It is almost universally agreed that adolescents with AOD and other psychosocial difficulties are best served by services that are developmentally appropriate (Barry et al., 2002; Brannigan et al., 2004; Henderson et al., 2008; Henderson et al., 2007).

Developmentally appropriate services and programs are designed to meet the unique developmental needs of children or adolescents. Merely being ‘adolescent specific’ does not guarantee developmentally appropriate services. A sophisticated approach demands the deliberate employment of strategies that are adaptively tailored to the requirements of young people at particular developmental stages.

All clients of youth AOD services are making the transition through adolescence from childhood to young adulthood. Developmentally appropriate practice is sensitive to the ways in which the needs of young people in adolescence vary from those of children and adults, and the ways these needs change over time as development progresses. In addition to the developmental experiences shared with all adolescents and young adults, some young people experience absences and disruptions in social processes that drive development including family and schooling. This can result in delays and distortions in the developmental pathway of these young people when compared to those on a more typical developmental trajectory. Developmentally conducive practice aims to provide alternative experiences that help young people catch up in, or reshape areas of development that have been delayed or distorted.

There is surprisingly little published literature that provides a detailed, focused description or analysis of the features of programs and services that are widely understood as developmentally appropriate. The following analysis describes several broad guiding principles that need to be applied across all areas of work with adolescents, as well as several very specific implications for practice.