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Give Teens a Break, Say Researchers

Too Many Studies Focus on Teens' Woes, Ignore Positive Traits
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WebMD Health News

Jan. 21, 2005 -- Teens often get a bad rap, and Richard Lerner, PhD, wants to change that. It's time to focus on teenagers' positive traits, not just their flaws, says the Tufts University researcher and his colleagues.

You've probably heard over and over again about the dark side of adolescence. Many studies of teens focus on scary topics like drug abuse, smoking, crime, school drop-out rates, and teen pregnancy. When good news comes along, it's usually just the flip side of something bad, such as fewer teenagers using illicit drugs or getting pregnant.

Those studies are certainly important, but they're not the whole picture.

"What we're doing is changing the way Americans look at teenagers, and focusing on the strengths and successes of this population," says Lerner in a news release. "For the first time, we're asking the positive questions instead of the negative ones."

The focus should be more toward the concept that every youth has the potential for successful, healthy development and that all youths possess the capacity for positive development, writes Lerner.

Tracking Positive Traits

Working with a $2.3 million grant from the National 4-H Council, Lerner's team is studying positive development in adolescence. Their first report appears in February's Journal of Early Adolescence.

Participants were 1,700 fifth graders in 13 states. More than 1,100 of their parents also joined in.

About 58% of the students were white, 18% were Hispanic, and 8% were black. The other students included Native Americans (4%), Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders (3%), and multiethnic or multiracial youth (nearly 6%).

Most students came from families earning at least $45,000 per year. The biggest group -- almost 29% -- came from families with annual incomes of more than $80,000.

The 5 C's

The study focused on five traits for positive youth development:

  • Competence -- a positive view of one's actions
  • Confidence -- an internal sense of overall self-worth and efficacy
  • Character -- respect for society and cultural rules
  • Connection -- positive bonds with people and institutions
  • Caring (or compassion) -- a sense of sympathy and empathy for others

They're called the 5 C's, for short.

Later, another facet was added to their model for youth development/youth contribution. This connects the youth with a committed adult in the community who provides skill-building opportunities and helps enhance the teen's social connection.

According to Lerner, what leads a youth toward an idealized adulthood is one marked by contributions to self, family, and community.

Questions covered the students' current traits and behavior as well as their ideals. For instance, one question asked participants, "If you imagine yourself doing really well in all areas of your life, what would you be like? What sorts of things would you do?"

The answers, scored by researchers, show the power of the 5 C's. Participants generally reported positive, healthy behaviors. Girls had slightly higher contribution scores than boys. Race and ethnicity didn't matter.

"We're finding that our children are progressing well, regardless of race and ethnicity," says Lerner in the news release.

That's just the beginning. The project will continue for a long-term perspective. For now, Lerner has the first snapshot of positive youth development. The next step: expanding the study to include sixth and seventh graders in 20 states.

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