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Susan Pamelee

By Susan Parmelee

Last month, I wrote about a few of the outstanding youth leaders in South Orange County. While profiling these youth, I took time to reflect on the qualities they have that help them follow their passions and make a difference in their communities. And even more importantly, how adults can help foster these qualities among young people.

These teens come from different cultures, have a wide range of talents, and seem to share one trait: a strong sense of self-efficacy.

Albert Bandura, known for his research in social cognitive theory, defines self-efficacy as “the beliefs a person holds regarding their power to affect situations.”

Overwhelmingly, the young people we profiled believed they are capable of making change and that they have the freedom to follow their passions.

As independent and strong as these young people are, they also benefit from adults who create the environment that allows for them to develop self-efficacy.

The benefits of adults supporting youth in building self-efficacy include a lower risk for addiction, a reduced chance for serious mental illness, and a higher likelihood of healthier futures.

Adults are key to fostering self-efficacy in youth. Some ways we can foster this trait include helping young people gain life skills, carefully using praise and correction, and through modeling positive behaviors and optimism.

It is essential that youth are given the chance to fail and to learn from their mistakes. From an early age, adults can give youth a chance to try age-appropriate tasks that help them gain independence.

For a young child, this might be putting away toys or putting dirty clothes into the hamper. For a teen, this might include planning, shopping, and preparing family meals, changing the tire on their car (even if it is not flat), or opening and managing a bank account and debit card.

Providing praise for the process and hard work required by these tasks, while offering support for mistakes, reinforces this skill building.

A key component of Bandura’s research was watching how primates responded to social cues. This ties closely into how we praise and correct youth and their ability to move forward based upon this feedback.

Generalized praise, like “great job,” “you’re so smart,” or “you aced that,” do little to improve a strong sense of self. However, praising the process reinforces the steps that led to success.

“I watched how you tried that skateboard trick over and over until you could do it without falling.” Or, “I bet that test was easier, because you completed all of your homework assignments for that unit.”

Praising the process and the hard work proves to a young person that they have the skills to succeed.

Finally, all of our highlighted youth leaders exhibited optimism, even with the difficulties the past year has presented.

A leader in positive psychology, Martin Seligman’s research is based upon the premise that a positive outlook improves well-being. Basically, an optimistic approach to life leads to better health.

Our children learn best from the modeled behavior of the trusted adults in their lives. Parents who have an optimistic outlook on life are more likely to have optimistic children. Optimistic children are more likely to have a sense of self-efficacy.

One of my favorite positive psychology resources is the Greater Good Science Center. It has a vast store of information for parenting, daily living, and healthy habits.

Please visit our website and sign up for our bi-monthly eNews, in which we send wellness tips and information about events that support teen and family health and event information.

This month, the Wellness & Prevention Center has partnered with the Outlets at San Clemente, the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce, and Community Outreach Alliance to hold a series of workshops on job skills and a summer job fair for youth. For more information, click here.

Susan Parmelee is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Executive Director of the Wellness & Prevention Center: She can be reached at

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