Have you ever wondered how it can be possible for two people of the same age to face vey similar challenging circumstances, and for one to crumble whilst the other rises to the challenge and emerges from it strengthened for the future? The factor that makes the difference is what we call resilience. Resilience is variously defined, but it boils down to the ability to cope well both during and following challenging circumstances, to adapt in the face of difficulty and to bounce back following setbacks.
An article in the New York Times Magazine in October last year focused on the frightening increase of severe anxiety amongst teenagers in the United States. The article indicates that growing numbers of students lack the resilience to “problem-solve or advocate for themselves effectively”, leading more of them eventually to stop attending school altogether as anxiety overwhelms them. It is not clear whether the major contributor to the increase in anxiety is a decrease in the number of teenagers who are equipped with the resilience to face today’s turbulent world, or whether it is the result of the increased pressures and stress heaped on teenagers by our technologically advanced world. In all likelihood, it is a combination of the two. However, whether it is for confronting everyday difficulties, or facing one of life’s more difficult challenges, like losing a family member, commentators agree that today’s teenagers need to become more resilient.
Commentators also agree that, whilst a variety of personal characteristics may impact resilience, it is not in itself genetic; but is rather a skill that can be learned and built. Lists of what might be considered the building blocks of resilience vary, but most would include: a sense of belonging; self-respect and empathy; social skills; a positive outlook; and the availability and accessibility of supportive adults.
A sense of belonging can be gained from a variety of sources: family, school, peers and the wider community. We all need to know there are people who care about us and to whom we matter, people who will offer encouragement and support when we experience difficulty, and structures to which we can contribute in appropriate ways. Whilst a sense of belonging might be thought of as providing a cocoon within which the individual teenager exists, there needs also to be a sense of self-respect, which enables the teenager to know their own value as a person and have a realistic view of their own capabilities and strengths. Empathy, which allows respect for others and their feelings to develop, helps the teenager look beyond themselves. When this extends to supporting and helping others, there is a positive feedback that strengthens further the teenager’s sense of self-respect.
A teenager’s social skills enable them to make friends, resolve conflicts, maintain healthy relationships and cooperate with others. The ability to keep a positive outlook on life, even in the midst of difficulty, contributes to the ability to regard challenges as opportunities for growth rather than reasons to give up, and also feeds the ability to maintain hope. The availability of supportive adults provides an added level of reassurance that there are those to whom the teenager can turn to ask for help when they feel the need for the additional support of an experienced and trusted adult, who may be a family member, teacher, peer or professional supporter. These basic building blocks, in different combinations for different people, are required to help the teenager build resilience, to the nurturing of which we now turn.
Advice for Parents
Be models of resilience. It is not possible to nag teenagers into becoming resilient, but whatever parents say on the subject is likely to be less effective than the resilience they demonstrate. Teenagers observe how their parents handle life and its problems, and what they see can be a key factor in helping the teenagers develop their own approach. This applies as much to resilience as to any other aspect of life, and it requires parents to look at their own levels of resilience and to seek to address any deficiencies they find. Parents who lack resilience can communicate the message to their children that life’s difficulties are best avoided or given into; whereas parents who have developed their own resilience give the message that life’s challenges are for facing as opportunities for learning, growth and development.
Allow teenagers to face their own challenges. Since resilience is primarily to do with facing difficulties, it is important that parents resist the urge to shield their teenagers from all difficult circumstances. Resilience grows through practice, and children and teenagers need to develop their coping skills and strategies through putting them to use. Teenagers are helped when parents talk through approaches to difficulties, support and encourage them as they face difficulties, help them to keep their difficulties in a proper perspective, compliment them when they win through, and help them to reflect and learn from their experiences subsequently.
Observe how your teenager functions and help them address their weaknesses. Parents need to keep in mind the building blocks outlined earlier and encourage their children and teenagers to develop in areas where they are weaker. This can start before the child becomes a teenager. If, for example, the parent observes a reluctance to become involved with others, or hears from the class teacher that the child seems to be a loner, or sees that their teenager seems unable to maintain friendships beyond a couple of weeks, then a helpful avenue to explore could be that of helping them find ways to strengthen their social skills. When genuine difficulties arise during the teenager years, a supportive network of peers can be a valuable contributing factor to resilience, but such friendship networks need to be built before the crises hit.
Help your teenager develop a positive and realistic outlook on life. A vital element of resilience is the ability to maintain a perspective on life that gives a realistic view of difficulties when they arise. Not all difficulties need to affect the whole of a person’s life. A poor test result, for example, may prompt reflection on how the teenager studied and whether changes might be made to their study routines for the future, but there is no immediate reason for it to impact family holiday plans, sports team participation or a complete revision of one’s university applications. Especially if your teenager is prone to panic in response to a setback, a level-headed parent can be a valuable aid to keeping things in a proper perspective.
Advice for Teachers and Schools
Observe and encourage. Teachers are in a great position to be able to observe how students cope with difficulty and to offer some encouragement at an appropriate moment. Two categories of student come immediately to mind as those who might benefit from the support of an observant teacher: those who generally seem to lack resilience, and those who ordinarily seem able to manage setbacks but who show an unexplained change in behaviour. For those students in the former category, regular reassuring comments about their ability to cope allied with complimentary remarks of encouragement when they succeed are a great combination. Such comments need not take a great amount of time, but they send the message that someone is interested in them and in their progress. Such comments can have a great impact on a student whose resilience is low. For those in the latter category, a gentle enquiry if everything is okay opens a door for a student to ask for help if they find themselves unexpectedly in a situation where they need it.
Incorporate a resilience programme into the curriculum. An age-appropriate resilience programme embedded in the curriculum not only makes students aware of the importance of resilience and how it can be built, but it also creates natural opportunities for those struggling with their resilience to identify their needs and to ask for help. Such a programme should aim to make students aware of the building blocks for resilience, give practical opportunities for students to try out strategies for strengthening resilience, and give clear information about the kinds of help that might be available and where. Resilience is an important protection and tool for students in today’s world, and a programme focused on its development could be an important contribution to students’ well-being and ability to succeed.