Staff Who Work Directly With Youth Need to Feel Appreciated to Avoid Burnout

Print More

Working with today’s generation of youth involved in the criminal justice system does not provide instant gratification for direct service workers. Today’s generation do not get up to volunteer a seat for the elderly. Today’s generation will curse out their parents, teachers and strangers just because they feel like doing so.

We can blame it on social media, lack of parenting and lack of community involvement in the village model. After all the blaming is done, however, how do we empower a community of professionals who give 100 percent of themselves to a population who are not always receptive? How do we empower professionals whose salary is often far below that of their peers due to being in the social service field?

When I was a youth in the ‘90s, there was an expectation of respect that was always present when communicating with adults. As a youth involved in the juvenile justice system in that same decade, I knew there was a level of respect you needed to maintain whether in the streets, community or courtroom.

Even though you may have been in the streets with your friends cursing, fighting and creating havoc, that same behavior was not to be taken back into your home or school. The expectation of respect meant that one could not curse at their parents or otherwise disrespect their parents or teachers.

When I was arrested for the second time, I requested the police officer send me to detention because I was too worried about what I would face at home with my parents. The thought of being detained for committing what I thought at the time were petty crimes was a real consequence that the judge offered me. Realizing I would be unable to hang out with my friends and would lose my freedom while being detained in a facility led me to the straight and narrow. When I was offered therapy, I jumped at the opportunity.

I see a new culture within youth today. Many of today’s youth are not intimidated by the thought of being detained. In many cases, being detained has become the new rite of passage to becoming a “man” or gaining street credit. Youth today often feel that if they have been detained then they have a higher level of street credit. They feel it is their right to be disrespectful to adults, elders, teachers and community leaders. Youth today do not feel the pressure of the expectation of respect.

How do we empower the direct service staff working with our youthful offenders to empower them for positive changes in behavioral, social and competency skills? How can we convince our direct service staff that their investment in the youth will actually make a difference? As professionals working with the juvenile justice population, we are aware there is no instant gratification and it can be many years before we know if our investment made a difference.

Employers must be creative in how they support their direct service staff to help ensure that a level of optimism can endure and that they still maintain a sense of value, even when they feel completely discouraged. We do not want our staff to become burnt out because a handful of youthful offenders feel it is their right to be disrespectful.

Executive staff need to support the direct staff by giving them opportunities to vent their frustrations without being disciplined. Incorporating “mental health” days is very important for staff who may have been involved in an incident that included police or affected another participant. Staff appreciation events are very important to provide a break and an opportunity to create some hope and re-energize direct staff, who are often the pivot of the program infrastructure.  Creating and maintaining an environment of positive staff morale with support from executive staff will lead to lower turnover and let  staff feel empowered.

As an executive of programs that serve a majority of youth who are underserved, I recognize that it is key for every staff member to feel empowered, that their opinion matters and that their input aids program development and implementation. If we work to support our direct staff who hold community-based programs together for youthful offenders, we will in return have an opportunity to create a supportive environment for them and help create a cultural change among the youth.

Jennifer Gauthier is the CEO of Lead4Life, Inc., an emerging nonprofit serving youth and adults in the criminal justice system. She brings both life experience and professional training to her work of empowering young people and young adults in the criminal justice system.

14 thoughts on “Staff Who Work Directly With Youth Need to Feel Appreciated to Avoid Burnout

  1. “Youth today often feel that if they have been detained then they have a higher level of street credit.” I do agree with this part with my soul. I live in a society where detainment even for 24 hours was felt a shame but now everyone including the adults. This must be changed, and to be honest it is not possible without working on the culture of the society.

  2. Jennifer,
    Your article sheds light on a very important issue. Thank you. When I worked in domestic violence survivor advocacy I quickly learned burnout and vicarious trauma did much damage to those we worked. I have also seen this damage in the juvenile work I have done. It is important for direct service staff to be supported, but also have opportunities to understand what their own triggers are based on their own backgrounds. None of us are computers. We bring emotion and our own stories to the work we do. We must have opportunities to know our own story and how that story impacts the people we work with everyday.

    • Hello Cathy, I really do value your comment on “knowing triggers”. We try to also make the clients acknowledge there triggers and they have an open forum. We have incorporated a policy that employees can discuss the triggers with their supervisor or clinical staff without any repercussions. As direct care staff it is so important for us to know our triggers and explore them so we do not react to the person served.

  3. As far as the staff I agree that you should have a lot more support. And access to the alternative healing I mentioned above that would help our youth would also help and heal our leaders. Hopefully you can research some of what I mentions and incorporate it in to your program. I would love to offer some services to the staff and youth in the near future.

  4. Great article Jen! I’m so proud of your movement! Me being one of the teens growing up with you, and also being a part of the juvenile system back in the 90’s, I connect very deeply with this article and agree about some of the youth believing that going in is their rights of passage. I have started to walk the Native American “red road” since 2013 it’s done amazing things for both my family and myself. I believe that if these traditions are brought back & taught to the 7 generations to come, it will make a huge impact on our youth, their children, the earth, and all man kind. It teaches us to honor all living things, and to respect our youth as well as our elders because they are powerful teachers. You learn a deep understanding about what the agreement of man, woman and the Mother Earth is. Its a way to disconnect from the materiel world, and connect with the nature world, which gives life& rejuvination. It’s simple and beautiful, the best part is that our Dna remembers. Many of the ceremonies concentrate on releasing trauma, addictions, anger and restrictions limitations we put on ourselves. I believe if we incorporate meditations, reiki, the native teachings and alternative medicines with our troubled youth, even with our non troubled youth we would see a huge improvement in all of our futures. They are totally amazing and they know it, but they must wake up… And we will not be able to effectively help them do so without going back to the basic agreement from the beginning of time. I would love to work with the youth one day and assist them towards their rights of passage to “light worker”. ?✨????? Many blessings to you Jen and the program. Most of all to our beautiful Indigo Children of the light stay strong and focused.

    • Losing these traditions is a big reason why the generations feel so disconnected and angry. They feel like something is missing and not right about how the structures are now. I was one of them, & an angry adult too, but I realized in a very short time this is what was missing… No church was able to fill that void. The anger has melted away, and filled with Love. Again many blessings to all the staff.

  5. I agree with the points raised in this column. Working with youth creates an emotional attachment that does not disappear at the end of a work day. Staff performing the important job of trying to save our youth in need face many obstacles and frustrations. Supporting staff with mental health days and flexibility helps to maintain an energized workplace. Treating staff members as professionals to make decisions and find creative solutions creates an environment of empowerment. The best thing about this column is that Jennifer practices what she preaches. I worked for Lead4Life and always felt motivated to do a thorough job not only for my kids, but for my supervisor who respected me and supported me which empowered me to handle difficult situations.

  6. I agree that staff who work with our incarcerated youth must be supported and encouraged in every way possible. I agree that it is a difficult job, and not everyone is suited for the job.

    However, there will be children in every setting that can show disrespect from time to time. To say that this generation of youth (compared to past generations) is different and more disrespectful is simply inaccurate and can lead to further demonization, in particular of youth of color who are disproportionately impacted by incarceration.

    The rate of juvenile crime is the lowest it’s been since the 60’s. If anything, we could make the argument that this generation of youth might be the best behaved generation of the last few decades. What is up is the amount of news reported about juvenile crime. So it might seem to many that kids today are out of control….this is not the case.

    I have worked with incarcerated youth for over 25 years. A couple of days ago I was reminiscing with the director of a juvenile hall. We talked about how virtually every kid will respond with respect when they are treated with respect. We talked about how common it is for incarcerated youth to behave completely different depending on the staff that is caring for them.

    Yes, lets support the difficult and invaluable work that detention staff are entrusted to do. Let’s just not do it by dehumanizing our youth.

    • Thank you for bringing reality to the discussion. Me, an African American male with direct supervision to administration experience. “What you see is what you get.” If one fails to see troubled children as individuals then as you stated there is little chance to develop MUTUAL RESPECT.

    • Thank you for this feedback. Yes, making sure the staff are well equipped using a strength-based approach is very important. It is very important to make sure there is consistency as well with staff and the approach used with the youth. With that being said, when the youth are able to curse out their parents it will take much more energy and focus to redirect the youth on appropriate boundaries. Direct service staff are the ones putting in efforts to discourage that pattern at home and then often carries on into the schools and the communities. Leadership is also important in combating the change. Thank you for your words of wisdom.

  7. I work in juvenile justice and I agree that those who work with these “deep-end” kids need more encouragement, compensation, mental health days, and places to safely vent and to receive positive help in order not to burn out.

  8. I work with kids and they are nothing like you describe in this article. Every generation thinks theirs is the best and they look down at new generations. There is definitely a large group of society that is disrespectful but that culture does not represent most of the new generations.

    • No, the new generation doesn’t represent most of the youth. The youth that have been involved with the juvenile justice system for many years seem to have more of an attitude of not caring who is around and lack of respect. No, the youth we are discussing in this article are not the majority of youth we assist in the community. Through our programs, they represent about 8% and they are mostly involved in our alternative to detention program. There is a lack of family and parental support which carries over into the youth’s life in many aspects. It is still important to acknowledge this small population so the staff do not get burnt out and continue to see the efforts of their work.