, Volume 40, Issue 3, pp 263-277
Date: 03 Aug 2010

Adolescent Thriving: The Role of Sparks, Relationships, and Empowerment

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Although most social science research on adolescence emphasizes risks and challenges, an emergent field of study focuses on adolescent thriving. The current study extends this line of inquiry by examining the additive power of identifying and nurturing young people’s “sparks,” giving them “voice,” and providing the relationships and opportunities that reinforce and nourish thriving. A national sample of 1,817 adolescents, all age 15 (49% female), and including 56% white, 17% Hispanic/Latino, and 17% African-American adolescents, completed an online survey that investigated their deep passions or interests (their “sparks”), the opportunities and relationships they have to support pursuing those sparks, and how empowered they feel to make civic contributions (their “voice”). Results consistently supported the hypothesis that linking one’s spark with a sense of voice and supportive opportunities and relationships strengthens concurrent outcomes, particularly those reflecting prosociality, during a key developmental transition period. The three developmental strengths also predicted most outcomes to a greater degree than did demographics. However, less than 10 percent of 15-year-olds reported experiencing high levels of all three strengths. The results demonstrate the value of focusing on thriving in adolescence, both to reframe our understanding of this age group and to highlight the urgency of providing adolescents the opportunities and relationships they need to thrive.

This research was supported by a generous grant to Search Institute from the Best Buy Children’s Foundation. In addition to the authors, three other scholars served as research advisors for the study, and their advice and counsel are greatly appreciated: Obie Clayton of Morehouse College, Jacque Eccles of the University of Michigan, and Michael Rodriguez of the University of Minnesota. The opinions expressed herein, however, are solely those of the authors.