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The Developmental Relationships Framework

Young people are more likely to grow up successfully when they experience developmental relationships with important people in their lives. Developmental relationships are close connections through which young people discover who they are, cultivate abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to engage with and contribute to the world around them.

When kids experience these five keys in their relationships with parents, they develop attitudes and skills that will help them throughout their lives. They become more resilient, and that helps them overcome the challenges they face.

Search Institute has identified five elements that make relationships powerful in young people's lives. (Source: Each month we will highlight one of the elements and share practical ways to build this in your child.

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Developmental Relationships: Express Care

What does that look like?

  • Be someone they can trust. Do what you say you will do, and keep your promises.
  • Really pay attention to them when you are together. Focus on youth when they are talking about things that matter to them. Put away your cell phone. Ask follow-up questions so you both know you're interested and tracking.
  • Make them feel known and valued. Follow-up with them when you know they have gone through something, rather than waiting for them to bring it up again.
  • Show them you enjoy being with them. Make time for fun. Share in some humor and laughter even when doing the practical tasks of the day. Find satisfaction in doing things for and with your child, even if these things wouldn't otherwise be important to you.
  • Praise them for their efforts and achievements. Let them know it when they do something you are proud of or admire.

Bottom Line: SHOW ME that I MATTER to YOU.

Family Dinner

It isn't always easy to eat dinner together as a family. Research from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse has found that when they asked teens and parents why they didn't eat dinner more often together, the two groups of people blamed each other.

Research studies continue to highlight the power of family dinners. Now a new study from CASA at Columbia University has been released , and it says that teenagers who don't eat dinner frequently with their family are:

  • twice as likely to use alcohol
  • almost twice as likely to use alcohol
  • more likely to use marijuana

The same is true with grades in school:

  • Teenagers who have five to seven family dinners/week are more likely to get As and Bs in school.
  • Teenagers who have fewer than three family dinners per week are twice as likely to report receiving mostly Cs and lower grades in school.

Use this "captive" time to strengthen your family! Ban the technology from the table, and enjoy being present with one another! Here are some conversation starters!

  • What was the nicest compliment you ever received from an adult?
  • What does it mean to have personal power? Are you born with it, or did you grow it, gather it, or discover it?
  • What is your favorite family tradition? Does it involve an activity you like to do?
  • In your opinion, how important is it to dream and set goals?
  • Would you rather live in the country, a tiny rural town, a suburb of a city, or an urban city center? Why?

Discussion Starters to Grow How You Express Care

  • When are times you've felt close as a family? What made that time memorable?
  • What sacrifices have others made for your family? How have those sacrifices affected you?
  • What do you enjoy doing together as a family that you have not been able to do lately? What do you enjoy about it?

Now, take those ideas and intentionally plan something for your family in the next week!

Developmental Relationships: Express Care

Each young person is different. Boys can be different from girls. One child may respond differently from another. The key is to listen to each child. Find what works to keep you connected, even if how you connect needs to change. Try these tips for adjusting how you express care, particularly as kids move into the teen years:

  1. Ask them what they want. What are they comfortable with? Is it okay to give them a hug if no one is around? If just family is around?
  2. Adjust. Instead of a hug, give a pat on the shoulder or back. Caring words might be enough when physical affection is off limits.
  3. Respect boundaries and privacy. A hug before they head out the door for school may go over better than a hug in front of all their friends.
  4. Spend time together—and not just doing chores or homework. A few minutes of undivided attention lets them know they’re important to you. You enjoy being with them.
  5. Do physical things together. Play basketball. Run. Build something. Work out. Do what works best for your family.
  6. Keep smiling, joking, and laughing together—even if it means laughing at yourself.
  7. Try not to take it too personally. Don’t assume that a rejection one day will mean the same thing will happen tomorrow. Remember that kids are working through all kinds of feelings.

Tips for Everyday Conversations

Setting some time aside to talk can be hard with competing schedules and different personalities. Try these ideas for finding ways to connect.

  • Many children don’t like “just talking.” So be open to conversations while playing basketball, taking a hike, working on a service project, or driving in the car.
  • Remember that everyone is comfortable with different situations. Some kids may prefer talking in public places like restaurants, fitness centers, or parks. Others prefer the privacy of home.
  • Eliminate distractions during family times. Turn off cell phones or TV, or turn down the music. Play a board game instead of watching TV.
  • Designate a regular family time. Have a weekly family night, a monthly outing, or a daily check-in before bed. Do what works best for your family.
  • Try starting conversations in new ways—instead of always asking how school was, greet your child with a reflection about your own day, such as “Hey, it’s good to see you—something exciting happened at work today that I’ve been wanting to tell you about,” or “Tell me something exciting about your day.”
  • Unless what you’re doing is very important, be willing to stop and listen to your child when he or she has something to say. When you cannot stop to listen, explain the reason and make a plan to reconnect later. For example, you could say, “I want to hear more about this, but I’m running late for work. Will you tell me more about it during dinner tonight?”

Tips for Tough Conversations

Sometimes you need to have a hard conversation, or an everyday conversation becomes difficult. Try these tips to help it go well.

  • Talk when both you and your child are calm. People calm down at different rates. One person may be ready to talk but the other may not. Make sure both you and your child can speak calmly about the tough issue.
  • Act soon. Deal with tough issues as they arise, especially when they’re small. Don’t wait for the problem to get worse. Even though your relationship may get tense in the short term, that’s better than having problems grow too big to manage well.
  • Listen to your child. Too often, we focus on what we want to say, what we want to teach. Take time to really listen to your child. People are more likely to work through tough issues when both sides feel heard and respected.
  • Discuss the issue more than once. A tough issue cannot be resolved in one conversation. You may need to revisit the topic times over multiple weeks (or months or years).
  • Work together on the issue. Most parents don’t have all the answers. Work with your child. If you’re not making much progress, get others involved. School counselors and social workers often can provide helpful insights and solutions. Other parents may have suggestions. Ask for help. Keep asking until you get help that truly makes a difference.

Discussion Starters with Your Kids

  1. Tell about a time when someone wasn’t really listening that led to a funny moment. It might be in your extended family, among friends, at school, or at work.
  2. When are times you’ve felt close as a family? Where were you? What were you doing? What made that time memorable?
  3. What sacrifices have others made for you or your family? How have those sacrifices or investments affected your life?
  4. What’s something you really enjoy doing that you haven’t had a chance to do lately? What do you enjoy about it?
  5. Who are people you really trust? What do they do that helps you trust them?

Discussion Starters with Other Parenting Adults*

  1. What are meaningful ways that you express care in your family, culture, or tradition?
  2. Which of the five areas of expressing care are most comfortable for you? Which areas are most challenging?
  3. How has expressing care changed as your kids have grown up? How have you adjusted?
  4. What are ways you maintain your warmth, dependability, and interest when your kids do things that you really don’t enjoy—or even that you disapprove of?

*These parenting adults may include your spouse or partner, extended family members, friends who are parents, or a parent group or class.

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