Young people, like all of us, desire to support, to value and be valued by people who know them well and have an ongoing commitment to their well-being. Developmentally conducive relationships offer young people protection and care (including an appropriate level of monitoring and discipline), mutual support, fraternity, modelling and guidance, recognition and understanding as well as the opportunity to envisage a positive future (see Aronowitz, 2005). Further, an appropriate level of guidance and reinforcement has been found to create a stronger motivation to learn, solve problems, and engage successfully in the world (Masten, 2001).

Granfield and Cloud (2001) make it clear that very few are able overcome life’s many challenges without the assistance of others. Even one positive relationship experience may do much to counter the harm of negative relationships or experiences (Masten, 2009). Aronowitz (2005) points out that “…even in the most difficult situations, having someone to lean on gives a young person the feeling that he/she is valued, competent and able to succeed” (p203).

Young people also derive a sense of belonging and meaning in life through connections with places, their cultural heritage and related institutions, faith-based organisations and broader social movements (see section 6.2.2 social ecological resources and assets).

Connections can also be a source of harm and limit the healthy development of young people. Granfield and Cloud (2001) explain that “…substance use and misuse generally occurs in a larger social context within which individuals are socialised into use, develop the rationales associated with use, and derive meanings from their substance use related experiences” (p1553).

The connections of youth AOD clients with others  in their social network may help in coping with the problems of ‘social exclusion’ and generate a sense of ‘inclusion’, but can simultaneously limit the possibilities of escaping the conditions of ‘social exclusion’ (Johnston, et al., 2000; Macdonald & Marsh, 2001). For this reason Green, Mitchell and Bruun (in revision) suggest that services broaden their focus and develop methods of engaging and working with a young person’s family, peer group and/or larger social network to enable them to change and grow together.

Resilience based intervention involves enabling young people to develop insight into how their connections influence their capacity to meet their needs and achieve their goals. Young people might also need assistance in maximising the helpful influence of their connections and minimising the limiting and sometimes harmful effect. At other times young people might be supported to identify and develop new connections.

a. Parents and caregivers

Young people’s attachment with parents and caregivers over time is integral to their development. Although young people are often portrayed as separating from family and establishing independent lives, Robinson and Miller (2010) cite the research of Markiewicz et al. (2006) and Robinson and Pryor (2006) to make the point that while the importance of peer relationships increases, it is not usually at the expense of family relationships.

Robinson and Miller (2010) describe five elements of a secure parent/caregiver-adolescent attachment developed by Schofield and Beek (2009). They are “… availability (helping young people to trust); sensitivity (helping young people to manage feelings and behaviours); acceptance (building the self-esteem of the young person); cooperation (helping young people to feel effective); and family membership (helping young people feel like they belong)” (p9).

The caregivers of clients also have a key role in regulating their experiences as they develop, particularly the degree of risk exposure. Parents or legal guardians have responsibility for protecting young people from harm. For young people who are minors, this is a basic right. Fair and reasonable discipline, matched to a young person’s level of development, creates the conditions in which young people can rise to challenges and learn to manage risk without feeling overwhelmed.

Poor family cohesion, parental conflict, lack of affection, and low attachment to family are associated with increased substance misuse (Mitchell et al., 2001). Bonomo (2003) adds that familial attitudes that are favourable to substance use and parental modelling are obvious influences on young people’s behaviour.

Among participants in a study conducted by the Youth Substance Abuse Service (YSAS) into client perspectives, Green et al. (in revision) found that most describe family backgrounds featuring significant conflict, disruption and heavy AOD use. The experience of neglect, abuse and trauma was commonplace. Many had first used substances with family members and described their relationships with parents and caregivers as either conflicted or characterised by neglect and a lack of care. Even so, they continued to ascribe significant meaning and importance to family relationships.

b. Role models and significant adults

Aronowitz (2005) demonstrates that adults outside the primary care-giving relationship who have a connection with a young person can support parents and guardians in their efforts to provide discipline. This is the case where connected adults share a common interest in the young person’s safety, well-being and future prospects. They are well positioned to unobtrusively monitor safety and well-being.

Older, more experienced people who are connected with a young person might be considered as role models (Ungar, 2005, p90). These relationships are often fostered through participation in constructive activity. Masten (2001) observes that an appropriate level of guidance and reinforcement create a stronger motivation to learn, solve problems, and engage successfully in the world.

According to Aronowitz (2005), connections with role models and mentors (including parents) that model a positive but realistic view of the future and have reasonable but high expectations engender confidence and optimism that stimulate healthy development. Effective modelling has also been found to help young people counter the harmful effect of negative stereotypes and clarify their values (Aronowitz, 2005).

c. Peers and friendship networks

The peer and friendship relationships of young people engaged in problematic substance use are particularly influential. Through affiliation with other substance using peers, young people develop attitudes and model behaviours that are reinforced through continued participation together (Bonomo, 2003).

Beyond helping them to belong, some young people might use substances to attain status among their peers (Paglia & Room, 1998). Strong peer group associations of this kind may exacerbate other vulnerabilities in some young people (Seidman & Pederson, 2003).

Young people attending youth AOD services have reported that substance use is one of the main activities that members of their social networks do when they are together, and that it is very difficult to remain substance free when they spend time with friends (Green, Mitchell and Bruun, in revision). Young people in this sample of young clients expressed awareness of a need to move away from substance-using peer networks and make new friends, but they also reported very substantial difficulties in doing so. Despite this, it has been observed that interventions aiming to breaking all such contacts will likely be met with resistance and could be of questionable utility (Kidd, 2003).

d. Partners and romantic attachments

It is important not to underplay the influence of romantic attachments on substance use risks and patterns. As with peer relationships, substance use can form the glue that holds romantic relationships together. Partners can reinforce each other’s substance-using behaviour. There are times when the one partner might find the prospect of the other partner addressing substance use problems threatening and seek to prevent it.

Among participants in the YSAS client perspectives study (Green et al., in revision); young women commonly described forming relationships with older men who were often suppliers of substances. They reported verbal abuse and/or physical violence in these relationships. Even so, relationships with older partners can be a vital source of support at times and the catalyst for positive change (Keys et al., 2006).

e. Cultural and spiritual connection

Connection with culture, spiritual or faith-based organisations and even broader social movements can foster a sense of being part of something greater than oneself. Ungar (2006) claims that “…adherence to one’s local and/or global cultural practices, values and beliefs” (p57) supports resilient adaptation.

Crawford and colleagues (2006) propose that cultural systems, including religions, may work by engaging the fundamental adaptive systems that foster attachment, self-regulation and meaning making.

Cultures and religions incorporate belief systems, rituals and practices that can help people deal with expected and unexpected adversities; for example, rituals for loss and mourning. Being part of a community with shared beliefs and values can provide comfort and support during times of stress and need. It is noted that through their cultural and religious connections, many youth AOD clients and others have had negative experiences. Youth AOD practitioners are advised not to make the assumption that such connections will automatically be positive.

f. Place-based connection (enabling environments)

Another possible connection that can promote better health and well-being for young people is with particular neighbourhoods and/or special places. Such places might produce feelings of security and belonging in young people that can be instrumental in seeing them through tough times. There is an emerging body of theory and evidence demonstrating how the places young people inhabit and feel connected to have a role in producing therapeutic encounters.

Duff (2011) points out that through an active process of association with place, young people can develop a diverse range of social, affective and material resources that might be used in their efforts to live well. He explains that such ‘enabling places’ are constructed or composed rather than discovered. The influence of place is therefore never fixed and can be fleeting; it can also play a role in experiences that are detrimental to well-being and healthy development (Duff, 2011).