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Developmental Relationships

Perhaps the most fundamental competencies are those that enable make it possible for us to engage in positive relationships that foster development. There is a tendency to view "developmental relationships" as occurring between an adult and a young person, in which the adult is "developing" the young person. However, any person may have the capacity to aid us in developing skills and competencies to thrive in the world. While the research presented here is unidirectional, we read these insights as multidirectional: adult to adult, adult to youth, and youth to adult.

Developmental Relationships with Youth

We have known for a long time that relationships are at the heart of successful youth work. It is through relationships that we engage young people and help them grow. Thanks to research into brain functioning, we now know that positive relationships can also counter adversity and stress.

There has been less clarity about what positive relationships look like. The two research-based approaches described below break developmental relationships down into behaviors and characteristics. Each approach offers tools to help us reflect on our own relationships.

Li and Julian: Developmental Relationships

Li and Julian see developmental relationships as the active ingredients of effective intervention [1]. They investigated how adults interact with children and youth and identified several types of meaningful interactions, including interactions that:

  • Create connection
  • Are initiated by both people, not just the adult; there is reciprocity in the relationship
  • Challenge youth to learn skills, to grow
  • Promote inclusion and a balance of power

Simple interactions are the building blocks; relationships emerge from these interactions.

Simple Interactions Tool

Based on their research, Li, Julian, and colleagues developed a basic visual tool for observation and/or reflection on adult interactions with young people. Used to guide very concrete, behavior-specific feedback for staff, the tool can help supervisors and staff identify what they are doing well and reinforce these positive behaviors.

Search Institute: Developmental Relationships Framework

Search Institute has developed a broad-stroke framework that describes five dimensions of a developmental relationship [2]:

  • Expressing care: Show me that I matter to you. Be trustworthy, pay attention to me, believe in me. Be warm and encouraging.
  • Challenging growth: Push me to keep getting better. Expect the best from me, hold me accountable, help me reflect on and learn from failures and mistakes.
  • Providing support: Help me complete tasks and achieve goals, building my confidence to take charge of my life. Guide me through hard situations and systems and advocate for me. Set boundaries that keep me on track.
  • Sharing power: Take me seriously and treat me fairly. Involve me in decisions that affect me. Partner with me to solve problems and reach goals. Create opportunities for me to lead.
  • Expanding possibilities: Connect me with people, ideas, and experiences that broaden my world.
  • Copyright © 2018 by Search Institute ®, 3001 Broadway Street NE, Suite 310, Minneapolis MN 55413; 800-888-7828;

This framework builds in many of the principles of the positive youth development (PYD) approach. Search Institute has long been a respected leader in the PYD field.

The Developmental Relationships Framework

The framework can be downloaded from the Search Institute website. Search Institute also offers webinars and on-site and online workshops, some provided for a fee.

Obstacles to Positive Relationships (and Resources for Addressing Them)

Many obstacles can interfere with our goal to co-create developmental relationships. Among them are three major challenges: bias, trauma and loss, and unclear boundaries.


We all have unconscious or implicit biases against people who are not in our social group. Biases reflect societal prejudices, stereotypes, and assumptions about groups of people. They are transmitted via culture and media. Since biases will influence our behavior and the way we interact with others, it is critical to become aware of our own prejudices and continually find ways to address them. Unchecked, our biases cause us to see the world through a distorted and ahistorical lens, judge others unfairly, and unintentionally inflict pain and even trauma on young people we intend to serve and on colleagues with whom we wish to collaborate.

For more information and resources to help address bias, visit Inclusiveness: Building Stronger Connections.

Trauma and Loss

A history of trauma and loss may cause youth (and adults) to put up barriers in order to protect physical and emotional safety. In their book Reaching Teens, Kenneth Ginsburg, Zachary Brett Ramirez McClain, and colleagues emphasize the importance of healthy relationships to youth who have experienced trauma and loss, including youth who have been socially marginalized [3]. By failing to give all youth the protection and opportunities that the privileged have, society thrusts some young people into survival mode.

Reaching Teens highlights the need for adults to be mindful in our work with teens, which the authors define in this context as being attentive to anything that might harm connection between oneself and a young person. For the authors, mindfulness includes "seeing people as they deserve to be seen, not according to labels they've received or behaviors they've displayed" [3]. We are more likely to build this skill when we also understand that a young person's conduct is not always about us: we need to learn not to take certain attitudes and behaviors personally, but to offer mindful, strength-based connection.

This level of social and emotional skill, especially in the face of a young person's volatility, must be developed intentionally by and with staff over time. To have the capacity to offer youth this kind of safe and sustaining relationship, adults need to be replenished as well. In addition to taking a trauma- informed approach with youth, it is important for youth development professionals and their organizations to actively support staff mental health and wellness, and to prevent secondary traumatic stress, defined by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) as "the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another" [4].

For more information and resources, visit Using a Trauma-Informed Approach.

Dilemmas and Unclear Boundaries

Youth development professionals must learn to manage a central tension built into their work: balancing the professional with the personal in relationships with young people. On the one hand, a youth worker relates to young people as a professional: a person of authority who has the responsibility to make sure that young people are safe, that they are engaged in structured activities, and that they achieve certain objectives and competencies. On the other hand, youth workers generate rapport and trust by relating to young people in a more personal and informal manner. For example, they may share personal information and experiences.

Maintaining personal and professional boundaries can make youth work challenging. And why are boundaries constantly pushed? Young people come into the program from many different living situations, bringing with them ever-changing experiences, stressors, and emotions. Some young people have few adults in their lives whom they trust, and they rely on professionals for support. This can lead to many dilemmas or situations that require good decision making and strategizing. It might not always be clear where boundaries are crossed and what the right decision would be.

Reed Larson and colleagues have investigated dilemmas in youth work and how they are handled and resolved. These researchers found, unsurprisingly, that experience matters. Beyond basic competencies and knowledge, experience itself enables program leaders to navigate these waters successfully. Experienced leaders are able to handle dilemmas by keeping their solutions youth-centered and by balancing multiple considerations:

Youth-Centered Strategies

  • Engaging with youth
  • Turning dilemmas into opportunities for young person's development
  • Incorporating youth into the solution
  • Advocating for youth

Balancing Multiple Considerations

  • Addressing, accommodating, negotiating, reconciling, integrating

Youth development professionals who are new to the field need exposure as well as the opportunity to learn from experienced workers and professionals.

Youth Development Research Project

Many of Reed Larson and colleagues' scholarly papers on youth work and youth development programs have been made available at this site. University of Illinois.

Positive Youth Development 101: Youth Work Ethics

The PYD 101 series of short, online courses includes a module on youth work professional competencies and ethical dilemmas. ACT for Youth.

Positive Youth Development V: Youth Work Ethics

This recorded webinar discusses youth work competencies, professional development, and ethics. ACT for Youth.


  1. Li, J., & Julian, M. M. (2012). Developmental relationships as the active ingredient: A unifying working hypothesis of "what works" across intervention settings. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(2), 157-166.
  2. Search Institute. (2018). Developmental relationships framework.
  3. Ginsburg, K. R., & McClain, Z. B. R. (Eds.). (2020). Reaching Teens: Strength-Based, Trauma-Sensitive, Resilience-Building Communication Strategies Rooted in Positive Youth Development (2nd ed.). American Academy of Pediatrics.
  4. National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Secondary traumatic stress.