Relationship-based Practice

Why do relationship-based practice?

Relationship building has long been recognised as a critical ingredient in effective practice with vulnerable young people.

Not only does it promote engagement and retention in services but there is also strong evidence that suggests a high quality working relationship is therapeutic in its own right.

The process of initiating, forming and maintaining relationships with young people requires a commitment to understanding them and a genuine interest and care about what happens to them.

Recent research with young people using drug and alcohol, and mental health services in Victoria found that good experiences of services were associated with perceptions of being genuinely cared for, actively listened to, and a better ‘connection’ with workers who had lived or had personal experience that facilitated understanding.

Qualitative research involving adolescents with multiple and complex needs has found that young people place very strong value on having quality relationships with workers.

Effective practitioners help young people to identify pathways through life or courses of action that are viable and consistent with their values and goals.  Relationships of this kind are catalysts for building a sense of free choice, autonomy, competence and hope.

In this way, the process of building trusting relationships provides an alternative experience for many clients who have experienced a lifetime of neglect, abuse, rejection and social marginalisation.

Research has shown that the quality of the therapeutic alliance is as important as the technique or intervention being used by the practitioner.

An effective therapeutic alliance increases the likelihood of a young person staying in treatment for longer periods, which in turn makes it more likely that positive outcomes will be achieved.

The 5 major Functions of Relationship-based Practice

1. Building a sense of security

A sense of personal and interpersonal safety or security is fostered when practitioners demonstrate to a young person that they will not be abandoned, irrespective of how challenging their behaviour may be or how many times they might fail to live up to perceived expectations for change. The experience of being within a ‘dependable’ relationship within which a young people is confident of acceptance is highly valued one for many clients who have experienced severely inadequate, disrupted and harmful relationships.

2. Teaching relationship and other life skills

Constructive working relationships also provide opportunity for practitioners to model and teach a wide range of life skills. This includes communication and maintenance of boundaries, and other relationship skills that young people might not have had the opportunity to learn.

In Practice: See the YouthAOD Toolbox module Living Skills

3. Psychotherapeutic interventions

Working relationships allow for therapeutic interventions to be provided in a way that is matched to the needs and goals of the young person.

Practice examples of therapeutic interventions: Psychoeducation & Externalising Conversations

4. Facilitating connections

Young people can be supported to build helpful connections with social institutions such as schools, sporting clubs or work. With the support of their worker more helpful relationships can be established for young people within family and friendship networks. In addition, the steady support from their workers may allow a young person to separate from unhelpful or destructive relationships.

5. Facilitating engagement

A trusting relationship enables practitioners to facilitate meaningful engagement of the young person with a range of health and community services, as needed. This may include teaching and modelling the skills required to access services (e.g. patience).

Further Reading