The ideas of strengths-based and solutions-focused practice may not have achieved the status of consensus-based characteristics of effective services and programs for adolescents (Brannigan et al., 2004; Henderson et al., 2007; Mark et al., 2006). However, these ideas are deeply infused in the social work practice literature, particularly the literature on young people with multiple and complex needs (Aronowitz, 2005; Karabanow & Clement, 2004; Kidd, 2003; Munford & Sanders, 2008; Pichot, 2001; Ungar, 2006)and they have had a profound influence upon practice philosophy in youth services over the past 10 to 15 years.
In a parallel sense, therapeutic models based upon these ideas, such as Solution-Focused Therapy (SFT) have not yet achieved the status of an established empirically supported treatment, but SFT is very popular among practitioners and it has demonstrated utility and acceptability in a wide range of applications including, for example, management of various mental health problems (Kim, 2008; Perkins, 2006), early intervention for children and families at risk (Worrall-Davies, Cottrell, & Benson, 2004), and with adolescent survivors of sexual abuse (Kruczek & Vitanza, 1999). The wide applicability of the SFT approach can be explained by the fact that it operates outside of a problem-focused paradigm. The aim of SFT is not so much to alleviate the symptoms of disorders or ameliorate dysfunction but to assist clients to identify and develop their coping and problem-solving skills, and to instill a sense of hopefulness and confidence in their ability to manage their problems (Kruczek & Vitanza, 1999; Perkins, 2006).
A key feature of solutions-focused practice is that it begins with a process of identifying readily accessible or constructible solutions to issues that clients want to work on, rather than being fixated on problems (O'Connell, 2005).
The orientation towards identifying, working with, and building upon strengths, rather than focusing solely on problems is closely related to, even dependent upon, a client-centred and holistic approach because the personal strengths and social assets to be described and worked with are highly individualised and dependent upon the unique characteristics, circumstances, experiences, and self-perceptions of the young person.
The strengths-based and solution-focused approaches are also consistent with our harm reduction philosophy. This philosophy rests on the assumption that no matter what we do, some young people will continue to use alcohol and drugs, and given this fact, it is more productive to find solutions that facilitate safer drug use or reduce harms arising from other issues that interact with substance use.
Strengths-based practice also places strong emphasis on collaboration between the worker and the client in setting goals and driving the therapeutic work (Kim, 2008). The practitioner adopts a stance of a ‘non-expert’ or ‘not-knowing’, meaning that she does not assume that she knows what is best for the client based on a pre-conceived body of knowledge (Pichot, 2001). Instead, knowledge is co-created out of conversation between the client and the therapist (O'Connell, 2005). This is viewed as central to the stance of recognising, respecting and valuing the tools and skills that the client already possesses.
The strong desire that adolescents have to project a competent or resilient identity (Ungar, 2005b), and their reluctance to confess to a lack of control over their behaviour strongly indicates the value of strengths-based therapeutic approaches for adolescents in promoting and maintaining their engagement.
A concern and potential danger with the solutions-focused approach, if it is applied too rigorously, is that insufficient time may be given to the exploratory work needed to elicit the clients’ experiences, their perceptions of their issues, and their understanding of their situation. Adequate time spent listening to the young person, demonstrating empathy, and showing the young person that they are valued despite their past experiences and current circumstances, is critical to the establishment of the working relationship.
Glossing over problems and pushing quickly towards solutions may not always be conducive to this foundational work.
It is also important to recognise and acknowledge that most of our young people have missed out on many opportunities to develop life-skills, and so they need additional opportunities and assistance now to catch up on these skills. Thus while strengths certainly need to be recognised and emphasised, for our client population, it is equally important to acknowledge that there may be major gaps in a young persons skill base.
Active attention to ‘problem’ oriented concerns is particularly critical when working with a client population that experiences relatively high levels of exposures to risk factors that can pose serious threats to safety and health outcomes both in the short and long term.