Since the advent of efforts in the 1800s to intervene with struggling teens and their families, we have learned a great deal about what to do—and what not to do—to be helpful. In recent decades we have learned much about the ways in which properly run schools and programs can have profoundly useful, meaningful, and lasting positive influences on struggling teens and their families.
We now have considerable accumulated wisdom about the wide range of different ways to help struggling teens and their families. This wisdom comes from rigorously conducted, formal research studies, professional experience, in-depth media reports, and compelling first-person accounts. Considered together, this rich fund of knowledge paints a picture of state-of-the art “best practices.” These best practices are rooted in a collaborative, respectful focus on the basic human rights, strengths, and resilience of teens and their families.
Evidence suggests that the strengths perspective is a constructive approach to helping struggling teens and their families. Briefly, it focuses on what is “right” with people rather than on what is wrong. It identifies, builds upon, and amplifies people’s strengths, resilience, and resources. While it recognizes and acknowledges people’s problems (such as mental illness, physical disability, poverty, legal troubles), the strengths perspective views these as challenges and as needs to be addressed, not as deficits, pathologies, or character flaws. From a strengths perspective, adolescence, like every developmental period throughout the life course, poses unique challenges that are opportunities for growth. Many of these challenges are predictable and need not be seen as pathology. This nonpunitive, nonblaming, nonshaming approach identifies and harnesses people’s competence, resources, and capacities so they are better able to propel themselves toward positive goals. Substance abuse, mental health issues, school failure, and other challenges are opportunities for teens, families, schools, and communities to collaborate in pursuing a shared vision for the future.
A growing consensus in the helping professions is that a strengths perspective undergirds effective intervention. The strengths perspective does not condone or sanction misbehavior; rather, the strengths perspective recognizes misbehavior as an attempt to cope and solve problems, albeit perhaps a misguided one, and seeks to help the teen find more suitable behaviors and effective coping skills.
The strengths perspective is built on a series of core principles:
- Every individual has strengths.
Professionals who use the strengths perspective identify, mobilize, and respect the resources, assets, wisdom, and knowledge that every person has. They view people as able to marshal these strengths to accomplish their goals.
- Trauma, abuse, illness, and struggle, while sources of difficulty and challenge, can also be sources of opportunity for growth and change.
Negative experiences can yield knowledge, wisdom, insight, and compassion for others. This does not mean that scars and pain are not legitimate; of course they merit attention and validation. It does mean that humans who weather adversity are resilient, resourceful survivors who can cull meaning and skills from their travails. People who slog through suffering use their coping skills and can learn from their experience.
- Individual goals matter.
By aligning with the hopes, values, aspirations, and visions of teens and their families, professionals can help people enhance their promise and possibilities. Emphasizing people’s limitations makes it difficult for them to identify and pursue goals. Labels (“He’s paranoid,” “She’s an ADHD kid,” “He’s a schizophrenic,” “She’s an addict”) can become verdicts or life sentences that impede people’s self-perception and negatively shape others’ beliefs about what is possible. Separating the person from the diagnosis acknowledges that illnesses and disabilities do not define the person—they are merely conditions the person has.
- Professionals serve people best by collaborating with them as colleagues on the intervention team.
The therapist who uses a strengths perspective may have specialized education, tools, and experience to offer but is also open to the wisdom, knowledge, and experience of the teen and her family. The therapist works with the teen and family members rather than on their cases. The goals of the consumer, not the professional, are primary, and consumers’ voices are heard and valued at all levels of intervention and in policy advocacy.
- Every environment is full of resources.
Regardless of how poverty ridden or chaotic, every environment has individuals, families, informal groups, associations, and organizations that may be willing to provide help. Given the opportunity, they may contribute needed assets and resources. Once recognized and recruited, partnerships and strengths available in the community can be highly constructive.
- Caring, caretaking, and context are vitally important.
Caring is essential to human well-being. Professionals can facilitate the processes by which families, groups, and communities provide care for each other.
A key feature of the strengths perspective is that it acknowledges normal developmental trends and challenges in a teen’s life. An especially important aspect of this developmental perspective is that it recognizes that the teenage brain is in the process of formation, so impulsive and irrational behavior, difficulty foreseeing consequences, decision-making gaffes and mishaps, and feelings of invulnerability are predictable, normal teenage phenomena. The human frontal lobe evolves on its own timetable and is implicated in problem solving, spontaneity, impulsivity, memory, initiative, judgment, and social and sexual behavior; significant brain maturation occurs from the teenage to the young adult years. Teens need adults to help them stay physically and emotionally safe so their brains have time to mature. Harsh discipline, “tough love,” and abusive words do not speed up this process. Instead, they can compromise the developmental process.
Programs and schools for struggling teens should recognize that one of their functions is to keep struggling teens emotionally and physically safe in an incubator that is nurturing and challenging academically, socially, and emotionally. Verbal haranguing, shaming, and blaming cannot hasten physiological brain maturation. A quality program or school seeks to maintain this developmental perspective.
 For in-depth discussion of the strengths perspective, see Dennis Saleebey (ed.), The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice, 4th ed. Boston: Pearson Education.