Silhouette of a youth running up stairs

Composing a Portrait of a Thriving Youth

Developed by researchers at Youth-Nex, the Portrait of a Thriving Youth paints a dynamic picture of what young people need to thrive across the years of adolescence.

Audrey Breen

A portrait aims to illustrate its subject in a way that brings new understanding or revelation. After more than a decade of driving discovery and understanding of adolescent development through a strengths-focused lens, the team at UVA’s Youth-Nex research center is developing a tool they hope helps illustrate the fullness of a thriving youth.

The Portrait of a Thriving Youth is a tool designed to connect the various elements of adolescent development and elevate the vision of an adolescent thriving as they navigate the changes that typically come between ages 10 and 25. The idea was sparked by the Portrait of a Graduate that educators, leaders, and policymakers across the country have been designing to illustrate the characteristics high school graduates should have upon completion of the 12th grade. The Portrait of a Thriving Youth paints a more dynamic picture, rather than a snapshot in time, identifying what young people need, both internally and externally, to thrive across the years of adolescence. 

“Across disciplines like psychology, neuroscience, medicine and education, we continue to expand our understanding of the changes that happen in the brains, bodies, and social worlds of young people during adolescence,” said Nancy Deutsch, Director of Youth-Nex. “Our hope with the portrait is to build a collective and broadly understood vision of a thriving youth that can serve as a north star of sorts for communities, practitioners, policymakers and researchers as we continue to work to support youth.”

The portrait will help provide a common language about adolescent development that can be helpful for all those engaging with youth, including caretakers, educators, researchers, and youth themselves.

Crafting and Refining the Portrait

Because adolescence represents a stage of comprehensive development, the team at Youth-Nex relied on education and youth development stakeholders from across the nation to craft and refine the portrait, including the Youth-Nex Youth Advisory Council.

An initial design team drafted the portrait and presented the draft at the 2022 Youth-Nex national conference. There, researchers, educators, community leaders, and youth provided feedback and offered their perspectives as educators, health practitioners, youth advocates, and more, to help refine the portrait.

“We have been purposefully inclusive in designing the portrait to include diverse voices from across sectors,” Deutsch said. “We want the portrait to not only reflect and be applicable for diverse communities and youth from all backgrounds, but we also want it to be useable and relevant for practitioners and policy makers across sectors. Therefore, we included researchers, practitioners, and youth from across the country and representative of a broad swath of backgrounds and communities in developing and ‘test driving’ the portrait.”

Once the graphic is finalized it will be used as part of a series of tools and resources to help practitioners and policy makers utilize the portrait in their own work. 

“The end goal is to have shared commitments across systems and settings that serve young people to ensure that every young person has access to the resources they need to thrive across the domains of development,” Deutsch said. 

The team intends for the portrait to be used to promote awareness of the importance of adolescence as a period of development, second only to early infancy.  

A Sneak Peek

The portrait is designed around six domains that encompass the breadth of adolescent learning and development and highlight the key tasks of this developmental period: Health, cognition, identity, meaning and purpose, emotion, and social. These six areas, while presented separately to draw attention to the specific needs and tremendous change taking place in each domain during these years, often overlap and ultimately combine to illustrate the fullness of a thriving adolescent. 

While the portrait foregrounds what is happening for individual youth, it also recognizes that adolescent thriving depends not on the adolescent alone, but also on the context – the people, communities, institutions, and systems that can either support or impede healthy development.


The physical changes that take place during the adolescent years are often the first thing we think of when we think about adolescent development. Such changes are included in this domain, as well as other elements of physical health, including nutrition, physical activity, sleep, and personal hygiene. The portrait points to some potential challenges for youth in this area, including an increased focus on appearance and the pitfalls that may come with an increasing awareness of “preferred” or “acceptable” body size or other physical features. 

There is also mounting evidence of the challenges adolescents are facing around mental health. This domain combines physical health with mental health, as the two are inexplicably linked and are of equal importance. The portrait highlights the good news that because adolescence is a time of significant brain development, the plasticity of the brain means youth are especially responsive to positive supports that can promote mental and physical health.

Adolescence marks a significant shift in thinking and reasoning from the more concrete to more abstract. It is a time for young people to develop the skills needed to reflect, reason, and think more critically to make good decisions. Youth shift to more future-oriented thinking and increase their abilities to problem solve, engage in creative thinking, and improve their skills of self-reflection, working memory and executive function. Cognitive development plays an important role in academic success and also supports adolescents’ mental health.


Who am I? What makes me who I am? Who am I to others? A thriving adolescent is engaged in discovering answers to these questions across a wide range of contexts. Among other areas, young people will spend their adolescent years exploring their racial and cultural identities, their beliefs and values, how they express themselves through their clothes and outward appearance and with which peer groups they most closely identify. 

Identity development is an important and unique part of adolescent development, and thus is called out as a specific domain within the portrait. Yet identity development also has a significant impact on a young person’s mental health as well as on their sense of meaning and purpose.

Meaning & Purpose

As youth explore their individual sense of self, they are also working to understand their place in the world. As they engage in the work of finding meaning and purpose, they are seeking to understand the larger systems and social contexts that shape their world. This is also a season of asking questions, of exploring diverse perspectives, and developing a deeper understanding of right from wrong. This is often a time when young people begin to take civic responsibility, taking action toward what they believe to be right.


The portrait takes note that as adolescents move through these years, they work to better recognize the full range of their emotions and to better regulate those emotions. During a time when highs and lows are felt more intensely, these skills developed to manage these wide-ranging emotions play an important role in adolescents’ relationships and overall well-being.


Perhaps only a close second to the physical changes of puberty, the expanding scope of relationships is one of the most well-known characteristics of adolescence. While a hallmark of this season of life, the portrait anchors this domain in the “social brain.” A result of rapid brain development, adolescents expand their interpersonal skills, including recognizing others’ feelings and building trusting relationships with friends, older youth, and non-familial adults, as well as exploring romantic relationships. Trusting relationships can provide positive supports for youth during this critical season.

The portrait team is currently working with a graphic designer to create a visual representation of the work. They hope to begin releasing a series of tools and resources later this year.

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