Vulnerable to over-use

Richard Newson, NCB's Media and Communications Manager, and Juliette Balchin a member of Young NCB, put a line under the overuse of the sector’s favourite adjective.

Every field has its favourite words, terms and catchphrases. In the children’s sector, a leading contender has to be ‘vulnerable’.

However, when newborn babies, disabled children and young people drawn into violent criminal gangs are all termed vulnerable, is the word used so freely and vaguely that it loses its impact? And how does it feel to be on the receiving end of a label applied to children and young people in such varying circumstances?  

We decided it was time that young people themselves had a say.

As part of the Living Assessments research programme, a collaboration between University of Cambridge, University of Kent and the National Children’s Bureau in conjunction with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children and the British Association of Social Workers, we are keen to understand young people’s experience of social care assessments. Asking a group of young people to share their experiences of the v-word was an interesting way to add to the work.

Children and young people we spoke to agreed that the term was ‘too widely used and with too little consideration’, expressing concerns about  the word becoming normalised. They worried this label would not bring in the necessary support to those who seriously needed it, such as those with a disability or in insecure households.

They also highlighted that being vulnerable is something children and young people felt they have in common: ‘I think all children are in some respects’, one told us. This common feeling of vulnerability may create a shared experience and greater empathy.

However, they also told us that hearing themselves labelled as vulnerable added to their feelings of anxiety. The term is still heavily stigmatised within the younger generation. Connotations are drawn of being weak or even suggesting something is ‘wrong’. This stigma can lead to negative perspectives  or even bullying.

One young person explained, ‘being labelled vulnerable can heighten this sense of fear and terror, and yet, they can do nothing about being in a vulnerable category’. Being in such a category means much more than just owning a label. This vulnerability may present restrictions every day with serious implications on their health or living situation. The term may make them feel defined or overshadowed by this daunting prospect.  As such, being labelled vulnerable only adds to young people’s sense of powerlessness.

It is important we take this insight on board.

If, as one contributor to the academic debate on the discourse put it, ‘policy makers and practitioners are now concerned with addressing vulnerability through an expansive range of interventions’[1], then we need to be aware that the word itself can add to the very vulnerability we seek to identify and mitigate.

So what can we do?

It’s not about finding a substitute word, but about using the word better, with more care and greater awareness.

When practitioners describe a young person as vulnerable we must do so as part of an ongoing conversation with them about why the term is being used. To minimise the sense of its meaning being imposed on them from outside.

When policymakers give a group of children the designation, this must be tempered by an understanding of how it can feel to be categorised in this way.

Ultimately ‘vulnerable’ has to be less a description of a child, young person or group and more an expression of how to direct support and services effectively. Use of the word should be inherently linked with the provision of support to address whatever vulnerability is perceived.

In that sense, the word shouldn’t be used unless it’s accompanied by support. And if the support is good enough, maybe we won’t need to keep overusing the word.

Children and young people’s views on what it means to be ‘vulnerable’ is available here.