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Engaging with children and young people
Engaging with children and young people

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4.1 Adolescence as a stage of life

For many, adolescence is also seen as a ‘stage’ of life when young people are actively seeking risks and pushing the boundaries of what we perceive our family and society expects of us. This often includes such things as drinking, smoking and drug use, although statistics from England suggest that young people are engaging less in these risky behaviours than in the past (NHS, 2015). It can also include ‘hanging out’ and associating with people in situations which society might regard as being less than ideal.

Consider a 14 year old with a group of young men outside a shop who are playing with fireworks, spraying graffiti, setting fire to a bin and getting arrested by the police.

The young person will inevitably be seen by society as primarily posing a risk to the safety of others. But if there were subsequent reports that the rest of the group were older, and the 14 year old has a difficult family background, this may result in a reassessment of the young person as vulnerable, at risk from others, and in need of a response that promotes their safety as well as perhaps punishment.

If we were to learn that the young person in question is female this would perhaps make us think that the primary risk is actually one of her safety, although the issue of whether she is ‘putting herself at risk’ hanging around with men and older boys may also be part of the perception.

The way in which we – as a society – respond to young people’s behaviour is shaped by a number of factors including our own personal and professional background. It can also be influenced by assumptions about whether a young person is simply engaging in risky behaviour, at risk or even a risk to society.

Factors such as gender, ethnicity and community can play an important role in influencing our perceptions. Risk-taking behaviour of any sort is seen sometimes as being more ‘normal’, and therefore more acceptable, in boys than in girls. In relation to ethnicity, statistics demonstrating the disproportionate use of police stop and search powers on Black and Asian young men in England and Wales have been cited as an example of concerns that the police might act in a discriminatory way (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2013).