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How to Balance Healthy Youth Relationships

Youth Engagement: Balance, Part 6/10

It never occurred to me that relationships need a different kind of balance than what we currently practice. We underestimate that someone older may provide both insight, but also distress. Is that why they call it ‘teenage angst’?

What would it take to balance the relationships among adults and youth? What is that and how do we get there? With the added layer of not only the generational divide, but also the digital, layered with a values divide — younger and younger people are suffering the disharmony of relationships that they themselves have limited skills navigating. They are very much in the process of learning them or witnessing them.

How does a youth bring to words and resolve these demands without being heard? There are very few options when backed into a corner — rebel, appease, imitate or continue to disobey.

It appears easier to give in to expectation and chaos, than to advocate for what feels just. And even if a youth is “right,” are they treated as potential experts of their world?

Defying authority in a proactive and respectful manner is unheard of and the area remains black or white. Here youth become a product of this competitive dichotomy between young and old, right and wrong, authority and inexperienced, powerful and powerless. However that is not to say that ageism is an inherent force that is the root of the problem from which if it ceases, youth will be liberated. Ageism, like power is one manifestation of the disharmony in our society.

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. ~Plato

Youth engagement becomes more than being in a space together with a specific agenda in mind, although it might initially begin that way. It is also about balancing the goals of the youth through liberating participation. Liberating participation includes, establishing rapport, giving the perspectives of youth credence, is overall broad and far-reaching, and is the inclusion in all of society’s social, economic and political spheres.

Liberating participation is not exclusion, policing, asserting authority, guiding youth to somehow become more fully human because they have lived fewer years on the planet. Youth engagement is not treating youth as passive products of adults authority, rules and more or less like chattel. If adults treat children and youth this way, we can now understand how much society molds our self-perceptions, and those imbalances of power that appear to justify the traditional adult-youth relationship.

While balance provides structure, it is just as important to define these together. Encouraging participation requires the equitable distribution of power, the opportunity to dialogue, and the time to do so. How do you validate youth when our traditional viewpoint of knowledge is that only age predicts knowledge and wisdom? We must pivot outdated ways of thinking because is it true that all adults are wise and youth incapable of being wise?

Yet, most adults do not want to give up power, or reluctantly so, which proceeds the notion that we do not want our expertise, knowledge and position questioned or put off balance. This instability, or potential threat of instability, is what we avoid that impacts our ability to problem solve why youth are disengaged. We internalize what balance is (based on past experiences), they crystallize over time if left unchecked, and determine how balance should be distributed. If the traditional upbringing is the dichotomy of expert and novice, adult and youth, teacher and student, this inherently creates an environment of disempowerment and either diminishes or avoids youth’s legitimacy because to allow otherwise would create an imbalance in us as adults. Maintaining this dependency feeds our ego to create a false notion of balance. If balance requires imbalance to re-calibrate itself, yet it is not a skill we quite know how to walk through, what is the likelihood that it will occur seamlessly?

No person, no place, and no thing has any power over us, for ‘we’ are the only thinkers in our mind. When we create peace and harmony and balance in our minds, we will find it in our lives. ~Louise L. Hay

Disproportionate Balance Internalized

Balance represents not only power, but also a holistic approach to harmonious relationships. This requires practiced skills and a balanced assessment. In the same way that statistics paint a specific picture of trends and news, the biases and inequity depicts social or learning situations asymmetrically, of which must be questioned. Yet, do we take the time?

Our own processes must be questioned. Just as the news shows depictions of crime in ways that are not reflective of crime in general, the proportion of violent crimes and the proportion committed by people of colour or by youth — under-representing perpetrators, or over representing minorities is a strong reflection of societal biases, but also our own when we maintain them by failing to deconstruct, or question them. By under-representing useful patterns, thus avoiding or ignoring them, and over-representing patterns that were never there to begin with — adults ironically maintain systems and biases they aim to dismantle — if they do.

Power is a behaviour and not a person, and distributing power becomes a liberating process that enhances everyone’s power — to give up power is to emphasize the power you do have. And to transform power appropriately and responsibly is to manage both stability and instability as a potential stepping stone to effective youth engagement.

Moving Away from Tokenism

It is easy to arrange participation for youth, and make everyone look good, such as using youth to bolster or decorate an idea created by adults. The shift must be towards trust, felt needs, dialogue and choice. Before beginning to modify personal actions or spaces, read this great primer on signs adults tokenize youth. Mark down which ones occur and in what ways, then work on modifying them.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Who is the young adult (if you do not know them well)?
  2. What does the young adult like, want to do or work on?
  3. How can we/they work on that?
  4. Ask them directly, ‘What do you need from me?’
  5. Be honest about what you can give.
  6. Create goals together.

What are some shared goals? We want youth to flourish and live a good life, to increase their self-esteem, knowledge, and confidence, to build connections to family, friends, community, to future careers and personal fulfillment. How do they want to do that?

Competing elements include: cultural expectations, low self-efficacy, peer pressure, health, social media, lack of positive role models, inequalities, or socio-economic stressors would dictate that balance is next to impossible — we empathize, overcoming is no easy feat.



If many youth are in fact disempowered from what and how they learn, perhaps a focus on empowerment will create balance. Ask yourself, do youth come to meet program expectations, make the grade, or do they come to learn? Learner-Centered Instruction by MaryEllen Weimer (2002) shares a few questions:

  1. Who decides what (content) students learn in the course?
  2. Who controls the pace (calendar) at which content is covered?
  3. Who determines the structures (assignments, tests) through which the material will be mastered?
  4. Who sets the conditions for learning (things like attendance policies and assignment deadlines)?
  5. Who evaluates (grades) the quantity and quality of the learning that has occurred?
  6. In the classroom itself, who controls and regulates the flow of communication, deciding who gets the opportunity to speak, when, and for how long?
  7. Overall, who makes all (or even most) of the important decisions about learning for students? (Weimer, 2002, p. 23–24)

Balance is about power sharing, not giving it all away. Do not pretend to be the adult who knows it all, rather make mistakes and share what you learned. Be genuine about your own growth, your passion for the work you do, and the support you aim to provide. A choice and a voice are necessary for young adults to take control of their decisions and believing they are important makes them behave in important ways.

Balance requires effective communication. Some questions are:

  • Does your organization/group widely communicate a need for effective change and how that can be achieved successfully?
  • What communication process is used and is it clear and understood by all?
  • How is communication or change managed or controlled?
  • How committed and consistent is everyone to change?


While there is a variety of criteria to use and to assess your strategy, to implement plans, to balance agency goals with those of participants, there are very few “best practices.” The appropriate methods will be unique to your situation after careful deliberation. Resist your default mode.

The biggest hurdles will be self-efficacy and self-awareness, or the ability to undertake such a process confidently and with ease. There must be a shift towards minimal internalized barriers, an ability to accept the self as fallible and an openness to learn. This is followed by organizational health, and management buy-in and empowerment, or the ability to be supported and valued for creative and divergent processes to what was historically established. These include organizational culture (“the way things have always been done”), austerity (“we don’t have the funds for that”), or pessimism (“we tried that before”) — perceived or real.

The system of individuals and how they interact, convey or maintain environments, begins with a reflection of flows, patterns and structures that no longer serve current and future needs. (Fancy people appropriated the process dubbing it ‘systems change,’ and old school folks know this is a form of protest, liberation, self-actualization, resistance or grassroots action).

The system of individuals and how they interact, convey or maintain environments begins with a reflection of patterns and structures that no longer serve current and future needs.

As sentient beings we have to accept our inconsistencies, and that inner liberty and conscience must be explicitly represented by ourselves as individuals, but that very few will actually engage in the work of establishing such a conscience in the pursuit of larger, yet achievable goals.

Problem-solving requires more time — provide it. Do not give in to the biases and heuristics. Otherwise, we are cogs in a machine — a product of our environments, where we choose to remain stagnant (or at best freeze) and remain out of balance with deeper goals that underlay individual and community betterment — increasing human agency, equity, access and well-being. Some negative attributes to solving problems that we need to overcome include:

  • problem-solving is driven primarily by a desire for relief, not results,
  • problem-solving depresses groups and individuals,
  • the cure is often worse than the disease, and
  • most difficult, challenging situations are not solvable because they are in fact not problems. (Charity Channel, 2007).

Balancing is about improving youth-adult relationships in order to develop and sustain momentum on a shared cause. These are necessary for personal fulfillment, and cultivating social justice. To develop a more balanced form of power, each individual, group and society as a whole, must undergo a change— perhaps even multiple transformations.

Resistance does not stem from ideologies and behaviours ‘out there,’ but are bound and maintained by individuals within an organization, based on a historical pattern. Funding bodies might claim the impacts and ends goals are shared, however, how often and how intentionally did the decision-makers, policy makers and academics include the voices of the end-users?

Stability does not have to be torpedoed, rather working in tandem with embedded ideologies that prefer stability (maintaining the status quo), over change or potential instability (for a period of time), take a critical look at individual and group mechanisms that maintain specific areas of imbalance that digress from collective goals— otherwise continue to run in circles.

Imbalance needs to be re-calibrated through balancing tools that might create chaos and disharmony at first, however will lead to a more harmonious place decided by all those most closely involved, because that must be desired over the goals of those least involved in the work.

One last thing…

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