Managing risk behaviours

A critical issue in youth peer-based programs is the management of risk behaviours while at the same time maintaining active youth engagement. If participants are engaged in risky behaviour that impacts on or influences others within the group it is important to address the situation in order to avoid negative peer influences. However this must be done carefully as addressing the issue may alienate the young person involved in the incident and discourage them from continued access. Disciplinary procedures may hamper the service’s ability to positively influence the young person’s behaviour (e.g. by being asked to leave the program) and may also disrupt the group dynamic.


Situation: Occasions of dealing with the ‘contagion effect’ of negative role modeling by a young person who is more influential than others in a negative way have been reported to be an issue in a peer support program offering weekend camps for youth at risk of poor mental health and suicide. This can be exemplified with a case dealing with the issue of the contagious effect of eating disorders among participants. The negative behaviour was elicited by one young girl who was quite severely affected by an anorexia disorder and who was a bit older than the other girls in the group. Because the younger girls looked up to her and admired her a lot they wanted to be like her and as a result started to abstain from food at meal times on several subsequent occasions. Not being used to the deprivation of food the girls consequently became very ill, experiencing severe migraines, nausea and shock.

Issue: During the camp the issue was attempted to be resolved by addressing the concern with the participants involved focusing on the risks of food abstinence and eating disorders. However, as no policies existed to handle these types of issues, the program facilitators were limited in their action and only able to ask the young people to eat and to be sensible, which did not have a great impact.

Response: For future camps a clear and transparent approach was chosen. New policies were implemented that outlined the consequences of negative behaviours and role modeling, i.e. sending participants home if staff address the issue with them and no change in behaviour is observed.


Screening young people before the start of a program is a recommended approach to prevent similar issues from happening. Referring the young person who is role modeling the negative behaviour to appropriate support services is another step that may be considered if similar issues should arise when the program is already running.