The guidance and approaches in the Adolescent Kit revolve around a number of key understandings about adolescents in humanitarian situations and vulnerable development contexts. While their experiences are extremely diverse, adolescents may share certain challenges and opportunities during times of crisis.

Adolescence is a critical period of development, a time of physical, cognitive, behavioural and psychosocial change. In crises, adolescents may be forced to navigate the complexities of this phase of development on their own – jeopardising their healthy development into adulthood, and holding them back from reaching their potential.

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In humanitarian situations...

Adolescents may become less visible some as a result of trafficking, recruitment into fighting forces, child marriage, or seeking livelihood opportunities elsewhere. Others (especially girls) may be confined to their homes due to social norms, safety concerns or social stigma. And if adolescents are counted as adults in situation analyses, they may be forgotten.

Adolescents face risks to their health, their development and their lives. Conflict and natural disasters put adolescents at risk of injuries and death from violence or accidents. Malnutrition may limit their physical growth, while experiences of protracted violence, anxiety or isolation may disrupt their cognitive development. Separation from families or caregivers and loss of access to education, health care and livelihood opportunities may jeopardise their healthy development into adulthood.

Adolescents are vulnerable to violence, abuse and neglect. They may be at risk of recruitment into fighting forces, exploitative labour, child marriage, and sexual and gender-based violence. Girls, especially, may be at risk of rape and sexual exploitation, often at the hands of fighting forces, community members or humanitarian workers.

Adolescent girls and boys have different experiences and face different risks and opportunities. They take on the roles of adult women and men at an earlier age and with less support and protection than they might receive in stable contexts. All forms of violence against women and girls increase during emergencies. Yet humanitarian situations may also offer opportunities to transform gender roles, including those that can be harmful or restricting for adolescent girls and boys.

Adolescents with disabilities face significant barriers to accessing support. They may lack basic assistive devices, such as crutches, wheelchairs, glasses or hearing aids, and may be excluded from programmes or confined to their homes due to limited mobility, stigma and discrimination.

Adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health is vulnerable. Inadequate access to contraception and adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health services, limited awareness about safe sex, and the risk of child marriage mean that adolescents are often vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV/AIDS) and early pregnancies.

Adolescents may take on adult roles before they are ready – heading households, supporting their families financially, being married and having children. This can limit their access to programmes and services, including schooling and health care, and put them in situations that they are unprepared for developmentally. It can lead to isolation, as family and work responsibilities mean less time spent in school or other places where they can interact with friends.

Crises may give rise to tensions between adolescents and adults. Adults may be concerned about adolescents challenging traditional roles or see them as troublemakers. There may be limited acceptance of young people’s right to express their views or participate in decision-making.

Adolescents affected by crises often have the same interests and concerns as those living in stable contexts. Even as they are deprived of a normal life, they remain interested in friendships, romantic relationships, sexuality, health, popular culture and the world around them.

Most adolescents can recover their psychosocial health and overcome difficult experiences. Adolescents have deeply upsetting emotional experiences in humanitarian situations, including loss, grief, fear, horror and despair. Yet the vast majority of those who survive crises demonstrate considerable resilience and are able to bounce back after stressful experiences.

Adolescents have a valuable role to play in humanitarian response. They can contribute in a range of ways – from participating in emergency assessments to supporting interventions like mobile clinics or distributing relief items, caring for separated children and forming clubs to protect and support other young people. They often bring great energy, enthusiasm and creativity to improving their communities.

Adolescents can find opportunities to make lasting, positive changes. They can play active roles as peacemakers in their communities, and help disrupt cycles of violence, conflict and discrimination that pass from one generation to the next. They can help transform traditional norms, including discriminatory beliefs and practices around gender. As adolescents take on new roles and responsibilities, they can change the way adults see them – and help transform attitudes toward young people.

And in the process, adolescents can develop new skills and gain new knowledge to improve their own lives and help them in their transition to adulthood.

Read more about adolescents in humanitarian situations in the Foundation Guide (p. 7)