Adolescents are gradually getting the attention they deserve in public discourse. The focus on young people is increasing as adolescents and youth are being viewed as drivers of social change, rather than as mere beneficiaries of the many national, State and community-based programmes being implemented in India.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines youth (10 to 19 years) as adolescents. Yet, adolescents are a dynamic group and their social make-up varies according to their culture, socio-economic status, and location. For example, in rural India, a 15-year old girl could be married and become a mother; a 15-year old boy could be his family’s sole breadwinner, and in still other settings, a 15-year old may be completing high school or vocational schooling.
Adolescent youth face many challenges: hormonal changes, increased complexity in emotions, important decisions related to their career paths, and, possibly, their first sexual relationships. People often associate the period of adolescence with extreme emotions and behaviours which may include impulsive ones such as rash driving, experimentation with drugs and alcohol, assertion of independence or rejection of the very adults sought out at every junction during childhood. Friends often become the ‘go-to’ for everything, from information to support and advice. More recently, significant influences such as social media and the Internet have surfaced, which can lead to a vulnerability to cyber-bullying and further distancing from families.
There is, however, a great opportunity amid these challenges: building ‘personal resilience’. If adolescents can be equipped with the knowledge, attitudes, values and skills needed to deal with the many difficult situations that come their way, they can learn to ‘bounce back’ from adversity and emerge from this phase as thriving young adults.
Over the last few decades, global policy makers and organisations have developed numerous programmes to support adolescents. Many of these interventions have emphasised a ‘deficit-based’ model. Such interventions typically focus on what is ‘wrong’ with adolescents and how to ‘fix the problem’. Counselling, for example, may have value for those who are truly depressed or, for instance, are heavily engaged in substance abuse. Yet, exclusive reliance on counselling can run the risk of failing to acknowledge and leverage the strengths and resources that adolescents already have. In addition, such an approach may simply not be feasible in a resource-constrained environment.
On the other hand, ‘strength-based’ approaches, applied proactively, can be highly effective in promoting well-being while also mitigating the effects of adversity. Such approaches build on the premise that adolescents possess within themselves the resources they need, which when properly nurtured, can equip them to make constructive choices and engage in positive behaviours. Strength-based approaches focussed on improving ‘personal resilience’ hold particular promise. While it is common to think of resilience as being innate or inborn, resilience is actually the result of skills that can be purposefully taught and cultivated. A growing body of evidence is successfully demonstrating how improvement in resilience influences positive mental and physical health, as well as positive educational outcomes for youth facing significant risks.
Resilience is built by helping adolescents develop qualities such as self-awareness, coping skills, and communication and decision-making skills. Building character strengths such as open-mindedness, persistence, and love of learning enhance well-being and grit. Improving self-esteem can have several positive consequences such as increased connectedness within families and in schools, an enhanced ability to tackle barriers to success, and, the skills to set goals and plan for the future. Previous experience shows that certain, targeted programmes (in India) have shown very promising results, with positive changes in attitudes and behaviours among adolescent students reported in many schools and villages. Girls, in particular have demonstrated an increased capability to negotiate and plan their futures, while confidently advocating for their health and educational rights to their families and communities.
Gracy Andrew is Country Director, CorStone India Foundation