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Developmental Relationships: New Framework to Support Youth

Why we need to go beyond our basic understanding of a “good relationship.”

Source: mandybodbehear/DepositPhotos

The term developmental relationship may be new to you. If it is, the latest research will shed light on why it’s important to view relationships with young people through a developmental lens and how this may be different from what you have believed.

The Search Institute of Minneapolis is using the term developmental relationship to help parents, teachers, and youth mentors better understand their relational roles with youth. In their new research report, Reframing Developmental Relationships, the Institute argues that the term “relationship” isn’t descriptive or complex enough to fully support youth.

Founded in 1958 to benefit young people through scientific research, The Search Institute is most known for its 40 Developmental Assets framework, a collection of positive supports and strengths that young people need to succeed. Their work has always been geared toward helping families, schools, and communities build these assets in youth.

Everyone has their own intuitive idea of what defines a good relationship. Whether it’s a “feel-good” notion of the sense of closeness between a parent and child or a sense of pride that teachers may feel when students are successful, the definition of relationship is most often narrowly defined by each person in a child’s life.

"Relationship" is a simple term that is overused and misunderstood by many stakeholders. According to the report, it’s a term that is more complex than meets the eye and one that parents, teachers, and mentors should understand more fully.

The Search Institute defines developmental relationships as “trustworthy, purposeful relationships that help young people:

1) discover who they are

2) cultivate the abilities needed for them to shape their own lives

3) learn how to engage with and contribute to the world around them.”

Researchers conducted a series of interviews with leaders in developmental psychology as well as on-the-street interviews with the public to gain an understanding of how people perceived developmental relationships. They also conducted more than 6,000 surveys to test the effectiveness of a variety of frames of understanding.

Understanding Developmental Relationships

The results of the Search Institute study produced some eye-opening and unsettling results for those in the field of developmental psychology. They showed a big discrepancy between how relationship experts and the public view developmental relationships.

As Viewed by Experts

Experts in child psychology suggest that for relationships to contribute to children’s development, they should have five features:

  1. The relationship is a caring one.
  2. When challenges occur, those challenges lead to growth.
  3. The relationship is supportive.
  4. The power in the relationship is shared.
  5. The relationship expands the possibilities of those involved.

As View by Public

The research study showed that most people have a limited understanding of developmental relationships. The following were common public perceptions:

  1. Developmental relationships are one-directional, that of adults supporting youth rather than reciprocal, where both individuals grow and prosper together.
  2. The concept of “caring” is central to developmental relationships. However, the public saw this caring to the exclusion of other features of developmental relationships.
  3. Familial relationships are children’s primary developmental relationships, rather than viewing peer and other adult relationships as critical elements in children’s healthy development.
  4. Few people understood how social circumstances and children’s environments help or hinder the creation of developmental relationships, e.g. poverty, racial discrimination.
  5. Developmental relationships are shaped through motivation, specifically, whether the adults in a child’s life care enough about them to prioritize their development.

How is a Child’s Positive Development Fostered through Relationships?

It takes more than caring to help children and teens cultivate the abilities they need to thrive in school and life.

It takes parents, schools, and communities that are willing to redefine the meaning of developmental relationships and create environments that nurture genuine success.

As a developmental psychologist, this has been the focus of my work and research for more than a decade. Everyone seems to understand that relationships are a critical foundation for kids’ growth. But few go beyond the simplistic view of a caring relationship.

It’s important to dig deeper. How?

For Families

Families are a critical component of children’s healthy development. Family values reflect who you are and how you parent. When families articulate and live their values, children learn life lessons. They learn to express themselves, solve problems, grow from challenges, and develop other skills and abilities that lead to fulfilling lives. Parents learn too.

Research shows that families can create developmental relationships that help children grow core abilities, like curiosity, resilience, integrity, and empathy. Explore your family values and decide what you will give your children through the relationship you create with them.

For Schools and Communities

Schools and communities are rich sources of relationships and learning experiences for youth. But support for kids’ positive development is mostly fragmented. Collective impact for youth requires that communities come together to focus on positive development—to reframe and redefine what it means to form developmental relationships and how the structures and policies of organizations help this process.

For Youth Mentors

The relationships that kids form with mentors have been shown to have a profound influence on young people’s lives. In fact, a recent study showed that all teenagers need non-parent mentors.

Young people echoed aspects of the Search Institute’s definition of a developmental relationship, indicating that relationships were most successful when mentors didn’t see themselves merely as teachers, advisors, and role models, but instead considered themselves listeners, encouragers, supporters, and co-learners.

Teens are old enough to take some responsibility in creating their own successful mentoring relationships. They may need guidance on how to find a mentor and an understanding of how this kind of developmental relationship can benefit them.

Developmental Relationships Occur Everywhere

It is important to understand that developmental relationships not only occur at home. They can be formed with peers, teachers, after-school program leaders, community leaders, tutors, and mentors of all kinds.

In my book, Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation, I explored the nature of positive developmental relationships. Young people described the kinds of relationships that helped them discover themselves, foster abilities to pilot their own lives, and engage with and contribute to their communities.

The key is in understanding the integrated nature of children’s core relationships. While each relationship is different, each supports human development in similar ways.


O’Neil, M., Volmert, A., Pineau, M.G., & Levay K. (2019). Reframing Developmental Relationships. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.

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