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Key themes - barriers faced when supporting adolescents exposed to adversity, violence or traumatic experiences

Monday 26 – Wednesday 28 February 2024


Challenges of addressing complex behaviours

  1. In the past, approaches to addressing issues experienced by adolescents, such as violence, crime and challenging behaviours, have often been punitive, focusing more on the behaviour rather than the individual.
  2. Therefore, historically responses have often leaned towards containment, viewing the behaviours as issues that need to be managed, rather than considering how the person may need support. Adopting this approach overlooks the nuanced experiences of adolescents and does not address the root causes of the challenges they face.
  3. In a similar way, considering adolescents’ needs only when they are in trouble also means that young people are often invisible across multiple sectors until a significant problem arises that necessitates urgent action. This responsive approach not only overlooks the power of preventive measures but also means that many adolescents who are struggling may fall between the cracks, particularly in instances where symptoms are internalised rather than externalised often via self-harm and other destructive behaviours, a characteristic that is also frequently gendered.
  4. The limitation of this approach which disregards the individual and only focuses on challenging behaviours, lies in the failure to acknowledge adolescents as individuals in need of understanding and support, which ultimately often ends up perpetuating stigma and overlooks the complexities of adolescents’ experiences.

Consideration of individual paths, unique needs and gender dynamics

  1. Another major barrier is neglecting to consider the ‘bigger picture’. While discussions about adolescents often focus on overarching aspects of development, it is important to recognise the individual paths that adolescents follow.
  2. Gender plays a major role and overlooking it may exacerbate existing issues, particularly in the context of violence and trauma but also in terms of independence and personal freedom. Moreover, the unique needs and paths of adolescents with disabilities, refugees and asylum-seekers, young mothers and youth with caring responsibilities are also important to take into account.
  3. Similarly, it is also crucial to acknowledge that adversity, violence and trauma are constructs that vary widely across regions and socio-cultural contexts. These differences make it challenging to develop universal interventions, given that contexts might require contextual adaptations, which are both time and resource intensive. It also presents challenges with implementing interventions where there may be tensions surrounding certain gender and social norms.
  4. Adolescents may also commit acts of violence against others, and this also requires a response that recognises their potential dual role as victims and perpetrators.

Lack of comprehensive support systems

  1. The lack of comprehensive support systems is another major barrier to adolescents’ wellbeing. Given the importance of social support and connections to mitigating the consequences of adversity, violence and traumatic experiences, inadequate support systems pose a major threat to adolescents’ development. Having access to a combination of mental health services, educational programmes, sexual and reproductive health services, community initiatives, and peer and parental support can provide adolescents with the support and tools they need to thrive.
  2. Without access to these resources in an age-appropriate way, adolescents may not be able to develop coping mechanisms and resilience necessary for their wellbeing. Also, when faced with challenges, adolescents may turn to coping behaviours that may adversely affect not only their wellbeing and safety but community development, peace and safety more broadly.
  3. However, providing comprehensive support systems requires funding, time and resources, and, particularly in contexts of insecurity due to the prevalence of conflict and crime, these may not always be available.
  4. Moreover, beyond resource constraints, it is also important to acknowledge that this approach also requires a political environment that favours offering support, rather than enacting punishment. In the absence of a political climate that adopts this perspective, implementing comprehensive support systems, even with resources at hand, may lead to obstacles and may prevent sustainable change.

Implementation of prevention strategies

  1. Another significant barrier lies in the lack of prevention strategies and reliance on responsive/punitive measures when it comes to addressing adversity, violence and traumatic experiences faced by adolescents. Often social interventions and policies focus on responding to immediate crises faced by adolescents, rather than preventing them from occurring in the first place. This reactive approach limits the effectiveness of efforts towards enhancing adolescent wellbeing. Moreover, when reactive responses are prioritised over preventive measures, not only are opportunities to intervene early missed but so are opportunities to address the root causes that underlie many of the challenges.

Meaningful participation of adolescents

  1. When designing interventions and formulating policies, adolescents are frequently excluded from decision-making processes regarding policies and interventions that directly impact them. This overlooks the unique insights and experiences that adolescents bring, often resulting in initiatives that may not adequately meet their needs and rights. Without meaningful involvement of adolescents, policies and interventions may fail to address their needs, leading to missed opportunities for genuine empowerment and sustainable change.
  2. While there may be barriers to involving adolescents, such as a lack of knowledge on how to engage adolescents, it is pivotal to ensure that they are actively included when developing research agendas, designing policy and identifying interventions, in order to achieve meaningful and sustainable change.

Language and terminology as barriers

  1. When discussing the impact that adversity, violence and traumatic situations have on adolescents, certain challenges arise in terms of the language and terminology that is used. Many of the difficulties that adolescents face, extend beyond social, cultural and geographical boundaries.
  2. However, notably much of the existing literature and research on trauma relies on Western-centric definitions and terminology[5].  Heavily medicalised terminology and Western-centric diagnostic criteria pose several challenges, particularly in terms of accessibility, cultural relevance and inclusivity when addressing diverse experiences of trauma and adversity across contexts.
  3. A reliance on medicalised language and diagnostic categories may in some cases also create barriers to accessibility for individuals who may not identify with or fit into specific predetermined diagnostic criteria. As such, it is vital to broaden the discourse and language used surrounding adversity, violence and trauma, and to adopt culturally relevant frameworks that prioritise inclusivity and accessibility.

[5] Patel, A. R., & Hall, B. J. (2021) “Beyond the DSM-5 diagnoses: a cross-cultural approach to assessing trauma reactions”. Focus, 19(2), 197-203.


Key themes – what the problem is



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