The impact of substance use on young people’s development
An early start to substance use during adolescence and continued intensive use is believed to interfere with transitional milestones being reached and developmental tasks being completed. Spooner and colleagues (2001) point out that the earlier a young person becomes involved in chronic, problematic substance use the greater the developmental impact on cognitive functioning, emotional adjustment, social functioning and the formation of self-concept.
Even so, contemporary evidence-based theories, such as Developmental Systems Theory, recognise plasticity in the bio-psycho-social processes that underpin human development and emphasise the significance of experience in determining outcomes for young people.
Substance use, particularly when it is ongoing and used as a coping strategy, will directly influence the experiences of young people and therefore shape the way their development unfolds. This means that even in cases where developmental processes have been disrupted by substance use, these young people continue to develop, albeit in an atypical manner.
For example, the development of a young woman who at 16 has been involved in procuring and trafficking substances, is not at school, and has had to fend for herself, may be accelerated in some areas and delayed in others. She may have developed the capacity for consequential thinking and have achieved a degree of independence and resourcefulness in advance of other young people of a similar age. On the other hand, she may have limited opportunities to develop values, attitudes and social skills that are in step with other young people experiencing a more typical developmental progression. This can mean that progress towards key developmental milestones, such as developing a vocational identity, is curtailed and in some cases they may not be reached. This can lead to further marginalisation, thus entrenching problematic substance-using behaviour and limiting options for change. In this way the developmental trajectories and lifestyles of many young people with serious substance use-related problems can become less and less synchronised with most other adolescents.
However, on a positive note, there is evidence to show that developmental milestones and tasks do not have to be achieved at predetermined times. Given conducive conditions and experiences, young people who have had substance use problems can change their developmental pathway and become healthy adults.