I am a second year student taking Child and Youth Care Counselling at Mount Royal University in Calgary. My practicum placement is at a special school for vulnerable children ages 15-19. Working with these kids, I found out that many of them smoke, use alcohol and drugs. When they are in school, they take many breaks for cigarette and drugs and there are no efforts on the parts of the adults to regulate these behaviors. I also understand that it is a coping mechanism for most of the kids.
My challenge is the disconnect between theory and practice because in my Psychology class on Adolescence, I learnt that 15-18 year old are at a stage described by Erickson as “Identity vs Role Confusion". That means they are trying to figure out who they are and how to fit into the society and they need guidance from adult role models to achieve this. The biological, cognitive and social changes taking place at this stage also predispose them to illogical actions and behaviors as many of them are very impulsive and enjoy risk-taking. Not forgetting impacts from different family dynamics, peer pressure and the school system.
My question is do we just watch these adolescents continue in risky behaviors and hope they will learn their lessons through their own mistakes?
Steinberg, L. (2014). Adolescence (Tenth Edition). NY, New York: MC Graw Hill Education
I currently work with youth in a transitional housing program and their ages range from 16 to 22. Almost all of the youth use substances, primarily nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana, as a way to cope and out of poorly developed habits. The one tool I have found most helpful when supporting them in changing these habits, or recognizing if they are ready or want to stop using is Motivational Interviewing. If you haven't had an opportunity to study or attend a Motivation Interviewing training, I would strongly recommend it.
I wouldn't say as positive role models that we should "just watch" the youth continue to use, but I think it is important to assess the level of risk of their choices, and also look at what other coping strategies they have available to them, or have the skills to use. In these situations we have an opportunity to be a positive influence, while also allowing them to discuss their use without feeling shamed or judged for their choices.
One thing you could do is provide them with information. The risks of different substances, short term and long term impacts to their health, harm-reduction strategies. There are fun and creative ways to share this information without targeting specific individuals or lecturing the class. I think you have an opportunity to play a positive role in helping them learn about alternative coping strategies, one of which could be coming and chatting with you about anything they find triggering or stress inducing. I understand this suggestion is based on my experiences and may not work in the setting you are in, with the specific youth you work with, or with the limitations of your role in the school.
I think the youth are lucky to have someone in their life that cares about the choices they are making. Sometimes that's all they need to know to spark the desire to changes their habits, and sometimes all you can do is plant the seed of change.
Good luck with the rest of your placement!