Media reports often portray the adolescent years as fraught with danger. With family breakdown, teen pregnancy, violence, delinquency, and alcohol abuse stories in the news, parents may wonder how teenagers not only survive, but also thrive in the coming of age.
Progressive youth development theories say it takes a community to raise adolescents. A single parenting style, one school prevention program, and one community group cannot solve the problems of teen substance abuse, early sexual activity, school dropout, and violence. Instead, a continuum of services and opportunities involving parents, schools, neighborhoods, and communities is needed to help youth successfully navigate the sometimes tumultuous journey to adulthood.
More educators and program planners are adapting the youth development approach, designed to meet the needs of young people and help them develop inner resources so they can cope with pressures they experience in adolescence. Unlike prevention programs that focus on one problem, youth development programs highlight youth needs, strengths, and assets. The outcome is not only the prevention of undesirable behaviors, but also increased self-reliance and competence.
All young people have basic needs that are critical for development. With support, guidance, and opportunities for new experiences, youth can develop confidence in four areas that are essential to a successful adult life. These include a sense of competence and the ability to do something well; a sense of usefulness and an ability to contribute; a sense of belonging to a family, school, and community; and a sense of power and control over one’s life. In meeting these needs, the youth development approach motivates young people to make choices that foster their dreams for the future.
In addition to identifying the needs of young people, researchers have explored various protective factors that help to buffer the lure of risky behaviors, even for youth considered high-risk due to poverty and other disadvantaged circumstances. Parental supervision, a strong attachment between parent and child, and clear rules and expectations are protective factors. Young people who have a close relationship with their parents are more likely to have a higher grade point average and go to college.
Other important protective factors are a safe, caring, and supportive school environment, participation in school activities, friends who have conventional values, a supportive community, and religious commitment, regardless of denomination. Youth development programs are often designed to promote protective factors for young people.
Programs and Interventions
Adolescents, parents, and adults from the community should be involved in program planning and implementation for programs to be effective. Programs should also include educators, local government representatives, business people, health care providers, and social workers. Well established programs that foster youth development are the YMCA, YWCA, 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters. These programs promote learning experiences and help youth choose healthy lifestyles.
Other youth development programs might include an intergenerational mentoring program in nursing homes; family communication training; school-based health programs encompassing social, cognitive, and behavioral functioning; life skills training programs; and career mentoring with local business people. Effective programs combine many elements, such as mentoring, community service, and parent training or involvement.
All young people can benefit from youth development programs, but programs that offer counseling, prevention, education, and referral services are especially important for underserved disadvantaged youth who may receive little support from their family and school. These programs often work with the entire family to address certain issues. Social workers and educators may provide these services.
Some examples of interventions include an after-school program with positive, structured activities; peer counseling, mentoring, and tutoring programs for role modeling; community service programs to hold youth accountable for delinquent behavior; and support groups that may address anger management, conflict resolution, self-esteem, and other issues.
Interest in youth development programs is growing as young people, families, schools, and communities recognize the value and effectiveness of such programs. Everyone benefits when adolescents are viewed as resources and leaders. Youth learn and develop competence when they participate in youth development programs and schools and communities benefit from their energy and idealism. Each community must develop its own unique approach to support young people in their transition from adolescence to adulthood.