Healthy Growth in Young People: Exploring Developmental Relationships

Posted on November 28th, 2018 4:50pm
By: adrian

Healthy Growth in Young People:
Exploring Developmental Relationships
Written By: Nick Mehring

It’s a common sense idea that having many strong relationships is a positive aspect of someone’s life and a key contributor to healthy development. As a study conducted by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child concluded: relationships are the active ingredient of the environment’s influence on healthy human development [1]. Knowing this, the Search Institute has recently set out to conduct and publish large empirical studies to find out just how important strong relationships are to the developing child. Much like their work on developmental assets, they’ve
published a framework featuring five elements of a strong relationship that are expressed in twenty specific actions — we’ll talk about these a little later on [2]. Briefly, the five elements critical to a strong relationship are: to express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities.

According to the Search Institute, a strong relationship is defined as one where each of these elements are felt often or very often, on average [2]. For healthy, optimal development to occur, the chid must be a participant in a relationship characterized by increasingly complex patterns of reciprocal activity with someone whom they have developed a strong emotional attachment to [1]. Take a child learning to dive into the deep end of a pool for the very first time as an example. What makes that child gain the ability and confidence to dive in is not a parent who simply throws them in kicking and screaming and hopes it turns out ok. Each step — from first getting into the shallow end with a trusted parent, to learning how to float unsupported, to then swimming freely in the deep end — eventually leads to a place where the child has gained the skills and confidence necessary to independently dive-in head first. In this example, you can see how the child would be participating in a dyadic relationship where the parent’s guidance allows the child to accomplish more than if the parent were not present. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky called this phenomena the Zone of Proximal Development [1].

According to research done by Junlei Li and Megan Julian, human development is best promoted when developmental relationships are present and supported [1]. In other words, children reach that Zone of Proximal Development more often when they are supported by people who they identify as having a strong relationship with. Again, this seems like common-sense, however don’t make the mistake of thinking this concept is overly simplistic. There are a lot of factors that go into making a relationship “strong” (according to the Search Institute’s definition) and the consequences of either having or not having strong relationships are drastic. As stated so poignantly by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, developmental relationships have the largest effect on predicting success and well-being in a young person’s life: “Whether the burden comes from the hardships of poverty, the challenges of parental substance abuse or serious mental illness, the stresses of war, the threats of recurrent violence or chronic neglect, or a combination of factors, the single most common finding is that children who end up doing well have had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult [2].” The positive effects are significantly greater when there are more than just one caring adult present in a young person’s life. As the Search Institute shows, young people do best when their are strong, positive relationships in all the different aspects of their lives and are more likely to show positive development in areas including academic motivation and social-emotional growth [1].

Parents represent the relationship that is most likely to be the strongest relationship in a young person’s life. Youth who experience a strong parental relationship are more likely to report greater social-emotional strengths, higher academic motivation and a stronger civic commitment [1]. In fact, the research goes as far as to show that parent-youth relationships explain about 62% of the variance in these personal strengths. In comparison, demographic factors like gender, age, race- ethnicity, and perceived family financial strain account for only about 2 to 4% of the difference among youth in these areas [2].

Sadly, the data collected in these studies has shown that one in five youth report having no strong relationships in their life and 40% of youth report having none or just one strong relationship — an unfortunate reality that needs to be looked at in greater depth [2]. As Junlei Li and Megan Julian concluded in their study, the research clearly supports the idea that developmental relationships should become the focal point for efforts that are intended to produce meaningful developmental change in a young person [1]. Teachers, educators, parents, coaches and caregivers should really strive to think about how to improve their relationships with young people in a way that strengthens them according to the framework which the Search Institute has established. To conclude, I’ll end this post with the Search Institute’s published list — the five elements that make up a strong relationship and the twenty specific actions that support these elements and lead to healthy development in young people. When you’re reading these, think about the ways that you display these actions on a regular basis to a child in your life as well as some areas for personal improvement.

1. Express Care — show me that I matter to you.
– Be dependable and someone I can trust
– Listen and pay attention to what I’m saying when we’re together – Believe in me
– Be warm
– Encourage and praise me for my efforts

2. Challenge Growth — push me to keep getting better. – Expect my best
– Stretch; push me to go further
– Hold me accountable
– Reflect on failure and help me learn from my mistakes

3. Provide Support — help me complete tasks and achieve goals. – Navigate; offer me guidance through hard situations
– Empower me
– Advocate; stand up for me when it’s needed
– Set boundaries and place limits that help keep me on track

4. Share Power — treat me with respect and give me a say. – Respect me
– Include me in decisions that affect me
– Collaborate; work with me to help me reach my goals
– Let me lead; offer opportunities for me to take action and lead

5. Expand Possibilities — connect me with people and places that broaden my world. – Inspire me to see possibility in my future
– Broaden horizons; expose me to new ideas, experiences, and places
– Connect; introduce me to people who can help me grow

Works Cited:

[1] Li, Junlei, and Megan M. Julian. “Developmental Relationships as the Active Ingredient: A Unifying Working Hypothesis About ‘What Works’ Across Intervention Settings.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 82, no. 2 (2012): 157-66. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.2012.01151.x.
[2] Search Institute. “What We’re Learning About Developmental Relationships.” https:// relationships/
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