How a developmental relationships outlook can help us face our uncertain future

By Ben Houltberg, Ph.D., LMFT, President and CEO, Search Institute

Promoting resilience for young people is critical in the months ahead. This process begins with a clear definition of what it is and what it is not.

Resilience Through Relationships 

Let’s start with what resilience is not.

Resilience is not a character strength that emerges from individual determination or effort. It can be easy to view resilience this way. After all, there are countless blockbuster movies and bestseller books that capture the hero’s journey to overcome insurmountable odds. We are often drawn in by such stories in ways that cause us to lose sight of the context that made resilience possible. This individualistic view of resilience minimizes the reality of the significant barriers faced by historically marginalized youth. It also obscures the importance of systemic change for promoting resilience.

However, the science of resilience over the past 40 years has led to a multisystemic view of resilience. For children and youth in particular, resilience emerges from multiple positive relationships and access to resources across multiple systems (for example, family, school, neighborhood, and community). Although young people’s own strengths contribute to resilient communities, it is impossible to be resilient independent of relationships and without access to basic necessities. Positive and supportive relationships address the innate need of young people to feel valued, seen, and safe, especially in the midst of adversity and/or trauma. We cannot underestimate the importance of cultivating connections that nourish and strengthen young people in these most challenging times.

Creating Thriving Climates 

We also know that close connections do more than promote resilience. They also help young people discover who they are, gain abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to interact with and contribute to the world around them.

Developmental relationships provide the foundation of support and care for young people while also creating opportunities for young people to realize and act on their own gifts. Our research has identified five key elements of developmental relationships that promote positive youth development. These are:

  • Express Care (Show me that I matter to you.)
  • Provide Support (Help me complete tasks and accomplish goals.)
  • Challenge Growth (Push me to get better.)
  • Share Power (Treat me with respect and give me a say.)
  • Expand Possibilities (Connect me with people and places that broaden my world.)

When young people experience these elements in their relational networks, they are more likely to have interactions that are responsive to their unique developmental needs, provide predictability and safety, and create opportunities to develop important competencies connected to a sense of purpose in the world.

We have also found that developmental relationships coupled with programs’ intentional efforts to expand social networks and provide resources build social capital and help young people to make progress toward their education and career goals.

Rooted in Relationships  

In 2017, Search Institute joined forces with five national and regional youth-serving organizations and networks. We spent three years together, learning what it takes to create a relationship-rich program and/or organization.

Through a process of getting continuous iterative feedback from practitioners, conducting interviews with leaders and  practitioners, and conducting an extensive literature review, we created the Rooted in Relationships model.

We have continued to strengthen the model through research findings and have found two critical components that shape the relational culture of organizations. These are Supporting Structures and Relational Climate.

  • Supporting Structures are organizational structures that support and sustain relationship building, including mission, values, shared vision, staff hiring, training and retention practices, and budget allocations.
  • Relational Climate is the felt experience of young people, staff, and families who enter the building and the social norms around relationships that make them intentional, inclusive, and equitable.

Relationships happen within content and program delivery, and in all the spaces that surround those activities. As such, an intentional focus on relationships is not a separate, add-on strategy. Rather, it must be integrated into what an organization already does. In this way, we can become architects of the contexts in which young people live.

Doing this requires a collective effort from leaders, practitioners, teachers, families, and communities committed to systemic change.

Together we can create relationship-rich spaces that promote resilience, focus on healing from trauma, and allow all young people to thrive.

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