My job depends on our belief as a society that we can make things better. Most of the public and charity sector do the same. Billions of pounds are spent every year to support troubled families, disengaged young people, offenders and many others who have just had a bad start in life. And of course it is right that we should try to help. We know that relationships, advice, guidance and opportunities help us all to make our lives better and avoid the pitfalls of life.

But what if sometimes we need to be left to mess it up?  

All of us in the ‘industry’ can tell you that our interventions and help don’t always have an impact. Sometimes you can bend over backwards and see nothing change. In fact sometimes we need to be careful that a young person might tell us what we want to hear – ‘yes, I know I need to deal with my anger’ or ‘I know I need to build my confidence’ but later in the day do something that you and they know does completely the opposite.

We have seen some young people coming to the Station and our other youth centres for years. Sometimes things are going well and sometimes they are going badly, but in the long run little seems to change. So is there a time when you have to say your interventions are doing more damage than good and in fact a young person needs to see the results of their mistakes for themselves?   

This can, of course, be very painful to watch and can result in disastrous consequences  - anything from prison sentences to pregnancy or drug addiction. Morally, we should never stop trying.

But counterintuitively, very disengaged young people often see interventions from professionals only as negative. Despite the intention and quality of the work by a social or youth worker their involvement is seen as an annoyance at best and at worst confirms the self loathing of the recipient. Whilst we might know that returning to school, getting counselling or rebuilding a relationship with your family might be a good thing a young person in the midst of a crisis might see it as criticism or judgment of them. 

Like a drowning person, sometimes diving in to save them only forces them under more quickly and may take the other with them. The advice to anyone trying to rescue that drowning person is to throw them a line. They may be able to take it and pull themselves back or not.

This metaphor extends to a relationship with a vulnerable person. It maybe that simply maintaining contact is all you can do but that it can take years for someone to reach for that lifeline. But by consistently pulling and tugging that young person in the direction you think is best may simply cut the lifeline or relationship they could grab when they are ready.

It is a high risk strategy and one that you should only take when you’ve exhausted all other options. But it is a strategy, I think, that is worth discussing if only to help us help others in the long run.