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Safely Communicating with Youth

To engage young people in conversations and deliver substance use prevention messages, youth must feel safe. Youth-serving providers and CBOs can create a welcoming environment that allows youth to feel safe and comfortable discussing potentially challenging topics, such as substance use, by building trust and rapport with a young person, engaging parents/guardians when appropriate, keeping confidentialty at the forefront and following best practices whether engaging in-person or virtually.

Building Trust and Rapport with Youth

Having conversations with youth about substance use can be difficult. It’s important to first establish a trusting relationship that fosters open communication and encourages active engagement and receptiveness to sensitive topics related to substance use.

The best way to acknowledge varying backgrounds and identities is to have a respectful and open conversation. This will help to establish boundaries and provide a general sense of the youth’s perspective. The following tips can help youth-serving providers approach such a conversation.

Ask youth to briefly explain their cultural and/or religious background, to include the meanings of traditions, some of the holidays and/or celebrations, and important people within the group.
Ask youth how they would like their sexual orientation, gender identity, cultural and/or religious background recognized and respected when receiving care and services.
Be respectful of boundaries the youth may place on things they do not want to discuss based on their culture and/or religion.
Do not assume to understand experiences and/or identities of people from different cultures and/or religions.
Ask youth about any doubts or concerns and try to uncover any misconceptions they may have about seeking services. If possible, politely and respectfully help resolve any doubts and correct any misconceptions.
Ask if the youth is comfortable being served by a provider of a different sexual orientation, gender identify, or cultural or religious identity and if not, consider if other youth-serving providers or organizations are accessible and may be better suited to support this young person.

This Building Trust and Rapport with Youth Guide includes additional steps that youth-serving providers can take to build trusting and meaningful relationships with the youth they serve. Building and maintaining relationships with youth is essential to gaining their trust. It is important to note that this guidance should be adapted to fit each relationship accordingly, as one size does not fit all.

Engaging Parents/Caregivers and Confidentiality

While there are times when patient confidentiality is appropriate and necessary, this should not discourage  providers from engaging parents/caregivers in a discussion about substance use. Parents/caregivers can serve as a strong support system for youth while navigating substance use concerns, and  providers have a central role in facilitating those connections. The resources listed below are helpful guides for  providers to share with parents/caregivers to create support systems to engage their children in prevention conversations:

Confidentality to protect a young person’s health information and personal privacy is vital to building trust. To learn more about regulatory considerations, state privacy and minor consent laws and how to discuss confidentality with youth and parents/guardians, check out this resource for more information.

Telehealth Resources

Many providers across the country have rapidly adopted or expanded telehealth practices to meet the ongoing needs of individuals who receive services during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led the field to innovate, learn from implementation, develop resources to determine best practices and guide considerations for providing telehealth services to youth.

The resources listed below address legal, regulatory, ethical, confidentiality and best practice issues more broadly as they apply to all populations, as well as special considerations for engaging youth:

Youth-specific Telehealth Resources

General Telehealth Resources

This project is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $2,000,000 with 100% funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government.