This paper outlines some of the main findings from an exploratory study of a sample of 257 adolescents living in children's homes, foster homes and residential special schools ‘for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties’ (‘EBD’). It focuses on the characteristics of service users, particularly contrasting the looked after and EBD groups. Though there are some similarities, there are also important differences between the populations in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, reasons for separation, legal status, family background and education. An attempt was made systematically to compare groups by creating a subsample of ‘difficult’ adolescents, based on involvement in anti-social behaviour. Unexpectedly, this revealed that half of the teenagers were not ‘difficult’. Factors associated with being identified as ‘difficult’ were explored.