Chapter 5 – Tackling hateful speech and behaviour in youth settings

The magic formula

There are no key Tips and Tricks, no responses that can be learnt, no key pieces of knowledge we can employ that will make it easy to respond the next time we see or hear something offensive. The magic is you, what you bring to the youth setting and the settings you create.

 It is essential, from the outset, to create spaces that are inclusive, open and respectful and that empower young people. The youth setting must value an educational approach that builds in each young person a critical social awareness that can grow towards understanding and challenging systems of oppression and disadvantage. It has to be a challenging space where young people can make mistakes and where they are supported to work through their personal issues and transform their hate. Youth workers will look at situations in which young people display hateful behaviour as an opportunity to transform the status quo and effect real change.

Understanding this RADICALLY changes the way you manage the situation in order to transform it.

The key to engage in transformation of any situation is to use COMPASSION and EMPATHY

Transformative practice relies on compassion and empathy but you must first show compassion and empathy to yourself as a youth worker, so that you can be in the right place to tackle the situation that is causing anger and hurt.


When entering any situation we bring with us our own realities and these can have a direct impact on the way we react, tackle or interact with that situation:

  • Feelings: Depending on the situation you will feel different emotions and it is important to connect with those to give you an indication of what may be happening for you.
  • Beliefs: are opinions we firmly hold, that we see as being true or real. When we react in a personal way to a situation it can be a sign that a core belief in us has been challenged.
  • Perception: this is the way in which we personally understand, interpret or see something so it is important to ask yourself how do things look to me, not how do things look? i.e. know that things could look different to everyone in the room.
  • Assumptions: is when we accept a thing as true or certain without any proof; we usually assume in order to fill gaps of uncertainty.
  • Expectations: are what we think can, will or should happen. Some expectations are connected to our desires and others to our fears.

As part of preparing to be in a space with young people, it is important to routinely do the checking in exercise above with yourself. This will help you to identify if you need more support on the day, or if personal issues might have an impact on how you may react. The more you practice the more it becomes something you do automatically.

It is important to apply the same process during the session with young people. If hateful language and behaviour occurs, the following could be happening for you:

  • By firstly tuning in to your feelings you may realise that you are reacting to a situation with anger; know that anger has a lot of useful information in it.
  • Anger is a very clear indicator of hurt. If you are hurting maybe it is because you believe that “everybody deserves to be treated equally” and this belief has now been challenged.
  • You may perceive that the young person causing the harm is doing it on purpose and therefore does not deserve your compassion.
  • You may assume that the young person at the receiving end thinks you have let them down by not providing the safer space you set out to provide.
  • And therefore, you expect that they will not want to come back to your space.
  • This will all deeply affect how you handle the situation.

So by checking in with yourself you increase the chances of:

  • Not being on the defensive.
  • Responding in a non-judgmental way.
  • Staying calm, and
  • Demonstrating a compassionate attitude to the situation.

Creating, developing and nurturing spaces that allow you to tackle hateful speech and behaviour

Co-create and explore what a supportive, inclusive and respectful space can be with the young people and the adults you work with. This can prevent hate happening and also create the conditions and structures that allow it to be tackled should it occur. (See Section 1.3)


“How do you act with young people?”

“Ensure you remain connected, with yourself, the young people and your environment.”

In order for you to tackle situations when hateful language or behaviour is being displayed within your youth setting, a key strategy involves making connections with the person and not with the language or behaviour used.

It is important to build empathy and approach all dialogue with compassion. It is critical that you do not do anything to shut down a conversation, to make someone feel that you are accusing them of being ‘wrong’ as this just builds defensiveness. Being in ‘defence mode’ will affect their ability to hear other perspectives and will not make them feel listened to; if they feel unheard themselves, they cannot hear other viewpoints.

That connection needs to happen with yourself first: identify how you are feeling and what the triggers are for those feelings. You will be able to assess if you actually can address the situation with compassion. You should apply compassion to yourself first and acknowledge how this situation is making you feel and what potential impact it will have on how you manage it.

Once you have connected with yourself and compassionately addressed your own reactions, the next step is to assess if you can connect with the young people and/or the individual who has displayed the hateful behaviour.

It is very important to know what your intention is in the situation and what you want to achieve. Do you want to:

  • Get the young person who caused the harm to understand they caused someone pain?
  • De-escalate the situation?
  • Raise awareness of the young people that, even if no one was directly harmed, the use of such language or behaviour is harmful and hateful?
  • Use the situation as an educational opportunity?

The resulting response will entail one, or more, of the following:

  • Connecting with the young people to understand better and therefore enable yourself to look at the situation with compassion i.e.hear the young person.


  • Wanting the young people to connect with you and understand that your need for providing a safer space for them is being challenged. You will be seeking to connect with the young people’s ability to empathise i.e. have the young person hear you.


  • Wanting an action to happen which will involve directly asking the young people or your colleague/s to do something such as taking an individual away from the group for a chat. This may involve creating an opportunity for 1:1 support to make sure the young person is feeling secure in expressing themselves in a safer space or interrupt the activity so you can talk about what has happened with the group i.e. take an action.

The most effective way to connect, with yourself, and with others, is through communication; we speak to ourselves, as much as we speak to others. How you use your words and body language is very important in keeping the young person you are working with engaged and connected with you. The following are some of the things we might do that will interrupt any communication and disconnect us, from ourselves, or the young person we are communicating with. It is important to remember that it doesn’t matter if what you are trying to communicate is right or wrong; by using any of the following interactions the result is the same, you will alienate the other/self:

Blame: is when you declare that someone or something is responsible for a fault or is wrong. Also using terms like “always” or “never” you imply that you can account for every single time something has taken place which is impossible to do

“It’s your fault…You always do this…”

Moralistic judgements: as opposed to value judgements, which are based in your value and belief systems, moralistic judgments imply you have a moral superiority and you know what is wrong and what is right and therefore have the right to judge others; it is thinking in terms of all that is wrong with others or yourself. It also can be based on the idea that we can decide “who deserves what”

“What you just did there is wrong and you should feel ashamed of yourself/ You have crossed the line you deserve to be kicked out of the club/group”

Labels: In this context, labelling is when we inaccurately and in a restrictive manner apply a name, a classification or an image to a person; we imply that we have made up our mind about the person and we know for a fact that they are what we have just decided they would be.

“You are selfish/ they are all racist/ you are lazy”

Comparison: is when we use the character or qualities of someone or something else in order to discover resemblances or differences. In this context comparisons are a form of judgement.

“That is not as good as…/ she is so much more helpful than you/ why does it always have to be you, the others never behave this way”

Demands: is when we ask for something forcefully or using our authority, sometimes in a way that shows that we do not expect to be refused. Demands are closely linked to concepts of power: we can keep making demands from the young people and even though it doesn’t mean that they will necessarily do what we are asking, it still means they will feel alienated from us and will disconnect.

“If you want to continue coming to this club you will behave as I tell you to/ If you respect me you will…/ if you don’t do this…/ do this or else”

Imposing judgement: Also connected to concepts of power, we impose what we think is the right way of doing things. Sometimes we think we are offering advice, however, the other can perceive it as an attempt to disempower them and make them do it your way.

If you want things to work you really should…/ If you want to rest of the group to like you, you should listen to me”

Denying responsibility and choice: By staying vague about why we need to do what we are doing, or blaming an authority, we deny our own responsibility and therefore cause frustration and anger in others. Equally by taking away the possibility of choice by imposing our own idea of what needs to be done, we will cause disconnection.

“You have to…/ It is the way it is../I have no other choice than expel you from the club because that’s how it is…/I had to…”


One of the central skills to youth work is listening, which is sometimes something we forget to do when a situation escalates or something harmful might have happened with a young person in our group. The need to restore safety sometimes pushes us into action before we think through what the best thing for all involved can be. By stopping to listen we allow ourselves time to assess the situation and hear beyond the words so we can connect with the feelings and needs to the young people.

Depending on the situation, you may need to intervene and react according to what the young people are telling you. But first, we need to hear what they are sharing and to do this effectively, we need to demonstrate empathy while listening. Too easily we can fail to listen effectively. To know how to listen effectively we only need to know what NOT to do.


The following are things we might find ourselves doing and these can all interrupt the empathic nature of listening and consequently will alienate and disconnect the person we are trying to connect with:

Compare: By sharing your own experience you think you will make the person feel better but the only thing they want to do is to talk about their story right now.

You think it was hard on you? Wait until you hear what has happened to me”

Educate: When you use what the person is sharing as an opportunity to educate them.

“You could learn so much from this experience, this is showing you how when you do this, that happens”

Discount: When you think you may make someone feel better by suggesting that what the person is sharing is not as big an issue or has less importance than they are putting on it.

“You are maybe making a big deal out of this, it not as bad as you think it is, get over yourself, worse things happen in this world everyday”

Fix: This is one of our first instincts as youth workers; we try to fix and find a solution straight away. However the more you give space for the other to talk it through, they very often find those solutions on their own.

“I know what we’ll do, I will go there and talk to them, and you will do this and this”

Sympathise: We often mix sympathy with empathy and we think that by expressing how we feel sad or bad for the other, it will make them feel better but it can be received as patronising.

You poor thing…oh nooo this happened to you….”

Data gathering: When we ask the person for more information or specific information that is of interest to us rather than supporting them tell their story. Usually we do this in order to be able to fix.

“So when was it that they said that? Where were you when it happened? Tell me exactly the words they used when you said…”

Explaining/Justifying: This is when we explain to the person who is sharing that the conflict could be their fault or their misinterpretation and sometimes they need to think of others, or that what has happened to them might be deserved.

“Are you sure it was a racist comment? Maybe you didn’t understand them right. Do you know how hard it is to be a youth worker? So if they said that to you maybe you should remember how hard their job is?”

Analysing: Trying to figure out what has happened by assuming or reaching conclusions and hoping the person may feel better if they know what the root of the issue is.

“When you responded that way do you think it is to do with the way your mother has been treating you when you were a baby?”

These are not right or wrong ways of listening; we use them all the time in day to day conversation. However, when we become more aware of how we communicate and how these responses can alienate or disconnect people who need at the time to be fully heard we can better ensure that we empathically listen more by not doing the above.

Developing empathic listening takes time and practice. It is helpful to practice listening to people with self-awareness to see what non-empathic modes we tend to use. Do you tend to compare, educate, fix etc. and if so can we practice:

  • Holding back from jumping in with non-empathic modes.
  • Using our silence so that the other person can speak their story fully.

STOP TALKING – we can’t listen when we are talking!

GIVE IT TIME – Give the person time to say what they have to say, try not to interrupt too soon.

CONCENTRATE ON WHAT THEY ARE SAYING – focus your attention on their words, ideas and feelings.

LOOK AT THE OTHER PERSON – their face, eyes, hands etc. it will help them to communicate with you. This will also help you to concentrate and shows them you’re listening.


GET RID OF DISTRACTIONS – put down your phone, it may distract your attention.

SHARE RESPONSIBILITY FOR COMMUNICATION – only part of the responsibility rests with the speaker – you as the listener have an important part. Try to understand, and if you don’t, ask for clarification.

REACT TO IDEAS, NOT TO THE PERSON – don’t let your reactions to the person influence your interpretation of what they say.

LISTEN TO HOW SOMETHING IS SAID – concentrating too hard on what is said can mean missing the importance of the emotional reactions and attitudes related to what is said. A person’s attitudes and emotional reactions may be more important than what they say in words.

LISTEN FOR THEIR PERSONALITY – one of the best ways of finding out information about a person is to listen to them talk – you find out what they like and dislike, how they think about things, what makes them tick etc.

ALLOW PEOPLE TIME AND SPACE TO THINK – don’t fill silence with questions / comments which may not be helpful. Try to be comfortable with silence and allow time for people to think about what they are going to say. If you are short on time (e.g. can only meet for 30 minutes), be clear about when you have to leave and let the person know in advance.

AVOID JUMPING TO ASSUMPTIONS – they can get you into trouble. When trying to understand other people. Don’t assume that they:

  • Use words in the same way that you do.
  • Feel the same way that you would feel.
  • Are twisting the truth because what they say isn’t the same as what you think.
  • Are lying because they have interpreted the facts differently from you.
  • Are wrong because they are trying to win you over to their point of view.

Assumptions like these may turn out to be true, but more often they just get in the way of your understanding and reaching agreement or compromise.

DO NOT MAKE HASTY JUDGEMENTS – wait until all the facts are in before making any decisions.

RESIST FEELING THAT YOU MUST SOLVE THE PROBLEM – you are there to listen. If you are focused on finding answers, you are not listening completely.


A compassionate response to hateful behaviour or language involves being able to observe a situation without evaluating it or assessing it. In a situation that needs transforming, it is important that we can state simply what we actually see or hear.

For example:

  • An evaluation would be “This place is disgusting”.
  • The observation is: “There are clothes covering most of the floor and dishes with dried food on the bed”.

When we make non-judgmental observation we:

  • Identify for ourselves what really has triggered our reaction.
  • Can agree with another on something that both can observe.
  • Leave room for correction in case we don’t remember everything the same way.
  • Make a distinction between what we think happened and what really happened.
  • Take responsibility for our own actions.

The young person may need support to understand their behaviour. Education around the issue may be a relevant response. To do this:

Ask open-ended questions: This will help to hear if the young person has absorbed what you said. Bring other young people into the conversation- what do they think? This is about getting young people to think critically about the information they are receiving.

Inform: Explain why we shouldn’t use certain terminology and why it is discriminatory to use slur words. Try and provide young people with some historical context around hateful terms.

Turn it around: Think of an example the young people can relate to e.g. What are young people labelled as? Why do people think like that? Why is that unfair?

Talk about the consequences: Explain to young people about laws surrounding hate speech and/or behaviour. What would happen if they were to use hateful language in the workplace?

Identify the right person: If you feel you are not making a breakthrough with the young person, change your approach and instead try and identify the best person to relate to the young person. Is there a colleague that the young person is likely to listen to?

Practice, practice, practice! Can you take part in some ‘drilling’ sessions with other colleagues? You could draw up a list of the most common terminology you hear or you’ll often be confronted with. Then practice your answers with colleagues so when you do hear it, you are ready to challenge it properly.

Be patient Remember that the road to managing hate speech is a long-term process. It is difficult to change attitudes and behaviours that have been conditioned from an early age.

Think about the context: For example, if the person affected by the hate speech was in the room you may not want to have this discussion openly if it risks putting the person on the receiving end under the spotlight. You may want to deal with the person using the hate speech on a one-to-one basis. Nevertheless, in the open space you still need to state that the language/behaviour is wrong and outline why.


Build rapport but never ignore – building strong links with young people and winning their trust is incredibly important in a youth setting. Often the need to maintain this rapport can mean trying to avoid conflict with young people. However, as youth practitioners we have a duty of care to all young people which involves setting boundaries, challenging behaviour and most importantly providing young people with the knowledge and tools that they need to grow. Remember ignoring hate speech can make you complicit.

Educate yourself: If you are working in an educational capacity, you have a responsibility to know the background of hateful language. Learn about the historical origins of particular language. If you work with young people, you need to be pro-active in knowing the arguments and confident in challenging them. This comes with practice. But if you don’t know something or are unsure park the conversation and tell the young people you will do some research and come back to them on it – or ideally do the research and learn together.


Often you will be managing challenging behaviour where your key focus is on de-escalating. Challenging behaviour displayed by young people is usually a symptom of an underlying issue that a young person is facing or going through. If we are aware of the potential underlying causes for that behaviour it is possible to empathise with the young person and strive to find constructive and compassionate solutions.

It is important to remember that sometimes the very cause of the challenging behaviour can be the result of the young person’s own perceptions; like feeling excluded, singled out or treated unfairly.

Young people have a high tendency to intense emotions and a low capacity to regulate their expression (i.e. figuring out the consequences of one’s actions, inhibiting some behaviours in order to manifest others, taking on the perspective of others, etc.).

  • Be aware of signals that may trigger further outbursts in the young person, such as change of tone of voice, body language, talking over or interrupting, appearing bored or disinterested.
  • Avoid mood matching like responding to anger with anger, if someone is shouting to not raise the voice back.

If the challenging behaviour presents itself with others around:

  • Either remove yourself and the young person away from others so you can talk in a calmer environment, or
  • Ask another staff member / volunteer to take the others to an alternative location.
  • It is always advisable to seek the support of another staff member / volunteer when confronting challenging behaviour.

When challenging the young person about their behaviour:

  • Adequate time should be allowed for the young person to calm down and only then should their behaviour be discussed and any supports and/or consequences be imposed. Consequences imposed must be fair and consistent at all times and understood by the young person.
  • Outline to the young person the consequences of their behaviour and discuss with them possible techniques they may adopt to avoid such situations in the future.
  • Ensure you place yourself in an area with a clear escape route, should violence erupt.
  • Given the nature of the situation and the extent of the challenging behaviour, the parents / guardians of the young person may need to be contacted and asked to collect the individual to take them home.
  • Should your safety feel compromised and / or in danger, seek support from management and/ or the police.
  • All incidents should be recorded in an Incident Report Form.

The following are unacceptable means of tackling a child’s/young person’s behaviour:

  • Physical punishment or the threat of such;
  • Refusal to speak with or interact with the child/young person;
  • Being deprived of food, water, access to toilets or other essential facilities;
  • Verbal intimidation, ridicule or humiliation.

While we focus in this Manual on working with the young people who cause hurt we stress that the psychological, emotional and physical safety of the person or group experiencing hate in a youth setting must be prioritised.

While managing an incident another youth worker should work with the person/people targeted – whether that is another young person or an adult who has been targeted.  


It is important to give the young person the chance to take responsibility and understand where their behaviour stems from but often this process takes time and in the moment the youth worker may need to ask for a change of the behaviour to manage the situation while keeping process happening. You may have to ask the young person who may have caused the harm, or the group, or a colleague to do or say something to change the situation. Before you ask anything of a person, it is important that you are clear about your intention; why are you requesting what you are requesting. Do you want to stay in connection with the other? Do you want to resolve an issue? Do you want to make sure they understand where you are coming from?

For your ask to be a successful one ensure that:

  • It is specific: exactly what do I want to happen – when/where/who…
  • Offer choice; if you give a choice it won’t be seen as a demand (which is disconnecting language).
  • Be positive: use the term Do rather than Don’t.
  • Be do-able and realistic: in small bits and not huge tasks that can’t be accomplished.
  • Takes the other person into account: if you don’t take into consideration where that person is at, or their own needs in the situation they will disconnect.

In summary


When in any situation in which hateful behaviour or language happens and that requires transformation remember:

•      Where are you at? (Your self-awareness).

•      What is actually happening? (observing).

•      What are the feelings you can observe? (yours and the others).

•      What are the needs that might not be met?

•      What is your intention in this situation?

•      What do you want to achieve?

•      Identify the ask you are going to make.


The space that you nurture for yourself in your youth work practice is critical as your own emotional awareness is key to creating and maintaining a space in which transformation can happen. This includes:

  • Debriefing and reflection on the learning after an incident. It is always recommended that the first question during debriefing is about feelings – how did you feel during the event and how are you feeling now and why? When one understands the emotions surfacing during the learning experience, they can consider what they mean and how they are connected with their reflections. It is important when working with transformative practice to invite everyone to reflect on and express their emotions.
  • Remember you are not alone, whoever you consider to be on your team are there with you, it is everybody’s responsibility.
  • Acknowledge the limitations and boundaries that result from not having the necessary capacity, tools, resources or organisational support.
  • Acknowledge the challenges and difficulties that come with aligning your work to your values. These can include meeting the needs of the young people and respecting their process, and balancing this with what is expected from whoever resources your work, such as funders.
  • Regularly check if your commitment to the work is enough to motivate you to continue and grow your practice.

It is critically important to support the person/s who have been harmed parallel to the work with the young person/s being hateful. This is not a comprehensive list of supports as it is outside the scope of this Manual to offer that but it offers guidance that works in tandem with what you are doing to transform the hate with those that have caused harm:

  • Have another youth worker work with the person/s who has been harmed while you are managing the situation.
  • Apply compassionate communication techniques with the person/s so:
    • They feel fully heard.
    • They stay connected.
    • They don’t experience any victim blaming.
  • If the young person needs therapeutic support, seek this additional support for them (as a youth worker your role is not a therapeutic one).
  • Talk to the person about reporting the hate if you have mechanisms that are appropriate:
    • You may have an online reporting procedure in your country/community for particular types of hate such as racism, transphobia etc.
    • If the hate was perpetrated online use the relevant online platform to report the hate.
    • If the incident is criminal invite the person to make a formal complaint and support them to do so if they choose this option.
  • Talk to the person about what they need to be able to be in the youth space again:
    • Look at the safer space section in chapter 1 and discuss together how it can be re/established.
    • If a Restorative Practice process is underway with the person causing the harm then discuss whether the person/s want to take part or not – see Chapter 5.

We also present an approach in this Manual that proposes changes within an organisation that will create a whole organisation approach to creating safer, supportive and inclusive places from the outset. (See Section 6)


  • The following Section applies ONLY when you are ready to engage in transformation.
  • The ONLY thing you have full power over and can impact is YOURSELF.
  • Everything begins with YOU.
  • No matter what the situation is you start by checking in with yourself and identify your intention and what role you can play in transforming it.
  • Read more, inform yourself more, find your own style and trust yourself.


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