Module 4: working with young people: learner's workbook

3.3 Aids and barriers to communicating effectively with young people

Page last updated: 2004

The key to understanding the needs of young people and assisting them to work towards their needs is by effectively communicating with them. We communicate with people not just by what we say (verbal communication) but also by what we do (non-verbal communication). With young people who may have limited verbal abilities, non-verbal communication becomes even more important.

Non-verbal communication
Aids to communication
Barriers to communicating effectively with young people
Other aids to communication
Distance learners

Non-verbal communication

Task - brainstorm/writing exercise

Question - What forms of non-verbal communication do we use in our everyday interactions?

Answer - (Write your answer, then check the possible answers page.)

Aids to communication

The Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) outlines a number of important points for parents to consider when talking with their children about issues. Some of these points are just as relevant for frontline workers when communicating with young people, Australian Drug Foundation website (


Let the young person know what you are concerned about. For example, if you are concerned about their level of drug use, then let them know this. If you are honest with them you are more likely to gain their trust and they are then more likely to be honest with you.Top of page


Be non-judgemental by not evaluating or labelling the young person or their behaviour. Be open to what the young person tells you. This does not mean that you agree with everything they say, but it does show them that you respect what they say and that you are interested in what they think. Assist the young person to see any inconsistencies in what they say and do, however do not bluntly point these out.

Young people are at an age where they experience lots of contradictions and working these out is one of the tasks of adolescence. This might differ depending on whether the young person is in early, later or middle adolescence. If your role means that you are developing and enforcing rules and regulations, get the young person to assist you in putting together rules and consequences that they believe are fair.

Remember, one of the needs of young people is control over their own lives. Note, however, that even when you do this, you may find that when it comes to enforcing these consequences young people may change their mind and insist that it is not fair. In this situation the worker should refer back to the agreed behaviour and the suggested consequence of failing to comply. This ensures that you are being fair and consistent with the process that was set up. If there needs to be a review of agreed standards and consequences then this needs to be done at a later time.


Try to let young people know that you are truly interested in what they think by listening to them. You can convey this by remaining silent. A young person once told me that listen and silent both contain exactly the same letters. (Maybe she was trying to tell me something!). You convey that you are listening by your body language, eye contact, and by the use of reflective listening techniques.

Other good listening skills include:
  • having a genuine curiosity and desire to listen to what a young person has to say
  • being prepared to give and receive feedback in interactions with young people
  • having a desire to understand and reflect that back to the young person
  • empathy - really trying to understand the young person's point of view
  • giving undivided attention to the young person – by finding a quiet spot to chat and putting aside papers and pens
  • asking questions to clarify points you don't fully understand
  • resisting the urge to tell the young person what to do - instead ask them to suggest some solutions to their problems.
If you find yourself in a situation where you need to give a young person advice, say something like 'Other young people I've worked with who've experienced this problem have found X to be very effective. What do you think about that?'

Don't say 'I think you should do X.'

Remember that any solutions that a young person suggests will be far more effective than any that you might propose.Top of page

Barriers to communicating effectively with young people

Our responses to young people can certainly aid communication, but unfortunately they also have the ability to hinder open communication. We'll now spend some time considering the potential barriers to communication.

Barriers to communication

Task - writing exercise

Question - What are some of things that may serve as barriers to effective communication with young people?

Answer - (Write your answer, then check the possible answers page.)

Other aids to communication

If young people were asked, 'How would you like workers to communicate with you?' they might respond as follows:
  • Don't tell me you know how I feel.

    (Acknowledge with a young person that you don't know how they feel. Ask them to tell you.)

  • Be there when I need to talk.

  • Listen to me for as long as I need to be listened to.

  • Listen without interrupting, even if you think you have the answer and I don't.

Developing communication skills with young people

Task - writing exercise

Question - List the communication skills that you think you are good at.

Question - List the communication skills that you would like to further develop.

Question - What strategies might assist you in developing these skills? (Consider supervision, training, mentoring, self reflection etc).Top of page


  • The first step in communicating with young people is to try to understand them and what they are going through.
  • Don't assume, ask the young person how you can help them.
  • Boundaries are an important part of all our work with young people.
  • Without boundaries our relationships with young people can be ambiguous and uncertain.
  • Young people will often have already established ideas about what they should/could expect of us.
  • By providing these guidelines in our relationships with young people we are setting up positive limits that set out what each of us is responsible for.
  • It is important to be aware of factors that can serve as aids and those that can act as barriers to effective communication with young people.
  • While using suggested communication methods does not guarantee success it will ensure more effective engagement with young people and promote the sharing of information with them.

Distance learners

(A good point for student to contact facilitator).

Distance learners should take time now to reflect on their learning, check in with their facilitator and determine their progress.