Youth AOD services  are faced  with  the challenge of designing interventions for a target  group spanning 12 to 21 years of age, featuring marked differences between clients  in terms  of maturity, needs  and social expectations. Yates  and Masten (2004) point  out that expectations and indicators of good outcomes change with  age. They  argue  that intervention strategies need  to be built around appropriate expectations and changing developmental needs.

This view is supported by evidence that effective interventions for young people are customised according to developmental stage (Nation, Crusto, Wandersman, Kumpfer, Seybolt & Morrisey-Kane 2003; Small,  Cooney & O’Connor, 2009). Targeting interventions in this way maximises the prospects for effective engagement while mitigating the risks associated with mixing adolescents in early and later stages.

The task of identifying discrete developmental periods or sub-stages is not straight forward as adolescence in contemporary society  tends  to be non-linear and stretched over a longer period than  in previous times (Hilman & Marks,  2002; Kilmartin, 2000). A pragmatic response is required. As such, described below are the key characteristics of young people according to the three  sub-stages (early, middle and late) that have generally been  used  in developmental psychology (Steinberg & Morris, 2001; Bashir & Schwarz, 1989). It is acknowledged that these stages cannot capture the unique and continuous nature of each young person’s developmental journey.

Early adolescence (10 to 13/14)

Young people who are 12 and 13 years old are clearly  in the early adolescent phase. The needs  and functioning of some  14 and even 15 year olds may also mean  they fit within  this stage,  highlighting the limitation of using  age as a marker. The key characteristics of young people in this stage  that are relevant to delivery  of youth  AOD  services  are:

  • The commencement of individuation – a shift in orientation from  parents to peers
  • Relatively amenable to direction
  • Need and respond well to structure
  • Tendency for concrete or more black-and-white thinking
  • Strongly focused on the present and can be impulsive
  • Experiential learners
  • Primary to secondary school transition
  • Legal status as minor

Mid-adolescence (14 to 17)

The middle adolescent stage  generally pertains to young people within  the 14 to 17 years old age range. This stage  is associated with  heightened cognitive and emotional development. The characteristics relevant to delivery  of youth  AOD  services  are:

  • Critical period for identity and value system development
  • Desire to appear in control
  • Strong need for privacy
  • Continued need for structure and regulation of experience
  • Need for status and acceptance
  • Increased experimentation and risk taking
  • Can overestimate coping abilities
  • Increasing capacity for consequential thinking
  • Still minors, school attendance compulsory until 15

Late adolescence (17/18 to 21)

Young people aged 18 to 21 years are generally considered to be in the late adolescent stage.  In this stage, young people are typically beginning to consolidate their identities and further develop their capacity for problem solving, consequential thinking and self-management. This process is likely to continue well into their twenties. It is critical to remember that all young people in this stage retain  a propensity for impulsivity and exhibit  characteristics commonly associated with  early developmental sub-stages. Relevant characteristics are:

  • Beginning to consolidate identity
  • Further capacity for problem solving and consequential thinking
  • More future oriented
  • Increased mobility
  • Continued risk taking
  • Greater societal expectations to ‘act’ as an adult
  • Transition to adult legal system
  • Considering vocational choices
  • Increased ability to access more adult-style service provision