Be there for youngsters on the rocky road to adolescence

SOS Project Founder Junior Smart explains why it is so important to support young people as they transition to secondary school

Many Year 7s will now have found out which secondary school they will be attending in September. Going to ‘big school’ marks a rite of passage for many and everything is new– a new uniform, a new route to school, new teachers and new friends.

For most, it is a very exciting experience. But also a worrying one as they go from being the oldest children in school to being the youngest. This can make them vulnerable and, sadly, some will experience bullying – a newly launched report from the YMCA says over half of young people will be bullied about the way they look. I remember being bullied at school and it was a merciless experience where every mistake costed me dearly. Day in day out, myself and many others were targeted. Worse still you had no choice but to be there within the proximity of someone who wants to target you. If the classroom and playgrounds are not enough then the young people of today are even more up against the odds as the veil of online bullying means it can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and any threat or target can go viral very fast. In a survey by Bullying UK 56% of young people said they have seen others be bullied online and 42% said that they have felt unsafe online.

It is very important to ensure that young people know who and where they can turn to if they need help. Most adults assume that all young people will tell their parents or teachers but we know from heart-breaking stories of abuse and neglect that this is simply not the case. Young people fear reprisals, there is an ‘unspoken code’ to say nothing and those that target the weak play on their vulnerabilities. What about those who lack a loving family and do not open up easily to anyone in ‘authority’? Where is their safe space?

If left unsupported, unfortunately we see many young people take the wrong choice. This may mean they carry a knife to feel safe, this may mean that they become part of a clique to feel wanted or become drawn into the social media hype around drugs or gangs. Our experience shows that once this happens in many ways they are already groomed. Gangs cynically and deliberately target young people who are victims to recruit them to become child drug couriers working through county lines. Those who are very vulnerable slip under the radar as they may not have an adult carer who is looking out for them. Once involved in this lifestyle, staff on the SOS team tell us it can take many years of intensive work to help them get their childhood back. Even once they do, they can continue to have post-traumatic stress disorder from their experiences.

This is why we are passionate about the work we do in schools to help young people build the resilience and life skills they need to stay safe and reach out for help if they are uncomfortable about anything. Our SOS+ team are working hard to deliver sessions in primary schools around issues such as knife crime, gangs and drugs to ensure that children have an understanding of these issues and can steer clear. We set them up with a clear space, a safe space where nothing can be not talked about. This is a crucial time for them as the transition to secondary school is when they need to be prepared. We don’t employ scare tactics – we simply use our specially trained young ex-offender facilitators to encourage discussions, explore situations and consequences and build tools and strategies they can use if they encounter any threats.

Just a few weeks ago I was in a primary school and this young girl in year 5 said that she thought she was the cause of being robbed for her phone. When I explained that these groups prey on the weak and she was not at fault she burst into tears. She had not told one adult what had happened to her for fear of being blamed. I then went on to show her and the class how to keep safe and how to remain aware when being out and about. I often wonder what she would have done had she and I not spoken that day.

Although raising awareness amongst young people and equipping them with such tools and strategies is vital, it should not just be down to them to keep themselves safe. We all have a role to play in this – regardless of who we are. The most vulnerable go missing through county lines precisely because no-one misses them. The gangs are communicating and working together but statutory agencies are not always doing so. We need to be much better about turning talk into action. We need to join up services to ensure that these children – who are often ferried around different areas of the country by the gangs – are on everyone’s radar and given the kind, caring support that they deserve.

Leaving childhood and entering adolescence is always a tricky time but they are precious years. Let’s make sure every child is able to look back on them with happy memories.