Workshop helps educatiors empower troubled youth

31 October 2012

Dr Michael Ungar

Mental health professionals and educators dealing with troubled children should focus less on the source of this delinquency and more on nurturing their 'hidden resilience', according to pioneering family therapist, Dr Michael Ungar.

Ungar will explain this unconventional approach at the 2012 Professional Learning Conference, 'Playing at Being Bad: Nurturing the Hidden Resilience of Troubled Children and Youth across Cultures and Contexts', from Thursday 1st November to Friday 2nd November, 2012.

Across the two-day event, organised by the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, Ungar will draw upon his research and clinical practice to emphasise "how important it is to see the world from the point of view of the kids we want to help".

"Like many people, I worry that we demonise children when in fact we, the adults in their lives, their governments, and service providers, shape environments in ways that meet the needs of kids", he said.

"But it means we have to match our interventions and services to the culture of the kids so that what we offer is meaningful".

Concerned by the counterproductive way authorities cope with young people facing poverty, substance abuse, bullying and violence, Ungar devised a strengths-focused model that instead harnesses the resources available to youths.

"Imagine a juggler with seven balls in motion at one time", he said. "Resilience is the process whereby a child looks for creative ways to access seven important resources: relationships, a powerful identity, a sense of control, fair treatment, material things like food, clothing and safe streets, a sense of cohesion that signals the child belongs and has a purpose in life, and a sense of culture that comes with a connection to one's roots.

"This approach helps us identify aspects of people's lives that make them more resilient and then work towards helping them access these individual and family or community resources".

Ungar said this new model instigates "a more ecological understanding of the root causes of despair and disordered behaviour", by giving children the chance to find coping mechanisms drawn from real-world experience.

"I've adapted [my] work into a model of practice that doesn't just talk about things like racism and stigma; it actually addresses these problems and helps advocate for change while still working with people through the magic of a therapeutic relationship."

Dr Michael Unger is Principal Investigator of Resilience Research Centre and Killam Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. He has authored more than 100 per-reviewed articles and books on resilience, and is the author of 11 books including The Social Worker, The Social Ecology of Resilience: A Handbook for Theory and Practice, We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Children and Teens and Too Safe For Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive.