How can youth work help address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

Ahead of our policy seminar on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), Tila Morris, from Catch the Light, shares why youth work is important in helping young people address ACEs. 

All young people experience the regular growing pains of adolescence – the last big spurt that our brains and bodies take, which are difficult for all of us to negotiate and come through un-scarred. We can all benefit from the support of a good youth worker to mentor us during these times.

However, research is finding that by the time of adolescence many young people are already carrying the added burdens of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that they had no control over such as bereavement, addiction, family breakdown and domestic violence. Once affected by these adversities (and apparently most of us experience at least one in our childhood), our brains can form more deviant connections from those with healthy neural pathways. As we move into adolescence and beyond this can lead to a range of complex behaviours which most youth workers will recognise.

There is the fright, flight or freeze response that occurs when a traumatic childhood memory is triggered in the brainstem. Youth workers will recognise examples of distrust or over-compliance (attachment related); heightened emotions or emotionless responses (related to emotional regulation) and self-harming or aggression (related to behavioural regulation) which occur in the limbic brain. Finally, in the outer part of the brain, called the cortical brain there are symptoms such as self-hate and hopelessness (related to self-esteem), flashbacks and disorientation (linked to dissociation) and problems with planning and organising (related to cognition).

The recent growth in neurological and psychological research helps us to better understand two fundamental guidelines for working with young people:

  • That we have to deal with the person and not the behaviour, by for example asking ‘What happened to you?’
  • That to move beyond the triggered reactions, the young person needs guiding to progress from the bottom part of the brain up and that each area requires different interventions from supportive adults.

Through YouthLink Scotland’s CashBack for Communities fund and evaluation process we are managing to build evidence that, by design, youth work provides a vital safety net from where resilience factors and positive experiences grow in tandem. Self-evaluation of the eight SHANARRI indicators in youth activities, school and home confirms that youth work is rated highly by all participants, particularly in relation to feeling safe and included. More striking however is that where we filtered for those young people that feel less safe at home, youth work continued to be rated positively, whilst ratings for school and home became more negative.

From additional feedback gathered from young people’s questionnaires and interviews, we learned that the high ratings for youth work were attributed to having a safe and supportive place to go when home and school life seems to run counter to their needs. For example, schools will focus on the rules and academic achievement when the young person needs support to deal with dysfunctions at home. Bullying, stigma and discrimination can all play out in school settings regardless of academic abilities, making the school environment one of fear and dread for those that feel they don’t fit in. Whereas youth work prioritises the young person over other agendas.

Therefore, youth work’s ace card can be defined as follows:

  • A is Adult Connections based on positive partnerships with young people.
  • C is Compassionate approaches where workers display unconditional love and kindness for young people.
  • E is Experiences that are relevant and meaningful to the young people so that they can work through their adversities, build resilience and widen horizons as they progress into adulthood.

Within youth work, this ace can be implemented without rewriting the rulebook or re-setting its principles and value base. Young people can be supported to overcome adversities without workers having to fulfil a state defined education system or be the enforcers of the rule of law.  Therefore, the Government, along with all other professions, needs the youth work sector to maximise its advantages and realise shared ambitions on ACEs.

For the remaining two years of CashBack for Communities (Round 4) Youth Work Fund evaluation, we have the ideal opportunity to make our ace card count. Played correctly, we can begin to envisage a future where Scotland’s young people have access to the full benefits of a strong youth work sector and workforce.


You can hear more from Tila at the upcoming Policy Seminar on ACEs which is taking place in Glasgow on 30th August. Tila will be on a question and answer panel entitled ACEs, Resilience and Youth Work: the experience and ideas of our panellists.

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  • OrganisationSector
  • TypeBlog
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  • Publish DateThu, 23 Aug 2018
  • ContactTila Morris
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