Deficits vs. Strengths

Written by Dr. Sunitha Chandy, Psy.D. - Artesian Collaborative | Carpe Ventus Board President

We’ve all got strengths and weaknesses.  For most of us we want to know where our blind spots are, where we can improve, and how we can grow.  We don’t just want a list of our failures and shortcomings.  We don’t want life to be all about our problems, we want credit for our hard work and successes!  The same is true when we talk about youth and particularly youth violence prevention.  It’s all too easy to get caught up in the problems and issues that keep youth stuck in poverty, in violence and in distress.  We can feel overwhelmed by the list of risk factors that make youth vulnerable to engaging in or being a victim of violence.

The Center for Disease Control (2002) identified the following risk factors that make youths vulnerable:   

–Individual: antisocial behavior, teen parenthood, drug use, intellectual deficits, exposure to violence, early sexual involvement, mental health problems, life stressors

–Family: parental criminal behavior, poor attachment, victimization/maltreatment, broken homes, family transitions, maternal depression

–School: low academic achievement, truancy, negative labeling by teachers

–Peer: gang involvement, peer drug use, peer rejection

–Community: availability of drugs/alcohol/firearms, crime, economic deprivation, unsafe environment

The worst part about this list is this: the more risks a youth is exposed to, the chances they will engage in or be a victim of violence goes up exponentially!  Exponentially!!  What breaks my heart is how many of these risk factors a youth doesn’t have a choice about.  Children don’t choose their schools, the economic situation of their families or the safety of their communities.  It’s no wonder that so many of us feel devastated and hopeless looking at this list, what’s the point?  What impact could we even make?

Don’t despair, hope is on its way!  While the research on risk factors has proven true, it is only one side of the story.  More risks lead to more problems for the majority of individuals, yet there have always been outliers.  There has always been a cohort of youths who somehow were exposed to a multitude of risks and thrived.

There’s another perspective in the story; it’s not all about risk and problems, it’s also about strengths. Instead of looking at what risk factors cause youths to have problems researchers started looking at what strengths youths have that enabled them to endure problems.  Here the positive youth development model was born.  The focus of PYD is not to create problem-free youths, but instead to support the development of resourceful youths, therefore preparing youths to make positive choices (Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003).   Research has identified 40 developmental assets that increase a youth’s likelihood of thriving (Search Institute, 2004).  The more assets a youth has the more able they are to engage in healthy behaviors.  

Research shows that while individual and social factors contribute to a youth’s risk of engaging in violence; a youth’s personal and social resources can equip them to make the pro-social choices to avoid a path that leads to violence and crime.  Therefore, cultivating healthy developmental outcomes will prevent violent behavior (Catalano et al., 2002).  

Developmental research gives us the good news that development is not rigid, so if a youth is at-risk they are not resigned to a life of violence, instead, the work that programs do to create positive experiences can counter  the risks youths are exposed to (Lerner, 2002).  

Our goal at Carpe Ventus is to see both sides of the story.  WE come alongside communities and programs to support the changes that they are making to address the factors that perpetuate the cycle of poverty and violence in Chicago.  We also actively foster the development of these assets in youth by giving them real-life asset building experiences.  The fundamentals of the PYD model relies on the social capital found in an involved community working together, focused on enabling youths to thrive (Lerner et al., 2001).  We come alongside mentoring organizations to support and reinforce their work while provide curriculum that explicitly addresses asset development.  

By building our program around the positive youth development model we are simultaneously working to increase the health of youths while also increasing the health of communities.

Erin Foster