Youth AOD services work with children and adolescents spanning a wide range of ages. Young people as young as 10 or as old as 25 can be clients. Developmentally appropriate services are sensitive to the particular developmental stages, transitions, tasks and challenges faced by adolescents in general, and the ways these change over time as individuals progress through their development.

Like all young people, those who experience problems with mental health, alcohol and other drugs, or offending are working toward achieving a range of developmental tasks including:

  • Identity formation,
  • Value clarification,
  • Cognitive skill development,
  • Learning consequential thinking and responsible decision-making,
  • Identifying and understanding vocational strengths and inclinations,
  • Forming relationships outside of the family

Developmentally appropriate services are sensitive to the fact that most adolescents place substantial emphasis on these tasks and experience considerable anxiety around their achievement. The capacity of service providers to understand and be sensitive to these general themes, as well as the specific concerns of individual adolescents, will influence the ability to successfully engage and retain young people in treatment and support programs (Barry et al., 2002; Bruun, 2008). This is likely to be equally true for prevention and early intervention programs.

An example of ways in which health and social care needs of adolescents consistently differ from most adults is with respect to the capacity for health autonomy. Adults are expected to assume responsibility for identifying potential health concerns, bringing these concerns to the attention of a health professional, securing and interpreting advice, and following advice according to their values and preferences.

In contrast, young people may not yet have acquired the knowledge or experience to confidently take personal responsibility for these health care tasks. A developmentally appropriate health service needs to be proactive with young people in helping them learn and practice these skills until they are able to exercise them independently. Cognitive and emotional development also plays a strong role in shaping the ability of adolescents to understand risks and make informed decisions on the basis of those risks. Developmentally appropriate practice is sensitive to this differential maturity.

In addition, with development, the needs of adolescents can change rapidly over time. Below a certain age, a developmentally appropriate practice is sensitive to certain legal restrictions and requirements. For vulnerable client populations, risk and protective factors may also subtly change as certain developmental tasks come into focus at different developmental stages.