ABCD Europe

Asset-based community development in action, all over Europe.

Taking a Strengths-based Approach to Young People: moving from ‘at risk’ to ‘at promise’

When I read British tabloids their messaging about young people is unmistakable, young people:


This is not just peculiar to the UK, this is a global phenomenon, and what’s more we have a long history of running down young people. Here’s proof:

SOCRATES (500BC) - ‘Our youth today now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people.  Children nowadays are tyrants, they no longer rise when elders enter the room, they contradict their parents, they chatter before company, gobble their food and tyrannise their teachers. They have terrible manners, flout authority, have no respect for their elders.  What kind of awful creatures will they be when they grow up.’

 ARISTOTLE, 300 BC) - ‘When I look at the younger generation, I despair for the future of civilisation.’

The very word ‘teenager’ which we often use to describe adolescents has negativity and judgement running through it: ‘teen’ is derived from the Latin word ‘teona’, which means ‘grief, strife and misery’. Self fulfilling prophesy or what?!  

This deficit based thinking, labeling young people in such a way is asking for trouble. By contrast a strengths-based view of young people says they:


The antidote to thinking about young people as deviant is not instead to think of them as ‘deserving’ of for example charity. Defining young people solely by what they receive, fails to realise what children and teenagers need most, which is, to be needed. Meeting that need is about contribution not consumption.

Of course children need supports and certainly youth work provides essential youth supports in a person centred youth friendly way. But if we think about youth development only as building a bridge between marginalised young people and the centre of our youth programmes, we will be missing a trick. As well a providing such programmes and access to them, youth engagement must also concern itself with building a bridge between young people and the centre of their communities. The very same communities it has to be said, who all too often exile their most ‘needy’ young people to the margins. Communities, as well as families and youth programmes have a central role to play in raising power and connected children, which cannot be replaces by professional intervention no matter how well funded.

The further a child is from the centre of a caring community the more ‘at risk’ he becomes. By the same token, the closer a child is to the centre of a competent community that welcomes both her fallibility and giftedness, the closer she is to her promising present and compelling future.

Young people and older people are the most segregated groupings of modern society, and all too often they are segregated by age and dysfunction. Aggregating at risk youth does little in the long run to reduce the risk, and sometimes it serves to increase it.

But how do you build a bridge between young people perceived as deviant by their community, back into the very heart of that same community? By starting with two assumptions:


  1. There is      space and hospitality within their community if we intentionally invite it      out and make the connections.
  2. Every      young person regardless of their past transgressions has strengths and      those strengths are needed to build inclusive sustainable communities.

Looking at young people as ‘at promise’, instead of ‘at risk’, reframes the challenge before us. It then is no longer singularly about stopping harm being ‘done to’, or ‘done by’ young people, but about liberating the promise in young people to be productive and to connective with productive neighbours to grow a shared and compelling future. When that is our starting point, than accordingly risk reduces.

It is said that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, I think it is also true to say ‘it takes a child to raise a village’. In all my community building work around the world it is nearly also true to say that the great community builders are young people, when given the chance. It makes sense really, who has a greater stake in the future. The raw materials they use are strengths and capacities within their community. This is true across the life course from womb to tomb; we build our futures by using what we have to secure what we need, nothing of worth has ever been built on deviance, strife, and misery. Let’s start fresh by agreeing that our young people are ‘at promise’, not ‘at risk’, and do whatever we can to help them realise that promise- then watch the risk disappear….      


Cormac Russell

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Comment by Cormac Russell on August 27, 2012 at 18:54
I was using a colleague of mine from the Institute to be honest. His a historian by background with scholarly Greek as a background, I'll check back with him and make sure I didn't mis understand. You've made me google too:) the Latin deratives are still not clear to me, and there link to the word 'teen' which I think was the point being made. Anyway will double check my source. Thanks for the news on the Big Local front, sounds like good fun.
Comment by Lorna Prescott on August 27, 2012 at 17:48

Hi Cormac

It's great to highlight this. I've been privileged recently to work with some young people in our Big Local area, and they have amazing talent and passion. Although they are 'engaged' young people (they attend the youth club or scouts), they aren't directly involved in wider community fora, including the Forum responsible for developing the vision for the Big Local area. We hope to address this by bringing young people and the Forum members (adults) together, very informally at first, for a meal (probably pizza - suggested to me by young people). I hope that the conversations will be a step towards bringing young people in to some new spaces, to contribute their ideas, knowledge and strengths to a vision for the area and in moving towards it.

I'd love to hear from any members here who are taking an assets approach to working with young people, or bringing young people and adults together.

On a slightly different note, Cormac, I'd be interested to know what etymolgical source you used around the term 'teenager'. I could find anything going back more than 100ish years. This was quoted online as being from the OED: "Teenage" the adjective appeared in WRITTEN English in a Canadian publication in 1921.  Note that the phrase is enclosed in quotation marks, indicating the "coining" of the term.  Most words are used ORALLY before they are written down. It was not until two decades later that the noun "teen-ager" appeared.  At first, it was hyphenated, and then, as its usage was accepted, the hyphen was dropped..." Maybe we can ditch the grief, strife and misery!

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