In addition to the developmental stages and tasks shared with all adolescents, disadvantaged young people who are struggling with health and behavioral issues have frequently had experiences that can alter their developmental trajectory in significant ways. Experiences such as:

  • Parenting that is insufficiently attentive, unpredictable, overly harsh or neglectful
  • Family conflict
  • Lack of responsible adult role modeling
  • Frequent physical relocations
  • Lack of a stable and structured learning environment at home
  • Exposure to substance abuse in the family

Each of these issues (and others) cause substantial disruptions in the bio-psycho-social processes that drive development. Young people require structure and guided experience. Those that have no control over the pace of change and transition are highly susceptible to developmental problems occurring (Coleman & Hendry, 1990). Without the necessary experiences young people’s development can become out of step with those on a more typical developmental pathway.

Developmentally appropriate or conducive practice for this client group aims to provide alternative experiences that help young people catch up in, or reshape areas of development that have been disrupted. This involves helping young people navigate towards, or providing them with opportunities to develop, the personal and social assets needed to move through the transitions to adulthood. A major component of this work is providing regulated experience.

Many young people who develop problems during adolescence either have not had or don’t currently have anyone in their lives to provide the sense of structure and support that the effective limit setting and caring role offers. When this is lacking from parents or caregivers, then workers, particularly those with a statutory responsibility or in residential care roles are required to do so. Limits are most often set around behaviours that are believed to compromise the safety, health and the future prospects of the young person. The setting of limits linked with fair consequences provides structure and a sense of containment as well as a clear set of rules that young people can test out and define themselves against.

It is common for youth AOD clients to experience delays and disruptions in the area of identity formation, a key developmental task for all adolescents. Positive identity formation is critical to enabling adolescents to develop a sense of their future and what they want to achieve in adult life. Developmentally conducive practice seeks to provide experiences that correct damage done to identity through experiences of distorted relationships and rejection.

The formation of a strong positive relationship between a young person and a worker of is one of the key therapeutic strategies employed to shift identity formation onto a positive path. Through this relationship young people  can be offered constructive feedback and guidance that enables them to learn from their experiences.

Another key developmental task for all adolescents is learning the consequential thinking and responsible decision-making necessary for adult autonomy. Most adolescents acquire these cognitive skills gradually over a long period through talking and reflecting on experience with trusted adults that have in an interest in their development. Many of our clients have not had access to these experiences due to problems within their families.

In particular service types such as residential rehabilitation and where clients have long term involvement with a practitioner or service a form of substitute parenting can be required. This involves compensating and catching up on the guidance and role modeling that healthy parenting normally provides. Building on the foundation of the trusting relationship, practitioners can spend a lot of time helping young people to reflect on their experiences, understand why things happen and develop insight into how their actions may influence outcomes.

Professionals in youth AOD services might take on the role for therapeutic purposes for a short time but should always be focused on helping young people find meaningful support within their families and social networks.

One of the ways in which development can become distorted rather than delayed for young people in the youth AOD client population is in the acquisition of independent survival skills. Because many youth AOD clients have experienced significant periods of poor supervision, disconnection from family, and exposure to unsafe environments, they frequently learn methods of coping and surviving that are unusual and not always socially acceptable. Most adolescents of equivalent age who do not have these exposures do not develop these sorts of skills. The challenge here for developmentally conducive practice is to recognise the strengths that are inherent in these coping skills, while channeling these strengths in more socially acceptable directions.

The importance of recognising the underlying or hidden ‘health-seeking’ purpose of behaviours that are traditionally labeled and dismissed as ‘dangerous, delinquent, deviant and disordered’ has been emphasised by Ungar (Ungar, 2005b). Recognising that ‘resilience’ is a culture and class laden term, and that alternative expressions of it are valid from the perspective of the individual concerned, it may be critical for the worker to reflect and reinforce an empowered identity for young people (Ungar, 2005b).