Every relationship involves power. But too often, power is wielded rather than shared.
Learning how to share power with others is something that young people learn from the adults in their lives—and sharing power is a key element of the developmental relationships framework, the five elements that help young people learn, grow, and thrive.
What does it mean to share power? And what does it look like when it happens in our relationships with young people?
“Sharing power” is not the same as “equal power,” and sharing power doesn’t mean young people should make all their own decisions.
Because of age, experience, and position, adults inherently possess more power than young people. Adult teachers, mentors, counselors, and other professionals teach, guide, make demands, and set limits that help young people grow.
But a powerful shift happens when we listen to young people and involve them in shaping their own education, experiences, and communities.
Sharing power with young people helps prepare them to be responsible adults and shapes the quality of our relationships with them as they grow up. It makes a positive difference in many ways:
Sharing power in a developmental relationship involves these four key actions.
At its heart, sharing power highlights the ways we influence, learn from, and work with each other through our relationships.
With power comes responsibility. Using power with care means treating young people with love, respect, and fairness without manipulating, coercing, or threatening them in ways that harm them or the relationship.
This abuse of power can include physical or emotional violence or manipulation, including withholding affection or approval in order to get their way. When power is used in negative ways, it has serious and lasting effects on young people’s well-being.
Physical and emotional abuse is destructive—it’s the opposite of a developmental relationship.
When young people approach the teen years, the power struggle begins because they’re growing up.
It’s only natural for this to be a time when sharing power becomes difficult. Teens don’t always make the best decisions. But it’s also when sharing power becomes critically important for growth. Sharing power in families helps parenting adults to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships with their children and to learn to trust them.
Sharing power with youth in schools and out‑of‑school programs can be challenging too.
In one community, 68% of young people said they experienced sharing power “often” or “very often” with parenting adults; only 51% experienced sharing power often or very often with teachers, and 52% with program leaders.
That means it’s time to take a look at what we can do to share power during this key developmental stage.
Sharing power with young people and creating a culture of youth voice—where young people’s ideas are both taken seriously and implemented with the support of caring adults—takes a sustained commitment.
The Student Voice Framework is a research‑based tool to support educators in developing and implementing a student voice practice in their classroom or school to create an environment where students feel empowered to participate in and influence the decisions that affect their educational experiences.
It takes adults willing to share power and expand possibilities, and it takes young people willing to take initiative and lead.
And it’s well worth the effort.