Positive youth development: Another way of seeing teens

Teens live up to the positive or negative expectations they believe the adults in their lives have for them. Positive Youth Development is seeing positive potential for teens.

Brainwave Trust Aotearoa
Brainwave Trust Aotearoa

By Keryn O’Neill, Brainwave Trust Aotearoa

Teenagers. Let’s think about that for a minute. What images, thoughts, or feelings does thinking about teenagers conjure up?

‘Storm and Stress’

For a long time the teen years have been seen as a time of ‘storm and stress’. In this view, rangatahi are thought to cause problems – problems for themselves, and for those around them. Hormones are frequently blamed. Whānau and others need to cross their fingers and hope to make it out the other side. Preferably in one piece.

This view is widespread, and is reinforced by media, parents, and sometimes even ‘experts’ on adolescents.[i] Parents of young children sometimes dread their tamariki becoming teenagers.

This view has influenced the study of adolescents since early last century. These ideas began to change as researchers started to realise that most rangatahi actually do pretty well during this stage. New Zealand research found that about 80% of secondary school students were healthy and not engaging in high-risk behaviours.[ii]

Positive Youth Development

Fortunately, there is another way to look at this stage in a person’s life, known as positive youth development (PYD). This approach shifts our view of rangatahi. Instead of seeing them as ‘problems to be solved’, [iii] they are seen as ‘resources to be developed’. Rather than focusing on preventing problems, adults need to actively assist them to develop the skills they’ll need to thrive as adults. Just preventing young people from ‘getting into trouble’ is not enough.

Negative stereotypes: at what cost?

Critical talk about rangatahi can create self-fulfilling prophesies, as they ‘live up or down to the expectations they believe we hold for them’.[iv]

When we expect the worst, we are more likely to get it. Studies have shown that the more parents expect their teen to be rebellious and take risks, the more likely this is to actually happen. Similarly, parents who believed that their teen was likely to drink had teens who drank more.[v]

In other words, research suggests that not only are these negative stereotypes wrong much of the time, they can also contribute to poorer outcomes.[vi]

Nature and nurture

Human development is life-long, occurring as a result of both nature (the genes we are born with) and nurture (the environments, experiences, and relationships we have). How development progresses in adolescence is influenced by earlier development both during pregnancy and childhood. In turn, the relationships, experiences, and skills developed in adolescence will help shape the adults that rangatahi will become.

Teen parents

Negative stereotypes about teens appear to be stronger in relation to teens who become parents.[vii] While there are increased risks associated with teen parenthood, there are also different developmental pathways and adult outcomes for teen parents. Many teen mothers have positive adult outcomes.

When there are difficulties

Some rangatahi do experience difficulties. At times these are serious and require specialist help. Even when this is the case, their difficulties are one part of what’s happening for them; it is not the whole picture of who they are.

It’s important to understand that the difficulties some rangatahi experience are not an inevitable part of their development; they may have been heavily influenced by the people around them and their experiences growing up.[viii]


PYD focuses primarily on the strengths rangatahi have.[ix] Another way of thinking about it is seeing the ‘glass’ as ‘half-full’.[x]

Despite the issues some rangatahi face, they will also have strengths. When adults such as whānau, teachers and whānau supporters can recognise these assets and help to strengthen them, they are supporting rangatahi to reach their potential. Sometimes strengths are easy to notice – for example, skill on the netball court or rugby field. At other times, strengths can be harder to see, like loyalty to a friend or helping out whānau. Rangatahi whose strengths are harder to see might be those who most need an adult making the effort to find those strengths and acknowledge them.

One of the strengths of rangatahi is their ability to make changes and learn.[xi] While we can learn and change at any stage in the life-span, the plasticity of the adolescent brain means that it’s easier to do so at this stage than it will be later (see Adolescent parents who experienced early adversity).

The role of adults

To paraphrase John Donne, ‘No teen is an island’. Rangatahi are not developing in isolation, but as part of their wider whānau and community.

While there are some internally driven changes during this time – for example, to their bodies and brains (see Adolescent social and emotional changes) – the way this development unfolds also depends on their environment. There is a two-way relationship between rangatahi and their world.[xii] What they do affects those around them; equally, the experiences and relationships that rangatahi have, influence them.

Both the young person and their environment have strengths and resources that can contribute towards positive development.[xiii] How adults interact with young people influences their behaviour and development. This includes the things we can readily see, like behaviour, and those we may not see, like expectations. Effective social support provided by adults is a major asset for young people.[xiv]

What does this mean in practice?

  • For some, this may mean changing the ways in which we think, talk about, and behave with rangatahi.
  • It may also mean challenging the negative stereotypes and expectations about adolescents that are so common.
  • If difficulties arise — such as substance issues, mental health concerns, learning or behaviour difficulties — these need to be addressed. However, as with anyone, they should not be allowed to define the person, or young people in general.
  • An important role of adults is to recognise the strengths rangatahi already possess and support their ongoing development.


The PYD approach focuses on supporting young people to develop to their full potential by recognising their strengths and supporting them to develop further, as well as addressing problems when needed. Adults in the lives of rangatahi play a hugely important role in making the most of this period of development.


Buchanan, C. M., & Hughes, J. L. (2009). Construction of social reality during early adolescence: Can expecting storm and stress increase real or perceived storm and stress? Journal of Research on Adolescence, 19(2), 261–285.

Ginsburg, K. R., & Jablow, M. M. (2011). Building resilience in children and teens: Giving kids roots and wings (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Larson, R., & Tran, S. (2014). Invited commentary: Positive youth development and human complexity. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 43, 1012–1017.

Lerner, R. M., Agans, J. P., Arbeit, M. R., Chase, P. A., Weiner, M. B., Schmid, K. L., & Warren, A. E. A. (2013). Resilience and positive youth development: A relational developmental systems model. In S. Goldstein & R. B. Brooks (Eds.), Handbook of resilience in children (2nd ed., pp. 293–308). New York, NY: Springer.

Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., Almerigi, J. B., Theokas, C., Phelps, E., Gestsdottir, S., . . . Ma, L. (2005). Positive youth development, participation in community youth development programs, and community contributions of fifth-grade adolescents: Findings from the first wave of the 4-H study of positive youth development. Journal of Early Adolescence, 25(1), 17–71.

Masten, A. (2014). Invited commentary: Resilience and positive youth development frameworks in developmental science. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 43(6), 1018–1024.

Noel, H., Denny, S., Farrant, B., Rossen, F., Teevale, T., Clark, T., . . . Fortune, S. (2013). Clustering of adolescent health concerns: A latent class analysis of school students in New Zealand. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 49(11), 935–941.

Oxford, M. L., Gilchrist, L. D., Lohr, M. J., Gillmore, M. R., Morrison, D. M., & Spieker, S. J. (2005). Life course heterogeneity in the transition from adolescence to adulthood among adolescent mothers. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 15(4), 479–504.

Pittman, K. J., Irby, M., Tolman, J., Yohalem, N., & Ferber, T. (2003). Preventing problems, promoting development, encouraging engagement.http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= link)

Steinberg, L. (2016). Adolescence (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

This article is based on work conducted jointly by The Collaborative Trust for Research and Training in Youth Development(external link) and Brainwave Trust Aotearoa(external link)

End Notes

[i] Hall, 1904, cited by Lerner et al., 2005
[ii] Noel et al., 2013
[iii] Pittman et al., 2003
[iv] Ginsburg & Jablow, 2011, p. 339
[v] Buchanan & Hughes, 2009
[vi] Madon et al., 2006, cited by Steinberg, 2016
[vii] Oxford et al., 2005
[viii] Steinberg, 2016
[ix] Larson & Tran, 2014
[x] Pittman et al., 2003
[xi] Lerner et al., 2013
[xii] Larson & Tran, 2014
[xiii] Lerner et al., 2013; Masten, 2014
[xiv] Rhodes & Lowe, 2009, cited by Lerner et al., 2013