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Engaging the family to engage young people

Guest blog by Julia Mannes and Rachel Lily, Dartington Service Design Lab

This year, youth services have faced new challenges in engaging young people, particularly young people at risk of becoming involved in violence. As the Learning Partner for the Youth Endowment Fund’s special COVID-19 Grant round, we’ve had the opportunity to understand more about how organisations – ranging from grassroots charities to Britain’s largest local authorities – have managed to adapt programmes to continue to engage young people during the pandemic.

Our recently published Insights Brief showed how projects have been quick to change their approaches and form new partnerships. We also found that there’s been a huge rise in grantees’ work with families, to overcome the challenges of working with young people in a time of social distance. In this blog, we look at how working with parents, carers and siblings can help organisations to maintain positive relationships with young people through the rest of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Before the pandemic, youth organisations were clear that services should consider the whole family when they’re engaging young people. Yet, as we spoke to them about their experience of lockdown, it was apparent that for some, engaging with families was often quite a new element of their service yet fundamental to maintaining their relationships with young people over lockdown – especially those who are at risk of becoming involved in crime.

From providing basic provisions and wellbeing support, to training up parents in safeguarding, grantees’ reflections showed just how important including parents in programmes has been for reaching and engaging young people during the pandemic.

Working with parents to help safeguard vulnerable youth

Youth worker organisations told us about the new barriers that lockdown had created when they tried to keep in touch with young people – particularly if they’re already at risk of going missing or being criminally exploited by county lines operations. With more young people at home, with less time at school or contact with social workers, there aren’t the usual routes for organisations to find out if a child has gone missing.

That means that, over lockdown, organisations relied on parents to find out when children went missing and when they returned. This meant a lot more stress on parents, who often weren’t clear on who they should reach out to.

“We found that a lot of parents hesitated to report their children as missing because of concerns about the young person breaking lockdown rules. We did a lot of work making sure that parents knew how necessary reporting was, and also how to challenge police responses if they weren’t appropriate.”

Digital poverty has also been a barrier for maintaining relationships over lockdown. While many of the youth organisations we spoke to were able to quickly and successfully use online services to keep in touch with young people, others struggled to contact young people, because they didn’t have access to technology and data. That meant relying on parents to keep in touch or provide young people with the technology they needed to join online activities.

Organisations that faced either of these two barriers to engagement found that by rapidly building a relationship with parents and engaging with them first, they would get more support keeping young people engaged with support services throughout lockdown. To build those relationships, organisations offered parents more information about services, held training sessions on their rights and how to tell if their child is at risk and supported them to know how to get in touch with their service.

Providing parents with wellbeing as well basic provisions

Organisations also told us that financial instability, not having enough food and a lack of mental health support for parents was creating a “toxic environment” for young people, making it difficult for young people to engage with activities. To circumvent this, some programmes adapted to help parents first by delivering food parcels, laptops and data packages.

“As restrictions got softer, we combined food bank deliveries with visiting young people. This maintained the safe social distance, but the impact was that it let young people see someone outside of their family and gave them an additional access and support point.”

By working with parents, lots of the grantees were able to help to meet families’ basic needs. That helped to create more stable environments, where parents were less stressed and young people could engage with services that are there to support them.

Fostering good relationships across the family

More time at home had sometimes led to increasingly difficult relationships between some young people and their parents. That’s why some of the grantees we spoke to adapted their activities to help intentionally foster positive relationships within families.

“We are providing more ad hoc services for parents who are not used to having their children at home all of the time, such as phone support to deescalate conflict, help in implementing boundaries, and help with schoolwork.”

Many organisations developed shared activities that the whole family could take part in. Garden visits, cooking classes over online Zoom calls and other family activities gave organisations the chance to perform unofficial safeguarding checks, as well as providing an opportunity to support improved family relationships.

“By providing challenges that siblings and the wider family could take part in we got stronger engagement with the whole family. Also, by having 1:1 sessions in the garden, we were able to engage families but it also functioned as a safeguarding check.”

Including families gave grantees the chance to build stronger relationships with both parents and young people. This also helped them to get a better understanding of the challenges facing each young person.

More learning beyond the family setting

Working with whole families is just one of the ways youth work organisations have been able to adapt, so that they can continue to support and engage young people during the pandemic.

For more information about the other ways youth organisations are learning and adapting to the crisis (as well as practical advice), download the Insights Brief.

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