Working with adolescents: Supervision

Working with adolescents: Supervision

CFCA Practitioner Resource— November 2014
Working with adolescents: Supervision

Working with adolescents can be incredibly rewarding, it can also be incredibly challenging (Youth Action & Policy Association NSW, 2007).

Youth work is complex, multifaceted and, by its nature, a stressful profession (Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, 2013). Working with adolescents demands constant energy and often on-the-spot crises response. Time at work is typically spent supporting people through unsafe or difficult experiences. It exposes workers to traumatic circumstances, with the added challenge of having to remain hopeful and impartial when supporting the young client.

Supervision, as a formal practice of insight, provides a platform for workers to better understand their reactions to adolescent clients, their families and environment, and to avoid burnout by addressing signs of hopelessness or vicarious anxieties (Youth Action & Policy Association NSW, 2007). The astuteness and independent reasoning required of youth workers benefits from regular supervision, to assist in examining why decisions are being made and how interactions affect both the client and worker (Bunston, 1997).

This practice guide provides an overview of clinical supervision for practitioners directly supporting adolescents, stressing the significance of reflective practice on worker wellbeing and client outcomes. It emphasises the prevalence of workers' exposure to traumatic events and the potential for countertransference of emotions, as well as the documented benefits of identifying issues as they arise (Jenkinson, 2009). The guide highlights the effectiveness of strengthening interventions and pathways of practice through discussion. For managers and supervisors, this resource examines supervision in the context of workplace culture, and introduces current methods and trends in suitable clinical support for youth workers.

For the purpose of this resource, the term "youth worker" will refer to anyone who works in a program directly with young people to facilitate their personal, social and learning development (Stone, Garza, & Borden, 2006), such as a child protection worker, a caseworker for a mental health or Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) service, or staff in a youth residential care setting. It is predicted that in their role, the youth worker is required to make complex interpretations about the young person's circumstances and needs, and contribute directly to an associated intervention.

Supervision helps youth workers gain a clearer understanding of the function and purpose of adolescent clients' behaviour (Pfeifer, 2011), and gain insight into their own reactions through reflective practice (Herman, 2012).

What is clinical supervision?

Supervision is understood as a vital activity for keeping up with the professional demands of youth work, such as managing casework, continuous development of knowledge and skills, and the safeguarding of ethical practice (Beddoe, Ruch, Karvinen-Niinikoski, & Tsui, 2013). This professional interaction matures a worker's clinical skills and confirms that these skills are applied appropriately to ensure the best outcome for the client (Byrne & Sias, 2010). The nature of this holistic-style supervision is often referred to as clinical supervision, and is distinct from the traditional administrative support provided by senior staff or managers. This paper will use the terms "supervision"and "clinical supervision" interchangeably, interpreting both as a scheduled activity that uses reflection as an instrument to review work and understand client-related challenges and tensions.

Clinical supervision is a powerful learning tool, providing opportunities to:

  • participate in lifelong learning of youth affairs;
  • dissect specific client behaviour and issues;
  • explore the effectiveness of evidence-based responses for implementation;
  • discuss theoretical perspectives to practice; and
  • identify professional training and development needs.

"If we are committed to developing young people, we must be equally committed to developing ourselves." (Martin, 2002, p. 15)

How does supervision differ from mentoring and coaching?

Clinical supervision shares some of the developmental characteristics of coaching and mentoring, such as encouraging continual improvement of competencies and fostering personal growth for professional gain. It also involves a relationship between a practitioner and a supervisor who usually possesses greater skills, knowledge and/or experience.

Both coaching and mentoring are notably different from supervision, however, in that the interactions are not orientated toward the emotive effect of the work undertaken. Coaching involves a facilitated process to progressively reach specific goals, and uses the expert for problem solving and instruction. Mentoring typically involves discussions about non-clinical issues, yet provides guidance and expertise.

Supervision prompts practitioners to reflect on their judgements and biases to better understand the impact of their client's behaviour as it relates to their own (Munro, 2008). The reflective nature of clinical supervision invites supervisors to explore unique youth work experiences, with the potential for deeper understanding of adolescents, allowing for new perspectives of practice to occur (Herman, 2012).

Trust, rapid engagement and authenticity are required in all of these relationships for them to be effective.

Clinical supervision shares some of the developmental characteristics of coaching and mentoring, such as encouraging continual improvement of competencies, fostering personal growth for professional gain and implementing new ideas.

Types of supervision

One-on-one supervision is common within the youth and child protection sectors and is generally provided by an external supervisor, often taking place outside of the normal work setting. The dialogue between the supervisor and supervisee may vary according to pressing issues, but will generally focus on current practice, such as reviewing outcomes of current interventions; discussing any countertransference of emotion of the client; and understanding client behaviours and responses. Discussions should be confidential and explorative and elicit the skills of the worker.

Group supervision is also a valued and viable option for youth workers, particularly when funding may be an issue (Baxter & Mayor, 2008). In this setting, one leader supervises multiple workers, and the content may be worker-centered, case-centered or theme-centered. Discussions aspire to build capacity of the practitioners by sharing their advanced understanding of adolescent development and exploring best practice interventions.

Supervision takes different shapes and forms, and may reflect the nature of the work being undertaken, or the resources available.

Supervisors have a significant role in delivering the best outcomes for clients, although not engaging directly with them (Herman, 2012).

Essential roles and functions of the supervisory experience

The functions of supervision, and the subsequent roles of the supervisor, largely incorporate these essentials: supportive (counsellor); educative (teacher); and organisational (administrator).

Supportive (counsellor)

The reflective process is central to effective supervision in youth work, as it allows for deliberation on interventions and enables learning from experience (McNamara, Lawley, & Towler, 2008). As youth work attracts people with varying professional motivations (Bowie, 2008), the self-awareness provoked by supervisors creates a foundation for workers to reflect and mature, thereby helping themselves in order to better help others. A skilled supervisor is aware of signs of distress or the onset of vicarious trauma, and ought to guide the worker to think clearly when considering the emotional impact of their work.

The counselling skills and knowledge required of the supervisor include:

  • demonstrated skills in reflective practice;
  • effective communication and interpersonal skills;
  • understanding of developmental models and effective frameworks for supervision;
  • ability to prompt and manage disclosures, and address issues as they arise;
  • awareness of signs of hopelessness and vicarious trauma; and
  • confidence to provide constructive feedback on issues relating to competence.

Educative (teacher)

Working collaboratively with practitioners, supervisors facilitate the implementation of new interventions and evaluate their outcomes.

The educative skills required of the supervisor include:

  • theoretical and conceptual understanding of contemporary youth issues;
  • superior knowledge of adolescent development;
  • a suite of evidence-based interventions and their applications from research to practice;
  • an understanding of measurable indicators and evaluation tools for work being undertaken;
  • ability to assess learning needs of the worker;
  • techniques to enhance the practitioner's competencies;
  • and insight to provide appropriate training and development sources.

Organisational (administrator)

The administrative skills required of the supervisor include:

  • familiarity with organisational policies and procedures;
  • understanding of workplace and sectorial ethical and professional issues and regulations;
  • awareness of the political, and any other, contexts of the role, organisation and sector;
  • ability to negotiate, uphold and review supervision agreements;
  • care for maintaining the highest standards for client outcomes.

"When we compared satisfied youth workers with their dissatisfied peers, only one significant difference emerges in their profiles: satisfied workers were more likely to report getting the feedback they needed to do their job." (Wilson-Ahlstrom, Yohalem, & Craig, 2010, p. 2)

Why youth workers need supervision

The need to access supervision and give attention to self-care is particularly critical when working with adolescents (Robinson & Miller, 2012). Within numerous settings and diverse roles, youth workers are tasked with building rapport with clients whose experience of adult relationships may be adverse, and whose external environments may be volatile, further challenging the development of a trusting, professional relationship. As the pioneer of research in supervision in youth work, Professor Tash (1967) argued that the purpose of the supervisory relationship is to provide ongoing specialist training about youth specific issues.

In order to be effective, youth workers must understand the environment in which they work, the context to their work, and the specific effects of their interactions with clients (Gilmore, 2012).

Working with adolescents

Professionals working with adolescents enter their roles through a number of different pathways and therefore have backgrounds in a range of fields including social work, education, public health and community education. Some youth workers enter the profession without formal education and training and gain knowledge and skills on the job (Bowie et al., 2006); others are "dropped" into situations to provide support to adolescents without adequate preparation or supervision (Wilson-Ahlstrom, Yohalem, & Pittman, 2008).

Smith (1988) discerned that due to the diversity of the sites and interventions for youth work, the practice itself varies incredibly. However, it has been recognised that youth workers, while operating across often radically different environments, share a general intent to support and resource the development of adolescents into adulthood (Bessant, 2009).

Research demonstrates that trained youth workers are more likely to effectively respond to the differing needs of their clients (Bowie & Bronte-Tinkew, 2006). The difficult nature of working with adolescents highlights the weight of non-managerial supervision for youth workers.

Understanding adolescence

Maintaining an understanding of adolescents and how they interact with their environment is an adequate reason to engage in supervision. Throughout adolescence many biological and psychosocial changes occur in a fairly short period of time. Some of these changes are discernible, others more discreet. Changes occur at different rates, leaving young people able to engage in behaviours before they may be able to fully comprehend the meaning or consequences of their actions (Patton & Viner, 2007). The complex changes experienced by adolescents can be confusing, and may make it difficult for them to recognise the support they may require.

Psychology literature and other research no longer regard adolescence as an assigned period of storm and stress (Robinson & Miller, 2012), rather it is understood that environment, circumstance and protective factors such as resilience or family connectedness contribute to an individual's adaptation through this transitional period (Frydenberg, 2008). Most adolescents navigate this stage of their life without encountering significant issues.

For others, adolescence can host the onset or increase of mental health issues (Lerner & Steinberg, 2004); mark a transition into risky behaviours such as substance misuse or self-harm (Pompili et al, 2012); or be the start of antisocial conduct (Bonino, Cattelino, & Ciairano, 2003). The adverse consequences of childhood abuse or neglect, such as psychosocial, interpersonal and sexual developmental delays, can also present themselves in this period (Cashmore & Shackel, 2013).

A comprehensive understanding of adolescent development is critical to working effectively with young people and contributes to a skillset of rapid responses to the distinct issues that clients present with.

Working with adolescents requires precise, skilled communication due to the differences in development and capacity of the client to be involved in decision-making. Supervision provides focused, uninterrupted periods in which to gain superior knowledge of youth development; explore how trauma impacts the adolescent's brain; and strengthen theory-based practice.

"Working with adolescents requires highly complex, well-timed interventions that incorporate a multitude of practical and academic knowledge and skills." (Mass & Ney, 2005, p. 1)

The emotional impact of youth work

Often, practitioners working with adolescents experience an overwhelming sense of responsibility for their clients, while they operate under conditions where there is little time for recovery between crises, implementing interventions or reviewing practice (Bowie & Bronte-Tinkew, 2006). While exposure to traumatic narratives can affect workers across various modalities and practices, youth workers may be particularly prone to witnessing helplessness or self-blame through the eyes of a client who may be a victim of harm or neglect. Bunston (1997) credits adolescent protective work as being too difficult and too painful to deal with at times, placing enormous emotional impact on workers.

Clinical supervision provides the platform to rigorously monitor, clarify and understand workers' own reactions to their clients' behaviour and life experiences. Research confirms that when the possibility of vicarious trauma is not recognised, the effect may be more detrimental as little effort is made to prevent or reduce the harm (Morrison, 2001).

For youth workers, reflective practice helps to identify and respond to the emotional impact of clients' behaviour, circumstances and/or disclosures of traumatic events.

Reflective practice explores personal issues and perceptions, identifies judgements, and develops workers' awareness of self. In supervision, the supervisor prompts the worker to reflect on the decisions they have made and analyse their context and consequences. Workers are also provided with a safe, trusting environment to disclose any stresses or concerns that they may be experiencing and to get them to think critically about their practice. While not all youth work presents challenging circumstances or difficult clients, integrating emotions and logic through reflective practice strengthens youth workers' competence (Pfeifer, 2011).

Understood and used with caution, emotional reactions to clients have been shown to be a valuable source of evidence, and discussing the influence of emotions and biases should not be discredited (Munro, 2008).

"Helplessness, or vicarious trauma, can affect any worker, not just those doing long-term intensive therapeutic work." (Gilmore, 2012, p. 4)

"Good" supervision

Effective, or good supervision is planned, focused and facilitated by a skilled and confident supervisor. It relies heavily on the capabilities of the supervisor as a facilitator of reflective practice. The process similarly relies on active participation and honesty from the worker. Good supervision is focused on the self-awareness of the worker, and prompts a deep understanding of their reactions to their client's experiences and behaviour.

Great supervisors ask questions. They have expertise but don't have a need to be experts. (Gilberg & Charles, 2007).

Table 1 provides a guide to the elements of good supervision for practitioners working with adolescents, as indicated throughout this practice guide. The responsibilities listed are shared by the youth worker and the supervisor.

Table 1: T.R.U.S.T.E.D guide to supervision when working with adolescents




Determine a regular non-negotiable meeting time

Schedule sessions in advance and work around them

Agree on a location that is private and uninterrupted

Negotiate an agenda for supervision sessions

Work within the framework of a formal, written contract




Review current cases and applied interventions

Identify emotional impact of work: fear, stress, bias, judgements

Articulate your current strengths and weaknesses

Reflect on your recent achievements and successes

Recognise effective practice, and discuss potential for improvement



(Specialist knowledge)

Examine how clients are interacting with their environment

Address the developmental challenges of clients

Advance understanding of adolescent stages of development

Measure the effects of any trauma on clients

Discuss the strengths and limitations of your clients

Appreciate your clients' expectations of you, and your organisation



(Supervisor competency)

Understand the function and role of a supervisor

Work within evidence-based, formal model(s) of supervision

Be familiar with signs of vicarious trauma and helplessness

Identify training and development needs

Be aware of a range of interventions and strategies for adolescent clients



(Capacity building)

Explore appropriate interventions for clients

Explore and apply theoretical frameworks

Discuss examples of evidence-based practice

Strengthen understanding of trauma-informed practice

Discuss strategies for better service delivery



(Workplace setting)

Examine the limitations of your role

Understand your organisation's policies, procedures, and workplace cultures

Consider any advances in professional standards of practice

Discuss current issues relating to the youth and related sectors

Recognise the value and challenges of your work



(Other considerations)

Assess current caseload and and its impact on service delivery

Manage expectations of your role from your organisation

Divulge ethical or professional issues

Explore insights and innovation in current practice

Discuss new programs or services for client referral

Source: Rose Babic for CFCA, October 2014

Working with challenging adolescents requires having a system in place to support staff in fulfilling the great responsibility that comes with the profession (Pfeifer, 2011).

Supervision and workplace culture

Administrative supervision on its own does not capture the inherent complexities of human services work (Wyles, 2006), nor does it recognise and respond to the need for adequate support required by practitioners facing the challenges of working with adolescents (Schofield & Brown, 1999). The provision of good supervision ultimately begins when decision-makers understand the demands of working with adolescents and the role of reflective practice in supporting workers that do so (Riley, 2014). Employers and program funders can demonstrate the value of worker wellbeing by building in policies that guarantee supervision as part of their practice. In doing so, organisations are not only able to reduce the likelihood of staff burnout and ensure staff competency in basic clinical skills, but ultimately improve outcomes for their teenaged service users (Pfeifer, 2011).

Implementing clinical supervision into practice requires strategic consideration of workplace resources and staff competencies, and an appreciation of the demands of the work itself. There are various ways in which employers can ensure the requirement to participate in professional supervision but, at a minimum, it should be included as a core activity in occupational health and safety policies. A supervision policy can establish guidelines, define processes, and outline the roles and responsibilities of all parties involved. The Youth Action & Policy Association NSW recommends that supervision be integrated throughout the employment experience, such as in job descriptions, negotiated work plans and enterprise agreements.

Ideally supervision policies should be well integrated into practice, not just remain a nice collection of binders that sit in a worker's office (Maas & Ney, 2005).

Clinical supervision is ensured to child protection workers by its inclusion in organisational policies and procedures. In this environment, clear worker expectations, appropriate workloads, the wellbeing of staff and workplace stability are all attributed to participating in regular supervision.

Pittman (1991) believes it is ultimately the responsibility of policy-makers to ensure that youth workers are sufficiently resourced to receive ongoing supervision, thereby enabling them to effectively support adolescents (in Bowie & Bronte-Tinkew, 2006). Clinical supervision in youth work not only contributes to the wellbeing of the worker, but also directly affects the experience of the client. A youth worker who engages in good supervision develops superior self-awareness abilities, and is more equipped to prevent, or rapidly respond to, signs of vicarious trauma. The learning component of supervision provides a regular, committed platform for workers to enhance their specialist skills and knowledge, discuss complex issues presented by their adolescent clients, and decide on appropriate, evidence-based interventions.

Links and resources

A Survival Guide for Youth Workers: Professional Supervision
This peak body provides a definition of supervision, an example of one youth worker's story, what to look for when recruiting a supervisor, and support for developing a supervision contract or policy. The YAPA website provides model policies for different areas, including caseload and supervision.

Supervision Scrapbook
< Scrapbook by Rod and Trissel.pdf>
This New Zealand-based resource presents an overview of a youth development framework to supervision, explores cultural considerations and spirituality in supervision, and provides prompts and templates for various stages of the supervision process including interviewing a supervisor; reflection; evaluation; preparing a contract; and developing a supervision policy.

Leading Practice: A Resource Guide for Child Protection Leaders
This resource, prepared specifically for leaders and supervisors in the child protection arena in Victoria, provides thorough contemplation of the nature of this work and its impact on emotions. The considerations of self-care, learning styles and reflective practice are transferable to other practices and provide useful insights for both leaders and their staff. There are valuable tools for understanding thoughts and feelings, and building collaborative relationships with workers for better client outcomes.

Code of Ethics for the Tasmanian Youth Sector
< YNOT Ethics Booklet_lr FINAL.pdf>.
This code provides an example of a framework for ethical practice when engaging with young people. Supervision outcomes such as specialist skills and knowledge of adolescents, self-care, and self-awareness are identified as key contributors to working effectively with young people.

Advances in Clinical Supervision: Innovation and Practice, Conference Monograph
This collection of papers represents a sample from the Advances in Clinical Supervision: Innovation and Practice Conference, Sydney 2013, hosted by NSW Institute of Psychiatry (NSWIOP). While the discussions are not youth work specific, the multidisciplinary considerations represent relatable issues of clinical supervision and its tensions within service delivery.

Adolescents and Their Families: Specialist Practitioner Resource
This Victorian-based resource outlines the best interests case practice model for working with adolescents and their families. The resource focuses on adolescents, their development, and how past trauma and other events affect development. It provides information, strategies and tips to engage young people and their families.

The Big Red Book: A Handbook and Directory for People who Work With Young People in the ACT
This resource is designed for use by a range of professionals who may have contact with young people, and provides strategy-based information for workers. It recognises supervision as an appropriate component of workforce development.

Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC)
The Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC) works to represent and support young people and the youth support sector. They have consulted extensively to develop The National Definition of Youth Work in Australia.

Australian Clearinghouse for Youth Studies
ACYS provides support for youth organisations, youth workers, youth researchers and young people, themselves, as well as policy-makers, researchers and practitioners in other sectors working with youth.


Australian Youth Affairs Coalition. (2013). The AYAC definition of youth work in Australia.Sydney: Australian Youth Affairs Coalition. Retrieved from <>.

Baxter, R., & Mayor, T. (2008). Supervision scrapbook. Wellington: Authors. Retrieved from < Scrapbook by Rod and Trissel.pdf>.

Beddoe, L., Ruch, G., Karvinen-Niinikoski, S., & Tsui, M. S. (2013, 14 October). A Delphi study of supervision in social work. Supervision in Social Work. Retrieved from <>.

Bessant, J. (2009). Aristotle meets youth work: A case for virtue ethics. Journal of Youth Studies, 12(4), 423-438.

Bonino, S., Cattelino, E., & Ciairano, S., (2003). Adolescents and risk: Behaviors, functions and protective factors. Milan: Springer-Verlag Italia

Bowie, V. (2008). Youth workers and stress. Youth Studies Australia, 27(2), 36-44.

Bowie, L., & Bronte-Tinkew, J. (2006). The importance of professional development for youth workers, Child Trends Research-to-Results, 17, 3.

Bunston, W. (1997). Encouraging therapeutic reflection in child and adolescent protective services, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 18(2), 61-69.

Byrne, A. M., & Sias, S. M. (2010). Conceptual application of the discrimination model of clinical supervision for direct care workers in adolescent residential treatment settings, Child Youth Care Forum, 29, 201

Cashmore, J., & Shackel, R. (2013). The long-term effects of child sexual abuse (CFCA Paper No. 11). Retrieved from <>.

Department of Human Services. (2013). Child Protection Practice Manual: Professional Supervision. Melbourne, Victoria: Department of Human Services. Retrieved from <,-youth-and-families/child-protection/child-protection-practice-manual-online>.

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Herman, M. (2012). Reflective practice meets youth work supervision, Youth & Policy, 109, 118-128.

Jenkinson, H. (2009). The importance and benefits of supervision in youth work practice. Child & Youth Services, 31(3/4), 157-169.

Lerner, R., & Steinberg, L. (2004). Handbook of adolescent psychology, (2nd Edition). Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Maas, K., & Ney, D. (2005).Consultation as a complement to the clinical supervision of youth care, CYC-Online, 77(June).

Martin, L. (2002) The invisible table: Perspectives on youth and youthwork in New Zealand. Auckland: Dunmore Press.

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Authors and Acknowledgements

This paper was developed by Rose Babic, Communications and Project Officer for Child Family Community Australia at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Feature image: #009, CC BY 2.0.

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CFCA Practitioner Resource
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, November 2014.
Last updated November 2014

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