Healthy Adolescent Development
Contemporary Catholic youth ministry draws on the wisdom of the human sciences to aid the promotion of healthy youth development. One of the primary resources for that wisdom today is the Search Institute of Minneapolis, MN and their list of "developmental assets." Through their research into the lives of young people today (including direct sampling of hundreds of thousands of adolescents in the United States), the Search Institute has been able to synthesize a large degree of sociological information into a very basic and easy-to-understand framework. In the words of the U.S. Bishops' document, Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry, "This model of healthy adolescent development offers practical direction for the Church's ministry today and in the future."
First and foremost, the Search Institute model is a positive model; in other words, it doesn't focus on the deficits and disturbances in the lives of young people. Rather, it concentrates on the ingredients which make for positive, healthy youth development. Attention is paid to what must be included in the lives of all young people, instead of what must be eliminated from a smaller sub-section of youth
Second, the assets are additive: the more a young person has, the more likely that they will continue to develop in healthy, pro-social ways.
Third, the assets are described as "community building blocks:" they are the responsibility of the entire community—families, schools, churches, civic groups, community organizations, etc. The development of healthy adolescents is the job of the entire community, not just the responsibility of care-givers in at-risk situations.
Two Key Images
To break down the overall list of forty assets , the Search Institute uses two over-arching categories, each containing four asset types. The large categories of twenty assets each are described as "Internal" and "External" assets.
Two key images can be used to explain these assets and the complementary importance of each to the other. Imagine a building under construction or renovation, especially one whose inner structure has been severely damaged. Often, the construction company will erect a scaffold around the building to support it and "hold it up" while the internal pieces are strengthened. Then, when it can stand on its own, the scaffold is removed, piece by piece, a little at a time.
As the building develops more of its internal structure, the external scaffolding is slowly removed. In many ways, adolescent development should take the same course. Each young person is developing an internal support structure—the other image here is "backbone" or "spine," as in describing a person of strong character as someone with "real backbone." But that construction cannot happen in a vacuum. He or she needs the support (scaffold) of family, school, church, and community for that development to take place.
Eventually, as a young person matures into young adulthood, more of the external supports are removed as the internal structure gains strength. Is this an apt description of the real situation in adolescent development today? It is a combination of decreased attention to the key internal supports young people need (backbone) without adequate external structure (scaffold). Or, in many cases, the scaffold is removed too quickly or is never adequately present to support the internal development.
Youth ministry and all youth-serving organizations can profit from the wisdom given by the Search Institute's Developmental Assets paradigm. Church communities, in particular, can do much to provide both the assets for which they are uniquely qualified as well the support and education needed to provide many of the other assets, especially in parent education program, constructive activities for young people, and direct youth involvement in skills development, social competencies, and adult role models.