Young people with drug use problems and other complex needs may particularly value, prefer and benefit from services that emphasise an experiential approach (Bell, 2006; Russell & Evans, 2009). A proportion of young people who had attended drug and alcohol and mental health services reported that they did not experience talking-based counseling as particularly helpful or suitable to their needs, and expressed explicit preference for alternative approaches (Russell & Evans, 2009).

Complementing these findings regarding young people’s preferences is a growing body of evidence from intervention effectiveness research indicating that the inclusion of behavioural interventions may be particularly critical to the achievement of positive outcomes. Specifically, to achieve lasting behaviour change program participants require hands-on experience aimed at building skills (Arnold & Rotherham-Borus, 2009; Nation et al., 2003; Small et al., 2009). Skills-based interventions such as social skills training, anger control training, and problem solving skills training are the most effective youth-focused treatments for youth with externalising (acting-out) behaviours involved in the youth justice system (Sukhodolsky & Ruchin, 2006).

The experiential approach operates at all stages of the continuum of services provided. Foundational to this work is the creation of safe environments, the intention being to provide young people with an experience of safety. There are at least four main ways in which the experience of safety contributes to our work. First, for young people who have experienced a long history of neglect and abuse, the experience of safety provided in a safe environment (or a safe therapeutic relationship) acts as an exception that counters or challenges previous experience. Hubble and colleagues describe this as a ‘corrective emotional experience’ that is inherently therapeutic. Second, the experience of safety acts as a stepping stone or foundation for all other therapeutic interventions. Without first securing a sense of safety within the young person it is not possible to engage them in any other activities or therapeutic processes.  Third, a lived experience of safety in a structured environment over an extended period of time can provide young people with ideas, knowledge and skills needed to recreate safety for themselves in their day to day life. Fourth, a safe space contains within it opportunities for young people to explore, experientially, a variety of alternative behaviours and courses of action. Respite from normal life provides a freedom that might not otherwise be available, combined with time to reflect on their experiences. Bessant (2008) points out the vital necessity of giving young people opportunities to build a ‘repertoire of experiences’ from which they learn how events are connected to emotions, and from this the chance to develop their capacity for good judgment (Bessant, 2008).

There are two major interdependent facets of experience that are critical to consider during the adolescent developmental transition to adulthood: being or identity, and doing or agency.

In relation to ‘being’ - adolescents’ experiences of ‘being-in-the-world’ are critical to the formation of a healthy or sustaining identity. The experiences of feeling or ‘being’ safe, accepted and respected are particularly vital. The young people who come into AOD treatment have frequently received few of these experiences.

In relation to ‘doing’, the key developmental challenge for adolescents is to acquire the knowledge and understanding to make sensible decisions for themselves, the confidence to take action in the face of uncertainty, and the skills to enact workable strategies. Kallander and Levings (1996; cited in Karabanow & Clement, 2004) have described four steps to experiential therapy and learning in working with young people: the actual experience or activity; observation by the youth of what took place; generalisations about what took place, and consideration of how to apply what is learned from the activity to other life activities (Karabanow & Clement, 2004). Entering into this learning cycle requires that young people are given the freedom to explore, make their own decisions, and to make their own mistakes. The learning comes from exerting action in the world – trying out different behaviours, experiencing the results, and thinking about the implications. This experiential stance is quite different to didactic teaching or providing directive advice.

Identity and agency are interconnected and reciprocal. A sense of identity includes the sense of acting in the world as well as the sense of being in the world. Reciprocally, a strong sense of agency may be predicated upon an identity that includes attributes such as being competent or being a participant, as opposed to being a victim or being a burden or being controlled. However, a firm sense of being in the world is probably the most basic pre-requisite to a sense of agency.