"The resilient child is one who works well, plays well, loves well, and expects well."
When we talk about youth, we too often use negative terms: what we would like them to stop doing. We want them to stop using drugs, stop drinking, stop dropping out of school, stop having sex, stop getting pregnant, stop being violent, and stop committing other delinquent acts. In short, we would like them to stop having problems - and stop being problems.
When we focus only on youth problems, we may begin to think of youth only as problems. We all want to reduce risk factors, but if that is all our community programs do, we assume that the absence of risky behaviors automatically assures positive growth. That is a risky proposition. Our programs and policies should not be restricted simply to preventing youth problems or treating problems after they occur. We should aim to create positive outcomes - to build strengths and resiliency - to provide youth with protection against the risks they face.
Creating Positive Action Strategies
Youth development seeks to take prevention a step beyond risk reduction by turning a narrow focus on negative risk factors into positive action strategies. Whether developing community programs or setting national policy, we sometimes think we can provide youth with development activities only after we have eliminated their problems through prevention or "fixed" their problems through treatment. That is a mistake.
In fact, thinking that treatment and prevention must precede youth development can be most damaging to so-called "at-risk" youth who may need these programs the most. We place priority on treating and reducing risk factors for at-risk youth because we think their problems are the most serious. If we get around to supporting youth development programs for these youngsters, we do so only after we have provided treatment and sought to reduce risk. Youth development comes to be viewed as a last step: beneficial but not essential, nice but not necessary. As we design programs in our neighborhoods and in our nation's capital, the question becomes which problem to prioritize and which "at-risk" youth to make eligible (and thus, which youth to exclude).
Meeting Needs and Building Competencies
We need to shift our thinking. We need to stop thinking of youth problems as the principal barrier to youth development and start thinking of youth development as the most effective strategy for preventing youth problems. At its most basic, youth development means purposely seeking to meet youth needs and build youth competencies relevant to enabling youth to become successful adults. This is nothing new. Twenty years ago, the Youth Development and Delinquency Prevention Administration in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare identified those relevant needs as: a sense of competence, a sense of usefulness, a sense of belonging, and a sense of power or potency.
Helping Young People Reach Their Goals
Today, proponents of youth development still see the reduction of existing problems through prevention as vitally important. But they also hold that while we develop strategies to prevent dangerous activities, we must be equally adamant about stating positive goals that we wish all young people to achieve and then begin helping them to reach those goals. They see youth development as an ongoing process that promotes positive outcomes for all youth. Youth development programs are important for youngsters who have not taken their first drink and for teenagers already undergoing treatment for drug addiction. Kids from inner-city, lower-income families need to have the same needs met and acquire the same competencies as their peers from suburban and upper-income neighborhoods. When needs are not met and competencies are not acquired, any young person can be "at-risk."
Critical Components of Youth Development
Even in the face of limited family and community support, all young people will seek ways to meet their basic needs and gain the competencies and skills necessary to move from adolescence to adulthood. The two critical components are meeting needs and building competencies.
Young people have basic needs critical to survival and healthy development. Successful youth development programs purposely address these needs in their program design. If families cannot and communities will not provide positive ways for young people to meet their needs, young people will strive to meet them on their own - and not always in positive ways. As you look at the youth development needs listed below, think about how juvenile gangs answer each of the needs for their members.
To become successful adults, young people need a sense of:
- safety and structure
- belonging and membership
- self-worth, status, and an ability to contribute
- independence, autonomy, and control over their lives
- closeness and several good relationships
- competence and mastery