Developmentally-responsive Practice


Youth AOD clients range from 10 to 21 years of age. The adolescent transition is not linear and consistent, rather, individuals move back and forth between orientations towards childhood and adulthood. As such, working with young people demands a high level of flexibility and adaptability from practitioners.

Developmentally-responsive practitioners are proactive in helping young people learn and practice the skills required to achieve developmental tasks 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.

Developmental changes

Like all young people, those who experience problems with mental health, alcohol and other drug use 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
  • Understanding vocational strengths and inclinations
  • Forming relationships outside of the family

Developmentally-responsive practice understands that most adolescents are concentrated on these tasks and experience considerable anxiety around their achievement.

The capacity of practitioners 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. This is likely to be equally true for prevention and early intervention programs.

Developmental challenges

Many young people who are struggling with health and behavioural issues have had adverse developmental experiences such as:

  • Parenting that is insufficiently attentive, unpredictable, overly harsh or neglectful
  • Family conflict
  • Becoming parentified at an early age (taking responsibility for parents who cannot cope and possibly protecting and caring for siblings)
  • Lack of responsible adult role modelling
  • Frequent physical relocations
  • Lack of a stable and structured learning environment at home
  • Exposure to substance abuse and other behavioural issues in the family

Each of these experiences can cause substantial disruptions in the bio-psycho-social processes that drive development. Young people require structure and guided experience. Those that have no control over the pace of change and transition are highly susceptible to developmental problems occurring.

Without the necessary experiences, young people’s development can become unaligned with other young people their age. To rectify this, some youth AOD clients require an opportunity to develop the personal and social resources needed to move through adolescence to adulthood. In particular, where clients have long-term involvement with a practitioner or service a form of ‘substitute parenting’ can be required. 

Given favourable conditions, even small changes in how a young person functions can generate momentum for further change and development across a range of life domains.

Identity development

In order to develop their identity young people learn from experience and value expressing themselves and being recognised for their contribution.

Therapeutic work that improves self-acceptance, while helping young people identify their values and interests, increases their motivation to take care of themselves and plan for the future.

Racism, homophobia and sexism can all have a damaging effect on young people’s identity as it develops. The formation of a strong, positive relationship between a young person and a practitioner is one of the key ways to begin healing damage done to their identity through experiences of harmful relationships and rejection.

Skills development

To develop their social, behavioural, and cognitive skills young people need pro-social activities and interactions.

Knowing that participation will be positively rewarded encourages young people to develop the emotional, cognitive, and behavioural skills that will then result in further positive reinforcement.

In this way, new, more productive ways of dealing with life can be substituted for behaviours that once served as coping mechanisms but led to further social dislocation and poor development outcomes.

Another key developmental task for all adolescents is learning consequential thinking and the decision-making skills necessary to become adults.

Most adolescents acquire these cognitive skills gradually over a long period through talking and reflecting on experience with trusted adults.

Building on the foundation of the trusting relationship, practitioners can spend a lot of time helping young people to reflect on their experiences, understand why things happen and develop insight into how their actions may influence outcomes.

Through this relationship young people can be offered constructive feedback and guidance that enables them to learn from their experience.

Assess changing capacity

The needs of adolescents can change rapidly over time as they develop. The importance of particular risk and protective factors may subtly change as certain developmental tasks come into focus. Young people going through adolescence can make marked developmental gains in relatively short periods of time.

Practitioners need to be aware of young peoples’ emerging developmental capacity and continually revise their assessment of clients’ ability to cope with stressors in life, and effectively calculate and respond to risks.

At the same time, practitioners need to take care not to assume that older adolescents necessarily have accurate information, knowledge and the skills required for coping and age-appropriate participation in community life.

It is important to be aware that many young people send the message to others that they are ‘in-control’, competent and mature even when this is not the case. Efforts to conscientiously assess young peoples capacity to cope with stressors and make appropriate decisions will assist in managing some of the tensions (see below) that frequently arise when striving for developmentally-sensitive practice.

One key tension involves striking an appropriate balance between promoting a young person’s autonomy or self-determination against the need to minimise risk.

Promoting empowerment and self-determination for young people is a key commitment in youth AOD work that needs to be tempered by consideration of each young person’s ability to estimate risk and make responsible judgements about how it will be managed.

Generally, stronger emphasis on autonomy is appropriate for more mature, older adolescents, while stronger emphasis on risk reduction and firm guidance is appropriate for younger or less mature adolescents. 

Tensions in Youth Work

  • Responsive - Proactive
  • Accepting - Challenging
  • Empowerment - Containment
  • Optimism - Realism
  • Inclusion - Exclusion
  • Client-autonomy - Duty of care
  • Agency - Structure
  • Rights - Responsibilities

Other developmentally-responsive practices

For a full description of the practices of being developmentally-responsive (sometimes also known as 'developmentally-sensitive' and 'developmentally-conducive'), please complete the course in the Youth AOD Learning Hub. These practices include:

  • Expectations & autonomy
  • Duty of care & confidentiality
  • Guided experience
  • Family & Community
  • Transition Planning


Further Reading