4 June 2024

What does research tell us about building positive relationships with young adults?

Young adults
Two young adults clasp hands and smile at each other, while an older man, 40s, looks at them and smiles.

Georgia Barnett is a psychologist and researcher, and partner at KTA Research and Consulting who specialise in bringing evidence into criminal justice practice. Georgia worked for HMPPS for 22 years, and spent the last 10 years working in the HMPPS Evidence-Based Practice Team. Georgia has written a series of shorts blogs for T2A, providing a snapshot of the young adult evidence base.

A small number of studies have looked at what young adults, and people working with young adults in the criminal justice system in England and Wales, think helps to create positive relationships that support rehabilitation.

Building positive relationships with young adults on probation

A review of probation practice found that strong and constructive relationships with young adults are more likely to develop if practitioners:

  • Approach the work as an ally rather than as an authority.
  • Listen and adopt a genuine and understanding approach.
  • Demonstrate the behaviour they want to see, for example being reliable, punctual, respectful, and following through on tasks.
  • View ruptures in the relationship as an opportunity for the young adult to learn about relationships, conflict, and how to repair those connections.
  • Have the chance to explore and process difficulties in developing and maintaining relationships with young adults in structured supervision with other professionals/peers.1
Building positive relationships with young adults in prison

One small study exploring how to work with young adult prisoners with emerging personality difficulties and who were deemed to have a high risk of reoffending, found taking a generally validating and consistent approach, using persistence, honesty, praise, mutual respect, and setting limits on problematic behaviour were all key to developing and maintaining positive relationships with this group.2

Building positive relationships with young adults in voluntary services
  • Similarly, a study of a voluntary sector model which had been used in England to engage 414 young adults convicted of crime (ranging from 16 to 25 years old) found the following affected how engaged this group were with the service:
  • Attitude and approach of staff – recruiting staff to work with young adults who believe they can change and want to build positive, hopeful relationships with them. A number of young adults said their relationship with the staff was more like a friend than a worker. They valued feeling they could talk to their worker about anything and feeling they genuinely cared about them.
  • Reliability and consistency – staff who followed through with what they said they would do, reinforcing their commitment to working with the young adult.
  • Reciprocity – this was expressed by one young adult: “if we didn’t see each other as much and she helped me out as much, I don’t think I’d be willing to co-operate as much, but she does help out a lot”. Another described being motivated to not let their worker down.
  • Holistic provision – in this model, where possible, the workers themselves provided the support, advice and/or intervention to meet the young adult’s needs. When the worker couldn’t help (e.g. because they needed specialist support), they would make the referral. For the young adults, it was important that their worker was willing and had the capacity to address the issues that were important to them, regardless of whether it was related to their offending. They valued having a single person to rely on for help, who understood them and who they trusted.3
What do young adults tell us is important in relationships with justice workers?

Taken together, these studies suggest that young adults value genuineness, transparency, reliability, consistency, validation, collaboration, understanding, mutual respect and boundaries, and the provision of practical help that meets a wide range of needs, as foundations of positive, rehabilitative relationships with justice professionals.

  1. Judd, P., Lewis, S. (2015). Working against the odds: How probation practitioners can support desistance ↩︎
  2. Shaw, J. and Forster, O. (2017). How do high-risk young adult prisoners with emerging personality disorders describe the process of change in therapy? Journal of forensic practice. Volume 20. No 1.pp. 32-41 ↩︎
  3. Wong, K., Kinsella, R., Meadows, L. (2018). Developing a Voluntary Sector Model for Engaging Offenders. The Howard Journal Vol 57 No 4. pp. 556–575 ↩︎