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Transitioning from Teen Treatment to Young Adult — 5 Big Picture Ideas

In the 3rd Century BC, the Greek philosopher Archimedes described the basic principles of the mechanical advantage of one of the earliest and simplest machines – the lever. A machine, as defined by Archimedes, is able to alter the magnitude, or direction, of effort (force). Mapping the mathematical relationship between a given resistance, the fulcrum, and the effort, Archimedes was to be able to say, without hesitation, “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

Moving the world may be a tall order, but he certainly could have lifted the roof off the Parthenon – which may be why it doesn’t have one today.

In considering the transition from adolescent to young adult programming, it’s important to keep in mind the elements of the lever, and how the dynamics of that simple machine can change in different forms of treatment.


1 – Ownership and Responsibility Shifts

Teen programs are often designed to deal with greater resistance (primary treatment issues) by using the structures and elements of the program as the fulcrum. The lever can be as long as it needs to be (time, level systems, incentives, etc), and staff provide the effort (therapeutic and clinical support). The boundaries and structures of the program itself serve as the fulcrum point. Remember: effort, applied to the lever and redirected by the fulcrum, results in overcoming resistance. For instance, programs with a level system are simply progressively lengthening the lever and/or reducing the efforts (therapeutic or clinical supports) needed to achieve desired results. This ability to use the program itself as the fulcrum is often critical to the paradigm of highly-structured teen treatment programs – and that paradigm can become counter-productive when working with young adults.


2 – Treatment Program’s Geography

A program’s geography is an important element in rigidity of the container (the fulcrum), and can impact the effort-application formula. Generally speaking, the more remote, isolated, or restrictive a program, the closer the fulcrum is to the resistance, and therefore the longer the lever available for clinical or therapeutic efforts – resulting in more movement of the resistance. (Students show significant change over the short timespan, primarily because the physical principles are so supportive of growth – a greater distance from the comfort zone and unfamiliar surroundings encourage engagement and progress.) For example, a nomadic wilderness program for teens located in the deserts of Utah inherently offers a more rigid (and apparent) fulcrum than a day school in downtown Manhattan. When considering a young adult program, geography can still be an element – and less restrictive or remote options will influence the amount of effort needed to overcome resistance.


3 – Treatment Program’s Model (And More Responsibility Shifts)

Young adult programs vary in their paradigms (definition: “an example serving as a model; pattern”), and understanding how much of the fulcrum the program itself provides versus how much of the fulcrum is dependent on a client’s volition for engagement and internal motivation for change is an important element to consider. The need must be adequately aligned with the structure to achieve the desired results.

A program without a firm fulcrum point (looser programmatic structures) simply cannot effectively pry a resistant student loose – and that’s no fault of the program, rather simply an inherent element of the design. For example, a rural young adult program which manages trips to town and limits client’s cell phone and wi-fi access has significantly more ability for the program design to serve as the fulcrum when compared to a transitional living community centered in a major metropolitan area, where wi-fi and cell coverage is ubiquitous, and a $39 bus ticket to Anywhere-But-Here is just a few blocks away.


4 – Relationship Shift – And Providing External Structure

Due to the changing relationships between the resistance, the fulcrum, the lever, and the effort, families of young adults considering interventions must also consider “What will serve as the fulcrum?” in a different way than do families of teens. For teens, the program structure can serve as the fulcrum. Parents choose to enroll students and support enrollment, but beyond that, the program creates the boundaries and structures. That is not always the case for young adult programs – and without a fulcrum, Archimedes’ Earth-moving machine fails to alter the magnitude or direction of applied efforts to overcome resistance.

Does the young adult have enough internal motivation/ability/volition for the fulcrum to be client engagement (ie, the client can create and adhere to his/her own self-imposed structure)? If so, then a geographically accessible program without firmly defined boundaries may well prove to be sufficient, as clients can set their own fulcrum to meet the needs of their challenges. If, however, client motivation/ability/volition is limited, low, or mercurial, then families often need to consider what other types of structures (beyond the structures of the program itself) can be created to serve as the container, the fulcrum, against which the lever is set and effort applied to achieve the desired movement.

Think back to your own college years. Raise your hand if your parents said, “We will pay for tuition, room, and board, as long as you are in school and making good grades, but we are not going to pay your rent so you can just drop out of school to hang out with your friends and smoke pot all day.” This was likely a boundary that your parents established clearly, whether or not they ever had to say it so overtly. The firm expectations defined the container which served as the fulcrum, reduced the resistance, lengthened the lever, and altered the amount of effort needed to achieve the desired outcomes.

For many families, the financial support boundary (fulcrum) is the last variable element that can still be added into the system, and while emotionally difficult, it can be critically important for families to be willing to set and hold a future financial support boundary with young adults who need therapeutic or clinical support. This moves the fulcrum, lengthens the lever, and allows the effort of the program to be focused on overcoming resistance on the other end.


5 – People, Programs, And Families Are Not Simple Machines.

People, programs, and families are each complex and dynamic elements in a complex and dynamic system. Applied effort does not always affect resistance in predictable ways. The metaphor of the lever is helpful for understanding the basics of program paradigms and the role of client volition in the positioning of a fulcrum, but it breaks down quickly when addressing the unique needs of families in crisis. It’s a starting point, a way to consider the elements at play, but is intended only to lead to further exploration, discovery, and insight, and is not a simple formula for achieving results.

If you need Archimedes’ simple machine formula to design a lever to pry that old oak stump out of your flower bed, it’s here:

first class lever formula

However, the above formula is fundamentally insufficient to evaluate the therapeutic, clinical, and programmatic needs of adolescents and young adults. Continuing to explore resources like All Kinds of Therapy, and securing the support of a referring professional, are also important steps in understanding the differences in adolescent and young adult programming.



About the Author

headshot of Jake WeldJake Weld holds a master’s degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs.  He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.