7 Tips For Building Trust and Positive Relationships When Working with At-Risk Youth

We recognize that building authentic, positive relationships with the at-risk youth we serve is key to helping them feel safe and supported, overcome their challenges, and thrive. Trust and connection are essential components of building positive relationships with at-risk kids and teens, whether you are their parent, sports coach, school teacher, therapist, another mental health professional, or wilderness therapy staff.

That’s why our team of experienced mental health clinicians and wilderness therapy instructors have gathered a list of the top strategies to help other at-risk youth workers, parents, and families gain the new skills and knowledge needed to make a difference with struggling children and teenagers.

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Trails Carolina, Lake Toxaway and Hendersonville locations, North Carolina.

Why Building Trust and Connection Matters with Young People

Before we dive into the tips, let’s explore why building trust and positive relationships with at-risk teens is so important in the process of reducing risk factors and generating long-lasting improvement.

The Importance of Trust

Building trust with at-risk students is critical to helping them make progress. 

According to Amanda Mojave, LCMHC, Youth Clinical Program Manager and Primary Therapist at Trails Carolina, “Many of our students have experienced trauma or have been let down by people in their lives, so building trust with them can take time. But once we have that trust, we can start to see real progress in their personal growth and development.”

The Power of Positive Relationships

Positive relationships are also essential to the success of at-risk children and teenagers. According to the 2022 study The Perception of At-Risk Students on Caring Student-Teacher Relationships and its Impact on their Productive Disposition by Brittany Hopper, “The positive relationships between teachers and students [has] a critical role to play in the development of students’ productive dispositions, especially for the population of at-risk students.” At Trails Carolina, we apply the same concept in the building of positive relationships between students, primary therapists, and wilderness staff.

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How To Build Trusting & Supportive Relationships With At-Risk Youth

We’ve asked our primary therapists, family coaches, and wilderness instructors what strategies they use that they find lead to the most growth and progress with our students. Then we boiled down their responses to these top seven tips for creating stronger bonds and greater trust with at-risk children and teens. While these strategies are certainly relevant to nature-based therapeutic settings, they can also be used at home and in school settings.

1. Show Genuine Interest

Showing genuine interest in our students is key to building trust and connection. As Trails Carolina Adolescent Field Director Thor Jones explains, “Getting to know our students on a personal level helps us understand their strengths and challenges, and also shows them that we care about them as individuals and see them as whole people, not just their challenges or symptoms.” This shows the student that their interests matter and that you can relate to them on a more personal level, which can help build confidence.

Some ways to show genuine interest include:

  • Asking them about their interests, hobbies, and goals
  • Listening actively and showing that you care about their experiences and perspectives
  • Remembering important details about their lives and following up with them on those details

2. Be Consistent

Consistency is another essential component of building trust with at-risk teens. These students often come from environments where they feel chaotic or unstable, so it’s crucial to provide a sense of structure and predictability. Establishing clear expectations, routines, and boundaries can help students feel safe and secure, and develop trust in you as a mentor.

According to Travis Wireback, LCSW, Primary Therapist at Trails, “Consistency and reliability are key in building trust with our students. By showing up for them, being consistent in our approach, and following through on what we say we will do, we demonstrate that we are reliable and trustworthy and that we care about their well-being.”

Putting in the effort to continually show up for our students and create a community made up of their peers, wilderness staff, and primary therapist is key to creating an environment based on trust, safety, and connection.

Some ways to be consistent include:

  • Showing up on time and being present during every interaction
  • Following through on your commitments to your students and modeling accountability
  • Providing clear and consistent expectations for behavior

3. Practice Empathy

Practicing empathy is critical to building a positive relationship with at-risk students. Adolescents are often reluctant to share their thoughts and talk about their emotions, especially with adults who they perceive as not understanding them. However, by practicing active listening and empathy, you can create a safe and supportive environment that fosters trust and openness.

Active listening means paying attention to what the child or teen is saying without interrupting, judging, or offering advice prematurely. It’s essential to show interest in what the student is saying and clarify any misunderstandings. If you can, it helps to make eye contact. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It’s essential to acknowledge the student’s feelings and validate them, even if you don’t necessarily agree.

According to Jana Eilermann, NCC, LCMHC, Primary Therapist at Trails Carolina, “Empathy is one of the most powerful tools we have in wilderness therapy. By listening actively and putting ourselves in our student’s shoes, we can build trust, create a safe space for self-expression, and help our students feel seen and heard. Even if we can’t fully identify with what a student is going through, empathy helps us understand our students’ experiences and challenges and also shows them that we care about their well-being. We encourage parents to practice these skills with their child to help maintain progress.”

Some ways to practice empathy include:

  • Listening actively and validating your students’ feelings and experiences
  • Providing emotional support and encouragement
  • Being patient and understanding with your students.

4. Set Clear Expectations

Setting clear expectations is essential to building trust and creating a positive relationship with at-risk students. According to Kyle Shepard, Experiential Education Director at Trails, “Clear expectations help our students understand what we expect of them, which can lead to improved behavior and greater confidence.”

Some ways to set clear expectations include:

  • Communicating expectations in a respectful and supportive manner
  • Providing clear consequences for misbehavior
  • Following through on consequences consistently and fairly
  • Allowing students opportunities to learn and grow from these consequences

5. Use Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement can help to build trust and a positive relationship with at-risk youth by providing them with a sense of accomplishment, recognition, and self-worth. By using positive reinforcement, students can learn to associate good behavior with positive outcomes, which can improve their motivation, self-efficacy, and academic performance. When used consistently and appropriately, positive reinforcement can be a powerful tool for building trust and positive relationships with at-risk youth.

“Positive reinforcement can be a game-changer for at-risk youth,” shares one of Trails Carolina’s wilderness instructors. “By focusing on the positive, we can build trust and connection with our students and create a safe and supportive environment for them to grow and thrive. When we use positive reinforcement, we are helping our students see their strengths and potential, and that can be a powerful motivator for change.”

Some ways to use positive reinforcement include:

  • Providing verbal praise for good behavior, effort, or progress toward a goal
  • Celebrating successes with group activities or special opportunities, such as leading a group game
  • Encouraging students to set personal goals and rewarding them for meeting those goals

7. Incorporate play and humor

Students at Trails Carolina engage in therapeutic creative activities.
Students at Trails Carolina engage in therapeutic creative activities.

Incorporating play and humor can help to create a relaxed and enjoyable environment where at-risk youth feel comfortable and safe. When students feel comfortable and safe, they are more likely to open up, share their experiences, and build trust with their therapists and wilderness staff.

According to Amanda Mojave, LCMHC, Youth Clinical Program Manager and Primary Therapist at Trails Carolina, “Incorporating play and creativity into our work with at-risk youth can be a powerful way to build relationships and trust. It’s important to create a fun and enjoyable environment where students feel comfortable and free to be themselves.”

Some ways to incorporate play and humor include:

  • Playing games that encourage teamwork and cooperation, such as group challenges or relay races
  • Using creative activities, such as art, journaling, or music, to encourage self-expression and exploration
  • Sharing funny stories or jokes to lighten the mood and create a sense of community
  • Incorporating outdoor activities, such as hiking, to provide opportunities for adventure and exploration

7. Practice Self-care

Finally, it’s essential to practice self-care when working with at-risk youth and teens. Working with these students can be emotionally and physically demanding, so it’s essential to take care of yourself to avoid burnout. Practicing self-care can help you maintain your energy and enthusiasm and be more present for your students.

According to another wilderness instructor at Trails Carolina, “Practicing self-care is crucial when working with at-risk kids. It’s important to take care of yourself so that you can show up fully for your students. This includes getting enough rest, eating well, engaging in activities that you enjoy, and seeking support when you need it.”

Some ways to practice self-care include:

  • Making the most of days off to recharge and reset, such as taking a walk or practicing mindfulness exercises
  • Prioritizing good sleep habits, such as establishing a consistent sleep schedule and creating a sleep-conducive environment
  • Engaging in physical activity to reduce stress and increase energy
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet to fuel your body and mind for the demands of the job
  • Building a support system of colleagues, friends, or family to lean on for emotional support and encouragement.

Key Takeaways

  • Building trust and positive relationships with at-risk youth is crucial for their success and well-being.
  • Wilderness therapy programs, such as Trails Carolina, can provide a supportive and safe environment for students to develop these relationships.
  • Establishing clear boundaries and expectations, practicing active listening and empathy, and incorporating play and humor are all essential in building trust and positive relationships with at-risk youth.
  • Consistency and reliability, along with practicing self-care, are also crucial in creating a supportive environment for students and avoiding burnout for wilderness therapy staff and therapists.

Trails Carolina Can Help

If your child is struggling with at-risk behavior, don’t wait to seek help. Trails Carolina is here to provide guidance and support for your family’s journey toward a brighter future through our at risk youth programs.

Our experienced team of therapists and wilderness staff are dedicated to helping at-risk youth build trust, positive relationships, and essential skills for success. Contact us today to learn more about our programs and how we can help., or hear stories from our alumni students and families from their time in our programs for at-risk youth. Let’s start building a better tomorrow, together.

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Jeremy Whitworth

As Executive Director at Trails Carolina, a leading wilderness therapy program for youth and teens, I oversee operations and collaborate with our leadership team. Since 2022, I've also hosted the Common Ground Podcast for parents: https://trailscarolina.com/common-ground-podcast/ With a background in Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education, I've managed adventure-based therapeutic programs across the US and Canada. My experiences in competitive athletics and adventure sports have honed my leadership, risk assessment, and decision-making skills, which I apply to running a successful business like Trails Carolina.

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Trails saved my daughter’s life. Amanda is an amazing human and a brilliant therapist. I am so grateful to her, Science Steve, and the other wonderful people who could reach my daughter at a time when I could not.

Margot Lowman August 2022

Great life changing experience for our son. After becoming addicted to gaming during covid he was very depressed. At Trails he experienced the wilderness, Science Steve, learning survival skills and top notch therapy and support etc… I highly recommend! This gave our son and our family a renewed family bond full of love and excitement about his bright future.

Winnifred Wilson July 2022


Outstanding clinical work and superb staff! There’s a great culture at this company and it shows with how they engage with families/clients.

Kristin Brace June 2022


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