Currently, the risk-oriented focus in forensic youth care is increasingly complemented by a growing interest in strengths-based approaches. Knowledge on how detention and the subsequent period in the community is experienced by adolescents, and which elements are helpful in achieving better lives can contribute to this emerging field. The current study aimed to retrospectively explore adolescents’ experiences from the moment they were detained until 6 to 12 months after they left the institution, identifying positive aspects and strengths.
In-depth interviews were conducted with 25 adolescents (both boys and girls, 15–18 years old) on average 8 months after discharge from a closed institution in Belgium. A thematic analysis was performed using NVivo 11.
Five themes and corresponding subthemes were identified: (1) adolescents’ own strengths and resilience, (2) re-building personally valued lives, (3) making sense of past experiences, (4) moving away from a harmful lifestyle, and (5) (in-)formal supports. Most adolescents are on their way to finding a new balance in life, however, for a subgroup of them, this is still fragile. Adolescents highly emphasize the importance of feeling closely connected to at least one person; to receive practical help with regard to finances, work and housing; and to be able to experience pleasure and joy in their lives.
Adolescents’ narratives suggest that starting a journey towards a normative good life often goes along with an initial difficult period because of a sense of loss with regard to their former life. This stresses the importance of targeting rehabilitation towards prosocial goals and enhancing adolescents’ quality of life on those life domains that matter most for them. Furthermore, we stress the importance of helping adolescents in overcoming structural barriers as a first step in supporting them in their trajectories towards better lives.