Youth/Adult Relationships Spectrum

Freechild Institute Adult Ally Toolkit

Adults have countless relationships with young people. We are parents, educators, youth workers, doctors, case managers, mentors, law enforcement personnel, and countless other titles. Every role adults have with children and youth is a relationship.

In every relationship adults have with young people, our attitudes, beliefs and ideals are revealed. This happens whether we’re aware about it or not. For more than a decade, The Freechild Project has worked with adults who work with youth. We have been co-workers, consultants, trainers and confidants. In our work, we’ve found there are several different types of relationships adults have with youth. We’ve placed them in the following tool.

Spectrum of Adult Support for Young People

Spectrum of Adult Support for Young People

Hostile Adults

Adults on this end of the Spectrum genuinely feel antipathy toward children and youth, and just don’t like them. There are no disguises here: Hostile adults show contempt, disrespect and disdain for young people at every turn. They might speak harshly about children and youth; yell or berate young people; or simply avoid and segregate themselves at every turn.

Over-Permissive Adults

On the opposite end of the spectrum, these relationships happen when adults assume young people have too much ability. This can reflect a misguided attempt by adults who think “the best” of youth or want to be their “friends”. However, this is a disingenuous relationship, in the same sense that we would never give a 16-year-old the keys to a car and expect them to teach themselves how to drive. This type of relationship is often though of as empowerment, despite actually making some young people less able to exercise power. Over-permissiveness may take the form of ill-trained, under-informed young people acting without adult input.

Between Extremes

Many adults assume over-controlling relationships with children and youth. These relationships often occur when adults react to a negative perception or misconception of youth. Taking the guise of concern for youth, over-controlling youth/adult relationships are defined by distrust or misunderstanding of young people. This type of relationship can lead to children and youth being infantilized, or made to feel like infants who are incapable or subhuman. Over-controlling can lead to locked doors, coded language, and/or choices made for youth that often force them to participate.

However, the ideal relationship might be the most realistic, and the most responsive. Responsible Youth/Adult Relationships are typified by the Kent, Washington-based Institute for Community Leadership. They train students and adults about responsibility in terms of being able to respond, or being Response-Able. Response-Able Youth/Adult Relationships require adults to become able to respond appropriately to the demands of engaging youth throughout our communities. This type of relationship often creates adult allies and youth/adult partnerships. That often means providing training, engaging youth wisdom, and saying “no” when it is appropriate. It also means being an ally and partner with young people.

This continuum is not meant to imply that there is one way to treat all young people at all times. Circumstances can often justify the relationships young people have with adults. However, the premise behind the Washington Youth Voice Handbook is that many assumptions about these circumstances are either misguided or ill-informed. The Freechild Project believes that our communities need Responsible Youth/Adult Relationships. Engaging Youth Voice can provide the most authentic, responsive and appropriate engine for communities to create those relationships.



Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can help support youth voice in your community or organization, contact us.

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