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(Download At-Risk Youth overview as a PDF)

We have put most of our information on this topic under "Troubled Youth." Our online Encyclopedia is filled with topics which are a part of this issue (e.g., "Eating Disorders," "Depression," "Suicide," "Homicide").

It is important to think of the assets of youth before considering their problem sides. A national youth organization, during the Black Power days of the early 1970s, was courageous enough to publish a picture on the front page of its monthly magazine, the picture of a young African American with the title: " ‘I’m not a problem; I’m a man.’ " The problem side of youth should never be our first or main concern; too often teenagers are seen in negative terms. Negative insinuations about young people are carried in humor, and the many adult jokes, from Mark Twain on, affect relationships between young and older people.

We define youth (or adolescence) as the period between childhood and adulthood. It is therefore important to define and describe childhood (no longer the age of innocence but still an age of dependence) and adulthood (autonomy from parental financial and emotional support, clarity about personal identity including vocational choice, and readiness for intimacy with another and for parenting—although singleness can be just as mature a state as marriage). Youth no longer play adult games as children do; they are practicing adult relationships and vocations through peer groups, dating, school, and part-time jobs or service projects.

Urbanization brings a prolongation of youth or adolescence (through the demands of further education and the unavailability of full employment), a segregation by age groups, restrictions on what youth can do (in general, they are removed from adult responsibilities/power and life-and-death matters), and finally, confusing mixed messages from adults, a multiplicity of value systems, and seduction of media. In short, urban societies have created a more complex world, given youth more freedom of choice, confused them with double messages, titillated them with erotic insinuations, and extended the proper time for marriage. This is more than enough to place all youth at some risk.

Joy Dryfoos (1990, p. 107) divides youth into categories depending upon the level of risk they face. She describes very high-risk youth who make up 10 percent of the youth population (committing criminal offenses, dropping out of school, heavy smoking and use of alcohol, drug abuse, etc.). Those who participate at many of these high risk behaviors but with slightly lower frequency, she labels high- risk youth estimated at another 15 percent of the youth population. Moderate-risk youth are experimenters in risky behaviors, making up about one-fourth of the youth population; the rest, about half of all young people, are seen to be at low risk.

The Encyclopedia tends to use a more subjective but functional rule of thumb. Young people who are in immediate danger of doing serious injury to others (homicide) or to self (suicide) are seen at highest risk, then those who are less likely to do so but still need help, to those who are struggling through difficult situations or inner issues, to those who are mature leaders among their cohorts or peers.

The problem with all these analyses is that strong and seemingly mature youth, like the two candidates for U.S. military academies (and romantic couple) who murdered a girl with whom the boyfriend had had one-time sex. Their personal problems had been apparently hidden from others and themselves. With many others, including the teens who killed their newborn infants, they seem to be good kids doing terrible things. The complexity and mystery of human nature are such that we can never be sure. We try to understand risks and trouble in order to intervene appropriately, but none of our predictions or dogmatic diagnoses are absolute. We tentatively notice predictors and look for positive potential in every human being.

If a youngster grows up in a home in which the one parent (or both) smokes and one is an alcoholic, and if that kid begins to smoke at 10 or 11, gets drunk by 13 or 14, and finally if he or she begins to hang around with a crowd where marijuana is smoked, we can be pretty sure that they will be doing pot by the age of 17 and abusing more serious drugs soon after. Similarly, early sexual abuse, serial lovers in a home, and initial sexual experimentation in the early teens are strong predictors of sexual promiscuity, early pregnancy, and the acquisition of some sexually transmitted disease. Such young people at risk often have emotional sores and may have learning disabilities besides. Educational and vocational expectations are therefore lowered. Facing such dead-ends and social disapproval, drugs become self-medication, a temporary relief from inner rage or pain, as well as a bond to the only community which will accept them.

There is great reward in coming alongside such young people, learning about their friends and world (subculture), hearing their stories, establishing trust, and seeing the healing of hurts and dramatic growth in responsible living. Young people in recovery from troubled pasts are among the most effective peer counselors and agents of change. Society can’t afford to lose these valuable resources.


  1. What brought you to this topic? Who were your thinking of? What could they teach you about this whole issue?
  2. Did you find anything here helpful? What more are you looking for? Consider where you can find answers to a specific question in this Encyclopedia or elsewhere?
  3. How might your discussion of youth at-risk be different with a group of young people? With leaders or parents of young people? With experts in the field?



  1. Youth are a society’s most precious resource. Urban societies may be forgiven for making the transition to adulthood so difficult but will not be forgiven for being unresponsive to the negative consequences of such crises.
  2. For more on this topic be sure to refer to "Troubled Youth."
Dean Borgman cCYS