Youth Empowerment Starts With “You”

How can we reimagine youth empowerment in order to break the cycles of dysfunction caused by trauma?

Youth, for the most part, are viewed collectively as a vulnerable group. Many young adults are referred to as “at-risk youth.”

The term youth is difficult to define. According to the United Nations,1 youth is the period of transition from the dependence of childhood to the independence of adulthood. There is no consensus as to what age group represents that period. YouthPolicy.org2 defines youth as those under 25 years of age and categorizes them into 3 stages: early adolescence (under 14 years), middle adolescence (15 to 17 years), and late adolescence and early adulthood (18 to 24 years). Individuals are, therefore, considered youth when they are between the ages of 14 and 25 years.

Youth do not live in a vacuum, and their issues should not be viewed, or addressed, in isolation of the bigger familial and societal contexts. Most human suffering happens due to ruptures in interpersonal relations, and most human healing takes place when ruptures are repaired through healing the relationships. This is not an easy task, but to change the current status quo of family dysfunction and human disconnection, it is important that youth be viewed as part of the solution—not only as part of the problem.

What does “Youth empowerment starts with you” mean? It means that you, me, and all of us—parents, teachers, caregivers, and all who are entrusted with the wellbeing of these young souls—have a moral responsibility that we need to take very seriously. We need to lean in and look within because the solution is not 1-size-fits-all, and it is not a model or a toolkit. The solution is all of us. It takes the whole village to care for its youth.

To empower the youth, we need to empower all circles of support around them—their family, their peers, their school, their house of worship, their doctor’s office, and beyond—and we need to respect and celebrate the unique communal and cultural dynamics that they hold dear.

Under the umbrella of Untangled, a movement that I founded in 2011 to break the cycles of dysfunction caused by trauma, I am proposing that youth empowerment be reimagined through:

  • When You refers to the youth: making sure that youth speak up about what they need, express their feelings in safe and healthy ways, and use the trusted adults in their life for support
  • When You refers to the family: establishing a foundation of safe home through opening channels of communication and building bridges of trust, and refusing to see family dysfunction as the norm, because there is nothing normal about family breakdown
  • When You refers to the school: teachers serving as role models for their students and advocating for everything they need to fulfill their students’ trust, as teachers are like second parents
  • When You refers to the health care provider: normalizing discussions about youth and family mental health and emotional wellness and paying attention to the caregiver’s own needs and boundaries, as burnout is a real threat to the caregiving field
  • When You refers to the place of worship: making religion, faith, and spirituality serve as tools for healing the youth and their family, and making sure that faith leaders are not the reason that youth are running away from the house of God
  • When You refers to the bigger context: empowering safe and healthy peer relations and providing tools and skills for youth who are engaging in risky and self-destructive habits and behaviors, as peers are very important as identity anchors and support networks for this age group

For more about Untangled and my youth empowerment initiative, visit my website: https://www.dromarreda.com.

Dr Reda is a psychiatrist in Colorado He is the author of Untangled: Breaking the Cycle and The Wounded Healer: The Pain and Joy of Caregiving.

References

1. Definition of youth. United Nations. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/documents/youth/fact-sheets/youth-definition.pdf

2. Definition of youth factsheet—United States. YouthPolicy.org. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.youthpolicy.org/factsheets/country/united-states/