The Australian Institute of Family Studies has published What works with adolescents? – Family connections and involvement in interventions. It outlines information and key areas of concern for the healthy development of adolescents as they grow into adulthood.

During adolescence young people have to handle many things at once, it is an incredible time of growth on all fronts; physically, mentally and emotionally. They are no longer children but they are not adults either.

At some stage they may rebel against the constraints of family life, yet it is their family they turn to for security, comfort and reassurance. The power of the family should not be under estimated by parents, carers, teachers and medical practitioners. It is the safe haven that young people can retreat to when the world and all the changes that go with it get too much.

Families and family life is different for everyone and it doesn’t matter how the family is defined. It can be a collection of different people who live under the same roof.

The important thing is that for adolescents that sense of belonging is very important, it is the place from where they can draw their strength and get support, the place where they are accepted for who they are. It is the place they gain their resilience to the ups and downs of life.

As young people go through adolescence they experience interdependence rather than independence, they forge new and deeper relationships with family, friends, colleagues, partners and others.

Topics and issues that are covered in this publication include:

What is Family?
The family offers a “secure base” – safe place to return, emotional, psychological support (caring, connectedness, belonging).

There are five key elements to a secure parent/adolescent relationship, and these elements help build resilience in a young person so they can withstand that knocks in adult life:

  1. Availability – helping young people to trust
  2. Sensitivity – helping young people manage feelings/behaviours
  3. Acceptance – building the self-esteem of the young person
  4. Co-operation – helping young people to feel effective; and
  5. Family membership – helping young people belong.

Source: Schofield & Beek (2009)

Mental Health
25% of young people aged 16-24 years old have suffered from some kind of depression or anxiety. It is a state that lasts for more than a few weeks, their moods do not life and their performance at school or work suffers.

Young people are more at risk of mental health issues if the following factors exist in their family set up:

  • Physical and sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Attachment problems
  • Parental mental illness
  • Family conflict and stress, and
  • Family breakdown.

It is vital that parents be involved in the resolution of any family issues if there is to be a successful outcome in childhood interventions.

Key family protective factors
Young people need enduring connections, if the family is not providing this then it is important to establish who else if offering it. There are 4 key family protective factors that are vital to a young person’s healthy development:

  • Caring
  • Connectedness
  • Belonging, and
  • Support.

Involving family – what works?
Improving communication skills
Promotion of family-based problem solving
Addressing negative and critical interactions
Building family resilience and hope
Helping families manage depression and contain suicide risk
Source: Carr, 2009; Larner, 2009

Who makes the decisions?
As young people approach adulthood there needs to be a balance between parental rights and the rights of minors. The desire of the young person to make personal decisions needs to be taken into account while recognising that teenagers are still developing cognitive and emotional skills needed to resolve issues that arise as they get older.

Communicating with adolescents
Building trust is critical.
There is often a focus on a literal response – but behaviours and actions are “talking”.
It is important to engage a young person, so they know they are being listened to.
“Respectful authority” – negotiate where you can, but be clear about the bottom line.
Honesty and straightforwardness are important when talking to adolescents.
Try to avoid direct questions, rather make them open ended.

Family connections
Who ‘surrounds’ the young person, and what is the nature of the relationships?
Explore peer group, sporting, cultural and community connections.
What are they “good at”? Think broadly.
What are the communication/behaviour patterns in the family?

Engaging the family
Parents may be difficult to engage in the therapeutic process.
They may fail to recognise or feel threatened by suggestions of possible role in the problem.
Therapy dilemma – “fixing” young person.
A “therapeutic alliance” with both adolescents and parents will bring the best results.

Understanding adolescent development is important but it is equally important to recognise the vital contribution that parents and the family base provide.

Writer Helen Splarn. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha.
Source: Australian Institute of Family Studies What works with adolescents?