Overview for Adolescents

Why Seven Challenges Works

Traditional approaches to working with adolescents with drug problems have produced high drop out rates and disappointing outcomes.

The mad rush to get youth to immediately say "I will quit" often leads to either increased defiance or increased dishonesty, with young people telling adults what they "want to hear." It also leads to failure among certain youth who follow adult directives to quit, but soon relapse because they have not laid a solid foundation for success.

Most young people do not seek drug treatment of their own free will. Most are dragged to counseling by their collars. By any definition, they are in the early stages of change. The Seven Challenges program starts where youth "are at" (usually resistant and reluctant to change), not where adults wish they might be or where young people often pretend to be -- ready, willing, and prepared to succeed with immediate abstinence.

Although the program strategy includes capturing any sincere impulse to quit, counselors avert power struggles and insincere commitments to change by striving for honesty and engagement instead of charging ahead with the "mad rush for abstinence." We avoid the pitfall of teaching people to be drug free before they have honestly decided to be drug free.

We also resist the temptation to follow the common practice of locking horns; trying to convince young people that they have problems, and backing them into defensive positions. Instead of fear and coercion, we harness the enormous power of education, finesse and respectful confrontation. We take the slow but steady approach.

Decision-Making/Making Changes

To succeed in working with youth, The Seven Challenges Program places a special emphasis on creating a climate of mutual respect within which individuals can talk openly and honestly about themselves. We engage young people in actively thinking about their use of alcohol or other drugs, and its effect upon their lives.

Working through The Seven Challenges helps them understand what needs they are meeting by using drugs, what harm they are causing, what risks they are taking, and what it entails to make changes. We raise consciousness, inspire hope, and motivate informed, internally driven, sincere decisions to change. Once such decisions are made, we teach the tools and provide the support that ensures success.

Co-Occurring Problems

People use drugs for a reason. We help young people identify their own motivation. Often they find that they use drugs to cope with situational or psychological problems, or to compensate for life skill deficits. Many people who develop drug problems are also struggling with unresolved trauma. Rather than presenting ourselves as antagonists who want to take drugs away from them, we reposition ourselves as problem-solving partners. We help them overcome their co-occurring problems. We empower youth to meet their needs in positive ways. This gives them the opportunity to consider the possibility of making changes and living well without depending on drugs.

Developmentally Appropriate

The Seven Challenges program was specifically designed for counseling adolescents and young adults. As young people think about and examine their lives, and their drug use, and the potential impact of their drug use upon their future, counselors help them master important developmental tasks - to define their own identity, to learn systematic logical thinking and to prepare for adults roles. This is built into the program. The Seven Challenges materials are also an important element of the Program, supporting the counseling process.

Cultural and Racial Diversity

The Seven Challenges was developed in the context of working with a racially, ethnically and culturally diverse group of youth, both male and female, so their experiences are actually incorporated in The Seven Challenges Book of Readings. The Program is not a set of pre-scripted psycho-social modules, but rather a program that requires responsiveness to the needs of the youth and family served at the moment. This requires interpersonal awareness and awareness of diversity. In counselor training for The Seven Challenges, the emphasis is on staying attuned to the needs of the particular youth and family being served, and making the counseling relevant to their needs. This means the program is designed to recognize, acknowledge and accommodate youth of diverse backgrounds with diverse demographics. While working on Challenge Five, youth are assisted in understanding the ways in which the world around them impacts them, so that individual behavior is put in a social context. The Seven Challenges can be described as an empowerment model, moving away from a model that puts excessive blame on the individual, with a clear message to youth: You can do it. This message is often important for minority groups, struggling to overcome negative social forces under which they may operate.

Counseling Settings

The Seven Challenges Program is exceptionally flexible and has been implemented in a wide array of counseling settings, including outpatient, intensive outpatient, residential, day treatment and home-based. It is also used in public and private schools, drug courts, juvenile justice settings and wilderness/experiential programs.  Because the Program allows flexibility in the frequency and length of sessions, and integration with other counseling work, providers have an opportunity to be creative while also matching the intensity of work with their client's severity of problems.

Counseling Modalities

Seven Challenges youth sessions can be conducted in individual or group sessions. Sessions incorporate work on drug issues, life skill deficits, and co-occurring issues, with frequency of sessions commensurate with intensity of the problem. Family/multi-family sessions are integrated in a comprehensive Seven Challenges Program. Because The Seven Challenges Program promotes openness in relationships, trauma issues are often exposed. Skill building for trauma recovery on such issues as safety, trust, boundaries, and excessive self blame are incorporated in this program.


Independent studies funded by The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment in Washington, D.C. and published in peer reviewed journals -- one study at the University of Iowa and the other at the University of Arizona -- have provided evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of The Seven Challenges as a "co-occurring" program that significantly decreases the substance use of adolescents and greatly improves their overall mental health status. Data also show that the program has been especially effective with the large number of substance abusing youth who have trauma issues.

The published materials for counselors and young people, combined with supporting documents, effective training, ongoing support and monitoring from The Seven Challenges team, have proven to be effective in replicating the successful outcomes noted in the research. The SAMHSA National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices, (NREPP) gave Seven Challenges a perfect score for "Readiness for Dissemination." 

The Seven Challenges

We decided to open up and talk honestly about ourselves and about alcohol and other drugs.


We looked at what we liked about alcohol and other drugs, and why we were using them.


We looked at our use of alcohol and other drugs to see if it has caused harm or could cause harm.


We looked at our responsibility and the responsibility of others for our problems.


We thought about where we seemed to be headed, where we wanted to go, and what we wanted to accomplish.


We made thoughtful decisions about our lives and about our use of alcohol and other drugs.


We followed through on our decisions about our lives and drug use. If we saw problems, we went back to earlier challenges and mastered them.

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