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Feature Article


Helping your teenager be successful

Marilyn Preston, MA, Human Services Administration and Lucy Schrader, Building Strong Families Program Coordinator, University of Missouri Extension


Any parent or person who works with teenagers knows that adolescence can be a tough time. Adults can sometimes feel like adolescents are always facing a crisis, or are worried about school, self-esteem and their future. It may be frustrating to parents and other caring adults to find ways to talk to and support teenagers through hard times. However, there are some guidelines that can help.


The Search Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps children, youth and communities, has spent years looking for ways for families and communities to help teens become strong adults. The Search Institute has created a list called “The 40 Developmental Assets,” which highlights strengths that helps teens grow to be healthy and responsible adults.


Internal assets are things that individuals already have or can learn to have, like self-esteem and motivation to do well in school. External assets are strengths and resources that families and communities can provide, like parents listening when a teen is talking and neighbors who care about the teen. These assets help teens feel safe and explore the world around them in a healthy way. Following are the assets and ideas for how to use them in your family.


External assets



  • Family support - Family life provides high levels of love and support.
  • Positive family communication - Young person and her or his parent(s) communicate positively, and young person is willing to seek advice and counsel from parents.
  • Other adult relationships - Young person receives support from three or more nonparent adults.
  • Caring neighborhood - Young person experiences caring neighbors.
  • Caring school climate - School provides a caring, encouraging environment.



  • Community values youth - Young person perceives that adults in the community value youth.
  • Youth as resources - Young people are given useful roles in the community.
  • Service to others - Young person serves in the community one hour or more per week.
  • Safety - Young person feels safe at home, school and in the neighborhood.


Boundaries and expectations

  • Family boundaries - Family has clear rules and consequences and monitors the young person’s whereabouts.
  • School boundaries - School provides clear rules and consequences.
  • Neighborhood boundaries - Neighbors take responsibility for monitoring young people’s behavior.
  • Adult role models - Parent(s) and other adults model positive, responsible behavior.
  • Positive peer influences - Young person’s best friends model responsible behavior.
  • High expectations - Both parent(s) and teachers encourage the young person to do well.

Constructive use of time

  • Creative activities - Young person spends three or more hours per week in lessons or practice in music, theater or other arts.
  • Youth programs - Young person spends three or more hours per week in sports, clubs or organizations at school and/or in community organizations.
  • Religious community - Young person spends one hour or more per week in activities in a religious institution.
  • Time at home - Young person is out with friends “with nothing special to do” two or fewer nights per week.


Internal assets


Commitment to learning

  • Achievement motivation - Young person is motivated to do well in school.
  • School engagement - Young person is actively engaged in learning.
  • Homework - Young person reports doing at least one hour of homework every school day.
  • Bonding to school - Young person cares about her or his school.
  • Reading for pleasure - Young person reads for pleasure three or more hours per week.


Positive values

  • Caring - Young person places high value on helping other people.
  • Equality and social justice - Young person places high value on promoting equality and reducing hunger and poverty.
  • Integrity - Young person acts on convictions and stands up for her or his beliefs.
  • Honesty - Young person “tells the truth even when it is not easy.”
  • Responsibility - Young person accepts and takes personal responsibility.
  • Restraint - Young person believes it is important not to be sexually active or to use alcohol or other drugs.


Social competencies

  • Planning and decision making - Young person knows how to plan ahead and make choices.
  • Interpersonal competence - Young person has empathy, sensitivity and friendship skills.
  • Cultural competence - Young person has knowledge of and comfort with people of different cultural/racial/ethnic backgrounds.
  • Resistance skills - Young person can resist negative peer pressure and dangerous situations.
  • Peaceful conflict resolution - Young person seeks to resolve conflict nonviolently.


Positive identity

  • Personal power - Young person feels he or she has control over “things that happen to me.”
  • Self-esteem - Young person reports having a high self-esteem.
  • Sense of purpose - Young person reports that “my life has a purpose.”
  • Positive view of personal future - Young person is optimistic about her or his personal future.

These assets are not rules — they are guidelines to help parents and communities provide healthy paths for teenagers. A teen does not need every single asset to be successful, but the more strengths the better.


As a starting place, pick one or two internal assets and one or two external assets to make stronger. For example, let youth decide what is for dinner once a week (planning and decision making) and let the teen help make the meal (self-esteem).


For an external asset, you might decide to make car time a place that is safe for talking about tough topics. You can tell your teen something you are struggling with (someone at work or a project, etc.). Then ask your teen about something they are dealing with. Don’t make judgments or try to fix the situation — just listen and let the teen speak. After the teen has talked about the situation, ask if he or she would like your help. If yes, brainstorm ideas together. If not, let the teen know that you’re always available to talk if he or she wants help (positive family communication and family support).


Another example would be doing something as a family to help others (service to others). Maybe go to an elderly neighbor’s house and do jobs for him, or collect blankets and toys for a local shelter.


Building assets and strengths takes time — they do not happen overnight. It is best when parents or caregivers and community partners work together to help teens grow. Adults can make a difference and help young people reach their potential, and live healthy and satisfying lives.


For more information about the Search Institute, developmental assets and ideas of what to do for assets, please go to or


For information on programs available to youth in your area, please call your local University of Missouri Extension Office.


Search Institute (n.d.). “The 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents.” Minneapolis: Search Institute. (accessed February 18, 2009).


The 40 Developmental Assets® may be reproduced for educational, noncommercial uses only. Copyright © 1997 Search Institute®, 615 First Avenue NE, Suite 125, Minneapolis, MN 55413; 800-888-7828; All rights reserved.


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Last Updated 09/12/2011