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‘I don't trust you, you are going to tell’, adolescents with emotional and behavioural disorders participating in qualitative research


  • Freya Vander Laenen is professor in criminology. Her PhD dealt with developing demand-driven drug prevention policy, utilizing a youth-centred methodology and working with vulnerable young people. She has published work on international and Belgian drug policy.

Freya Vander Laenen, Ghent University, Department of Criminal Law and Criminology, Universiteitstraat 4, Gent B-9000, Belgium


Background  Some groups of young people are considered difficult to reach and study. One such group consists of adolescents with emotional and behavioural disorders (EBD), who have problems with verbal intelligence, thought focussing and paying attention. During a 2-year research study into the preferences of adolescents with EBD regarding drug prevention policy, the author examined these young people's opinions and their experience of participation in research.

Methods  A qualitative, youth-centred method was used, combining group techniques (focus groups, nominal group techniques and feedback sessions) and involving 160 adolescents, aged 12–21 years, with EBD, living in residential settings of the disability sector.

Results  It is possible to carry out qualitative research with young people with EBD. This population is very vulnerable, negatively influenced by their previous experiences and by the social group that they belong to. They have an aversion to ‘being studied’, and their self-esteem and confidence are low. However, it is possible to build up trust.

Conclusions  It has become clear that there is no reason for excluding adolescents with EBD from participation in research. Research is possible and successful, providing sufficient effort is put into building up trust with these emotionally scarred young people.