The capacity to adapt to changing circumstances is a feature of healthy development and optimal functioning. How a young person responds is determined by their coping and behavioural repertoire, which is shaped by the history of their lived experience, the social and material resources at their disposal and the magnitude of the stressors in their lives.

Ungar and Kipke (1998) broadly categorise young people’s coping responses as ‘problem-focused’ or ‘emotion-focused’. Problem-focused responses seek to address the cause, manifestation or practical effects of the problem directly, while emotion-focused responses aim to reduce emotional distress surrounding the problem. Their research with young people who were homeless revealed how each young person, when confronted by a stressor, went through a process of appraising its magnitude in relation to his or her perceived ability to handle it. If their coping abilities and resources met or exceeded the demands of the stressor, then problem-focused coping strategies aimed at removing or reducing the impact of the stressor can be used.

Alternatively, when young people gauged that there was no way to effectively deal with the stressor, they were more likely to adopt emotion-focused coping strategies. Substance use, for example, could be used in this way by a young person. Davis (1999) concurs, pointing out that coping is often reactive or defensive in nature and can involve merely avoiding a stressful situation or a negative event. A young person who demonstrates resilience is therefore able to employ their coping ability over time, in the interests of moving beyond the defensive and protective into adjustment and positive adaptation.

Consistent with this, Richardson (2002) describes resilience as an active process involving growth and development through disruption and adversity rather than just recovering or bouncing back.  He conceptualises life as a progression of repeated responses to either planned or reactive disruptions. He believes that each person’s development throughout their life course is shaped by the manner in which their experience of disruption and adversity is integrated.

According to Richardson, “[R]esilient reintegration refers to the reintegrative or coping process that results in growth, knowledge, self-understanding, and increased strength of resilient qualities” (2002, p310). Conversely, “…dysfunctional reintegration occurs when people resort to substances, destructive behaviors, or other means to deal with the life prompts” (ibid).

Like Ungar and Kipke  (1998), Richardson (2002) has identified a dichotomy in how people respond to disruption and adversity, albeit with subtle differences in focus. Ungar and Kipke concentrate on the process of choosing a viable coping response whereas Richardson’s focus is on the meaning derived from how one coped and the outcomes of the response. The choice of coping response and how experience is integrated to shape one’s self concept relies on both conscious and sub-conscious processes.

Richardson contends that most people who reintegrate ‘dysfunctionally’ have “…blind spots in their introspective skills and require therapy to fill the holes” (2002, p310). He also points out that resilient reintegration may be postponed or delayed, bringing his theory into line with the aforementioned patterns of resilience.

A child, for example, who has suffered abuse and neglect, may not have the personal capacity or the level of support required to make a resilient reintegration, but later in life may be better positioned to do so. Further, the process of reintegrating from disruptions in life requires some form of motivational energy. This provides a cogent rationale for ‘youth AOD practice’ to be geared towards creating conditions that give young people reasons to consider and work towards a better future.

Richardson recognises that constructive intervention via ‘therapy’ and/or ‘education’ serves as a positive disruption to the adaptation patterns that develop through repeated ‘dysfunctional’ reintegration. A client’s capacity to initiate problem-focused coping strategies or make resilient reintegrations through disruption might be influenced by their beliefs about how much choice and self-determination they have; their sense of personal agency. This indicates the extent to which a client’s ‘locus of control’ is either internal or external.

Naidoo and Wills (2000) explain that a strong internal locus of control is associated with a belief in one’s own power to make decisions that will affect the course of life. This can be the source of motivation to invest in self-care and make changes to improve health. By contrast, people with a strong external locus of control believe they are relatively powerless to make changes that will affect their life. They are more likely to be fatalistic and pessimistic about the future, and more likely to continually resort to emotion-focused coping strategies.