Finding a Balance

So how do we support young people to explore, seek out and create new experiences that stimulate their senses, emotions, thinking and bodies in new and challenging ways and keep them safe?  How do we support them in engaging and exploring ways to push at life’s boundaries without high-risk or bad outcomes?

The age old argument between what is better… the young person who is allowed to do whatever they want without any boundaries or those whose carers hover above them at every moment.  Well, like everything, moderation is the answer. 

While too much freedom can be harmful and place a young person at risk, too much restriction can limit their development and create unnecessary resistance.

We all know of cases of young people who continue putting themselves at high risk; absconding from home, substance use, and criminal behaviour.  They often escalate this risk until they are contained in one way or another.  When provided with clear, predictable and consistent boundaries, these young people are also the ones that tend to respond really well.

Alternatively, but as common, is the young person who has boundaries placed on them that disallow any freedom to explore, leading them to engage in high-risk behaviours in secret such as substance use.  This presents just as many concerns.  Any measures to keep them safe are hindered by not knowing what they are doing.  When given some freedom and understanding about the concerns people have, these young people will often be more open and honest about their behaviours.

We need to find a balance. 

Understanding that change and transition involves risk, the focus then must be on how to remove extreme and unnecessary risk and manage others. 

For young people to navigate this time safely they need both:

  • Structure and containment  - Limit Setting
  • Learning and new experiences – Enabling

Sometimes these needs are met through one person but often they can be met through two different but complimentary roles that both have shared goals for the young person - safety, health & well-being, and future prospects. 


This is the relationship that involves the setting of limits that regulate the experiences of the young person. They provide structure, containment and a clear set of rules that a young person can test out and define themselves against.

Young people seldom have a choice who their Limit-setters are.

The limit-setting role is usually undertaken by parents, carers or those responsible for maintaining healthy and safe shared spaces.  In out-of-home care this is often a foster or residential carer or child protection worker. 


These relationships enable a young person to express and develop their own identity and pursue their interests.  They provide useful information, support and guidance during this time and facilitate learning through opening up opportunities for new experience and helping the young person to understand what these experiences mean.  These people can have a strong protective influence in the young person’s life, where they feel at ease to discuss their thoughts and experiences without limits or consequences. 

They can also help young people:

  • Understand the rationale and purpose of limits that are set and how they feel about them
  • Find ways to live within the limits or assist them to develop their own ideas about fair and responsible limits
  • Find ways to stay safe even outside limits
  • Develop self-limiting or regulating behaviours 

Information that might be under the radar of a limit-setter is then more likely to be on the radar of an enabler who has no coercive power.  These relationships can only work when lines of communication are open and trust is established and maintained. 

Young people choose who their enablers will be and the amount of influence they have in their lives

Enablers can be friends, siblings, local youth workers or teachers.

Problems arise for young people when:

  • All relationships are limit-setting
  • Enablers are not positive but rather have a negative influence i.e. substance use, criminal behaviour

These roles vary for young people in out-of-home care but a common example is a carer and a youth drug and alcohol worker.

How this plays out in the real world!

So when a young person lives in out of home care, the role of the carer quickly becomes one of a limit- setter, particularly when we think of drug use.  This will often mean that young people may keep the details of their drug use a secret from their carer when:

  • They plan to or are ‘breaking the rules’
  • They feel uncertain or out of control, but are invested in seeing themselves or being seen as ‘in control’
  • They are highly dependent on substance use as way of managing their life and believe there are no other effective options
  • They don’t seem to be interested in changing their drug using behaviour and don’t want to be forced to do so

This reflects the very situation when some protective influence is required to manage their risk and this can be achieved by providing young people with accurate, reliable and relevant information and education relating to drug use.  However, because of the limit-setting role such information will often not be ‘on the radar’ as the young people will not discuss their use with the limit-setter.

Cue: the benefits of a Youth AOD Practitioner or Youth Worker in an enabler role. 

They are in the position to recognise, understand and help the young person manage risks associated with the young person’s drug use.  For this to work however, trust and open communication is essential.  Young people need to know that when they turn to an enabler, their information doesn’t get passed straight onto their carer or limit-setter.

This dynamic can be often difficult to manage and requires both people to consider and understand the following:

  • Both roles, although different, are equally important in keeping the young person safe but need to be kept separate
  • Both roles have clear common goals – in this case to reduce the potential harm from drug use
Trust is vital to ensure that young person is best supported
  • Limit setters need to trust Enablers to share information at times when the level of risk to the young person or others is sufficiently high
  • Enablers need to trust that Limit-Setters will be fair and reasonable in how they respond to the information that they receive

So when is information shared?

Young people will share information about their experiences with limit setters when they are staying within the limits.  When they stray outside of those boundaries, not only are the risks greater but information about the young person’s experiences will often be hidden. 

Alternatively, enablers will often be privy to different and more detail information, particularly when the young person is taking more risks.

So the question becomes: When is the risk great enough for information to be shared without consent on ground of ‘keeping them safe’?

An example of when this might happen could be when a young person discloses hanging out and using substances with much older men or women and getting substances for free, or perhaps discloses high-risk injecting techniques that might put them at risk of overdose.  In these cases it is obviously beneficial for all those involved to be aware so that they can reduce risks.

When thinking about sharing information, consider the following. 

The health and safety of the young person or others involved 

Sometimes guidance, encouragement, information provision and support will not be enough to protect a young person.  There are times when limits will need to be imposed and a young person contained.  In circumstances where a young person is clearly in danger or is putting someone else at serious risk, information clearly needs to be passed on to someone who has the responsibility and capacity to act.

That lines of communication with the young person are kept as open as possible

The protective benefit of enablers being connected with young people will be reduced or cease if communication is shut down or constrained due to information continually being passed onto the limit setters.  If this happens then certain subjects, probably those involving the most risk, will no longer be “on the radar” and neither the enabler nor the limit-setter will have any constructive influence. 

Disagreements happen because the limit-setter and enabler have:

  • Different intentions or goals
  • A lack of respect for and belief in the importance of each other’s role
  • Are unaware of each other’s shared intentions or goals
  • Different interpretations of how these intentions or goals should be enacted
  • Differing perspectives of risk and danger and how it should be acted on
  • Differing assessments and understanding of the drug related issues and how they are best dealt with
  • Inadequate preparation and case planning
  • No established review and ongoing communication processes.
Ultimately, you end up working at cross-purposes and the young person gets stuck in the middle.

The best way to navigate this situation and make the relationship between the limit-setter and enabler most effective is to:

  • Establish clear arrangements around confidentiality and in what circumstances the young person’s risk would be deemed high enough to reveal information.
  • Make these roles and confidentiality arrangements clear to all involved including the young people
  • Have clarity with workers and young people about why limits are being set because often misunderstanding or secrecy causes frustration.
  • Allow time to develop a relationship between the limit-setter and enabler to establish trust
  • Overt assumptions and determine realistic expectations about the young person and professionals involved
  • Identify shared goals and agendas
  • Have strategies to manage disagreements

As a new person comes into a care team for a young person, it is a good time to review each person’s role for the young person and how information gets shared.  Ultimately, having the young person in this space to explain the roles would be most beneficial so that everyone is on the same page.  Ongoing communication over time is the best way to avoid other professionals thinking they are working in secret. 

We all want the same thing for young people:

To protect the young person's health, safety and wellbeing
  • Reducing high-risk behaviours that threaten the safety of others involved in young person’s orbit and the community in general
  • The young person ongoing development and future prospects
  • Opening up as many life opportunities as possible
  • Enabling the young person to make the most of those opportunities 
Further Resources