Derived from Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1982), self-efficacy is defined as “judgments of how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations” (Armstrong, Birnie-Lefcovitch & Ungar, 2005). It is central to human agency, the capacity for self-regulation, and influences young people’s choice of activities and the environments in which they participate.

Bandura (1982) demonstrates that individuals with a more positive view of their own effectiveness exert more effort to succeed. They are also motivated to persist in the face of difficulty or failure, making them more likely to succeed under adverse conditions. Masten (2001; 2009) points to a powerful system of ‘mastery/motivation’ whereby people experience pleasure in agency, or being effective in the world.

Self-efficacy stems from a sense of mastery and control, combined with an accurate assessment of one’s personal strengths and limitations (Daniel & Wassell, 2002). Higher levels of self-efficacy are linked with an ‘internal locus of control’ and greater likelihood that young people will adopt ‘problem-focused’ rather than ‘emotion-focused’ coping strategies in adverse circumstances.

The mastery/motivation system is directly linked to increases in adaptive behaviour. It has been implicated as a critical factor in turnaround cases in resilience research (Masten, 2009). Young people extract a positive sense of power and control through experiences of caring for themselves and being able to contribute to the well-being of others (Ungar, 2006; p57). The mastery/motivation system can also be damaged, shut down or hindered by neglect and adversity, particularly where control has been removed and/or experiences of agency are undermined.

Self-efficacy can be influenced by the beliefs and actions of parents and significant others. Clear expressions of encouragement and reinforcement that demonstrate a belief in a young person’s own sense of control have a positive effect.