A major intention of the experiential and participatory orientation is to empower young people, or to facilitate the development of a sense of agency, and through this enable them to participate more fully in a variety of activities. These activities can range from simple recreational pursuits that occupy leisure time providing an alternative to substance use; through participation in ongoing learning, volunteering, or paid employment; to activities that have a very personal meaning to individuals in terms of eliciting passion and a sense of vocation. One of the key features of effective services from the point of view of young people is provision of experience that offers ‘stuff you can do on the weekend’, a ‘productive being-in-the-world’, and particularly the building of a productive life passion (Bell, 2006; p. 431). For young people who have lacked such experience in the past, counter experiences in which they exert their own agency resulting in a sense of achievement, are inherently therapeutic.
At a very practical level, the experiential approach is best suited to the learning of skills necessary for dealing with common life challenges, skills that are often lacking for young people who have grown up in families where parents were unable to provide appropriate care, or in out-of-home care. Residential and rehabilitation programs provide particularly suitable environments for hands-on experiential learning of behavioural control and interpersonal skills such as communication, negotiation, conflict resolution and anger management. For the many young people who are disconnected from their families, residential programs that immerse the individual in a peer group may be more practical to implement than family therapy and perhaps more effective in developing and reinforcing social skills than individual counseling.
The therapeutic relationship is another critical facet of our practice that operates almost entirely through an experiential learning process. First there is the counter emotional experience of learning that it is possible to have a healthy relationship with an adult, mending the damage caused by toxic relationships in the past (Hubble, Duncan, & Miller, 1999). Second, there is the learning that comes through the modeling of good relationship skills by practitioners and the sense of achievement that young people gain from actually practicing the skills they have learned.
A critical benefit of the experiential approach is the opportunity it provides young people to actually try out new behaviours and practice new skills within a safe and supportive environment. This approach is designed to maximise opportunities for demonstrating new competencies, experiencing success, and initiating hope and expectancy for the future.
This and other aspects of our experiential and participatory practice fit well within the framework of narrative therapy. Narrative therapy essentially involves challenging problem-saturated stories that young people tell about themselves, and replacing these with stories of resilience and hope. The process is viewed as involving renegotiation of a more positive identity story, and consistent with the dramatic metaphor, success is understood as being facilitated by practice and performance, witnessing by an audience, and co-authorship of the new story by allies who participate in the performance of new roles (Little, Hartman, & Ungar, 2008). Although narrative therapy is usually carried out in an office-based counseling setting, an experiential and participatory approach to other forms of service provision would seem to offer important opportunities for applying narrative therapy.
An important feature of experiential practice in youth AOD work is that practioners ‘participate with’ clients in a wide variety of unstructured and structured experiences. Workers therefore have many opportunities to observe behaviours, patterns of behaviours, and the circumstances surrounding those behaviours directly – they don’t need to receive this information second-hand from clients as counsellors do. ‘Participation with’ young people also enables intervention in real-time and may lend greater credibility to any observations workers may offer. Viewed within a narrative frame, ‘participating with’ clients provides workers with many opportunities to witness clients’ performing old negative stories, to challenge of these stories, and to engage the young person in authoring new positive stories.