs to know the ins and the outs of that child’s story. Some children and young people have had their private information shared with different professionals and carers, perhaps sometimes the general public, without their control. We want to be active and deliberate in protecting a child’s dignity and honouring their story.

        Avoid asking a young person leading questions about their family or history if they haven’t willingly offered you that information, and don’t share any information about that child with the wider group that’s been shared with you in confidence. There may well be things you need to know in order to make your youth sessions feel safe, welcoming and supportive for that young person. Chat to their caregiver, perhaps with them present too, to ask if there’s anything you need to know. If they say yes, listen – and use that knowledge to care well for that teenager. If they say no – then move on, confident that you know all that you need to know.

        The best thing we can do as youth leaders is affirm and encourage a young person as they are, for who they are, exactly where they are. We don’t need their whole background to be able to call out something brilliant we’ve seen them do. We don’t need a comprehensive understanding of their story in order to be there for them when they need us. We can still engage in meaningful conversations and build positive relationships without having to explicitly mention the things that have been hard in a young person’s life.

        As youth workers or leaders, we have the absolute privilege to be part of a young person’s story. We get to show up in a consistent way. We get to build healthy, appropriate, trusting relationships. We get to have fun and laugh together, and we get to journey through harder times together too.


        Your actions are so much more meaningful than a simple word or phrase – so please don’t feel discouraged if you’re noticing things you’ve said in the past. Your presence and care speaks in a much louder volume. But we encourage you to take a look at your youth work practice and ask yourself where you might have an opportunity to use your words to make your spaces and gatherings even more welcoming and safe-feeling for young people with care-experience. Because this might not feel like a big deal for most of the young people in your group – but even the smallest change in vocabulary could make the world of difference to one teenager.

        And for us, that makes it totally worth it.

        Date published:
        November 2023


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