YouthZone column: Teens benefit from caring adult relationships beyond family boundaries

Keith Berglund

While there are exceptions, the predominant portrayal of family in today’s cinema, television, advertising and social media suggests parents should be able to support their children entirely within their own families. This is an unrealistic expectation, even in the healthiest of families.

A growing body of evidence indicates the most protective force in our children’s lives is the connection they have with family, but research also tells us that raising independent, well-rounded children in today’s complex society requires going beyond the parent-child relationship, beyond individual homes and out into wider circles of social interaction.

The time between childhood and adulthood is a difficult journey that is different for each person. Second only to the first years of life, the rapid development during adolescence includes a myriad of physical, cognitive and emotional changes.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, teens are in the process of identity formation. They are absorbed by questions of who they are, what ties them to others, and what makes them unique.

As adults, we know these internal questions persist throughout our lives as part of the human experience. What’s different for teenagers is that they are asking these questions about themselves for the very first time. Because they don’t yet have the life experience necessary to provide context or perspective during this process, young people need to be able to connect to non-parental adults and they need to be provided expanding space to live and grow.

A great deal of research supports the notion that these extra-familial relationships are key to the healthy growth and development of young people, but substantial portions of teens who report having these types of relationships still report that they often feel lonely, disconnected and unsure of themselves. The quality of the additional relationships influences the outcome.

In a recent study involving 671 U.S. parenting adults, researchers examined the most positively influential interactions between youth and adults (both familial and non-familial). They identified commonalities in these Developmental Relationships that help young people discover who they are, develop abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to engage and contribute to the world around them (Relationships First, Search Institute, 2017).

Researchers found the adults in these positive relationships were more likely to express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities (Don’t Forget the Families, Search Institute, 2015).

While these results underscore the power and importance of developmental relationships, they also suggest more is better when looking at how many of these influential engagements a teen has in his or her life. Just as a spider depends on its web for safety and sustenance, a teen depends on a web of developmental relationships to shape and influence many aspects of life.

We know that all relationships are not the same, and as children grow toward adulthood the adults they rely on will naturally change over time. It is to be expected that while some developmental relationships will fade, others will grow in influence. It is the sum of a young person’s developmental web of relationships throughout their journey to adulthood that determines the overall effect on his/her life.

In short, we don’t all need to be everything to every teen at all times. But each of us can be a part of some young person’s web.

YouthZone provides comprehensive assessment and advocacy to inspire healthy relationships between youth, families and communities. If you would like some advice or support regarding a teen your life, please give us a call at 970-945-9300.

Keith Berglund joined the YouthZone team as the assistant director in 2019. He earned a degree in marine biology from Occidental College. His first job as a middle school science teacher and basketball coach launched him on a career path that provided more than 25 years of experience as a teacher, youth mentor, public servant, nonprofit manager and Love and Logic facilitator.

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