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A Shift in How We Think About and Work with Our Teenagers

During a recent trip home to Miami, I ran into a childhood friend in the grocery store that I hadn’t seen since high school. We shared a sweet moment as we caught up and talked about the highlights of our lives over the last 25 years. We covered the usual banter – mutual friends, places we lived, careers and family. We hugged, promised to keep in touch via Facebook, and went our separate ways.

As I walked away from that warm encounter, I reflected on all the good that has transpired in her life and was feeling a sense of gratitude. As I settled in and began to think about how she described her family, I paused.  I couldn’t help but think about how my friend talked about their teenager. “She’s great! She’s 17, not using drugs, goes to school, and for the most part, hasn’t given my husband and I a hard time.”  What stuck with me was how quickly I seemed to nod and agree that her daughter was doing great.

Now don’t get me wrong, as a social worker who has worked for nearly the last two decades with youth, I get that not using drugs, school attendance and lack of conflict between parents and their teenager is something to be grateful for. However, what gave me pause is that, as parents and caregivers, we often settle for the very minimum when it comes to describing why our teenager is successful. Characterizing success, as an absence of drug use and a lack of conflict with parents is certainly something to be grateful for, however, it doesn’t mean that our teenagers are engaged and thriving.

The last three decades have given us research that shows teenagers thrive when they are engaged in life. Positive Youth Development is a philosophy that focuses on strengths and positive outcomes rather than taking a deficit-based approach. It asks us to intentionally ally with teenagers and young adults to build on their strengths and develop all of the skills, values and connections that they need in order to be successful in their lives. Karen Pittman, a sociologist and founder of The Forum for Youth Investment, coined the phrase, “Problem-free isn’t fully prepared.”  Pittman was a founding leader in the Positive Youth Development movement and pushed for parents and communities to re-think the way we approach engaging with youth. The brilliance that Pittman lifted up is the intentional focus on a move away from “fixing” young peoples negative behavior and deficits to nurturing and building upon their strengths and helping teens to successfully transition into adulthood.

Pittman offers us the 6 C’s to use as a framework to think about nurturing teenagers’ strengths:

  1. Confidence – a sense of self-worth and mastery; having a sense of self-efficacy (belief in one’s capacity to succeed)

  2. Character – taking responsibility; a sense of independence and individuality; connection to principles and values

  3. Connection – a sense of safety, structure, and belonging; positive bonds with people and social institutions

  4. Competence – the ability to act effectively in school, in social situations, and at work

  5. Contribution – active participation and leadership in a variety of settings; making a difference

  6. Caring – a sense of sympathy and empathy for others; commitment to social justice

It seems easy enough but is often counter-intuitive to how many of us were raised to think about teenagers. As adults we have to retrain our commonly held beliefs about teenagers and young adults. And, more concretely, how do we put this into action? Pittman offers up three focus areas that help promote a positive development approach – Services, Opportunities, and Supports and suggests that these need to be lifted up and nurtured with youth in order for them to thrive:

  1. Services provide stability and satisfy basic needs, including health and instructional needs.

  2. Opportunities at home, in school, and in the community give youth developmentally appropriate ways to explore and experience new roles and skills.

  3. Supports are positive relationships, social structures, and resources.

Additionally, Beverly Therapists has a team of local professionals with decades of experience in offering young people and their families support to help teenagers successfully transition to adulthood!


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