One of the great opportunities and great challenges of the teenage years is the chance to build resilience. It’s the stage in life when most young people realize that their problems are theirs alone, and not things to be solved for them by parents, teachers, coaches, or friends. Because of this, being a teenager can be terrifying — all of a sudden, like walking a tightrope without anyone right beside to hold your hand and make sure you don’t fall. But, developmentally, the teenage years are also a time when young people can discover their own ability to walk that tightrope, or to pick themselves back up out of the net when they fall. Ideally, it is a time to “win some and lose some,” and through that process, discover that it’s okay to fail, and more importantly, that you can withstand challenge and failure.
This is especially true for young people who don’t have the luxury of choosing their challenges — whose challenges are thrust onto them in the form of health or mental health challenges. According to the Pew Research Center, 13 percent of young people ages 12-17 had experienced at least one major depressive episode, and that number had increased 59 percent over the previous decade. Likewise, a study in the British Medical Journal found that 20-30 percent of teenagers have a persistent chronic illness. And that’s outside the almost inevitable, nearly universal experiences of feeling isolated, alone, anxious, and uncertain that come with being a teenager.
In other words, many young people struggle. There are two sides to come at this problem. First, the traditional approach tries to reduce these struggles, for example with doctors and psychiatrists helping teens manage the symptoms of their conditions or mental health challenges. But the other side to helping teens through the struggles of young adult life is to equip them with the skills to recover and even grow through challenging experiences. Here are four strategies you can help teens and young adults build resilience in the face of challenges:
1. Create Connections
This can be especially hard during the teenage years, as another important developmental task during this life stage is for teens to create a sense of self that is independent from their parents. In other words, just as it seems like kids need their parents the most, is exactly when these kids are pushing their parents away. Of course, not all families work this way. If you’re a parent reading this article, you may naturally maintain a tight bond with your child through the teenage years. But if your teen seems to be seeking distance even amid challenges that you feel have the potential to be overwhelming, one path toward resilience can be to encourage your teen to create connections with other people. These other people can be friends or teachers or other family or even a professional like a psychologist or pscyhotherapist. Or connections can be found through activities like sports, art, interest, or music groups. No matter the specifics, isolation is the enemy of resilience, while connection can help young people bob back to the surface after being pushed underwater by challenges.
2. Set Goals
Especially for ill teens, it can seem as if their goal is to avoid negative outcomes — to get back to some baseline or version of “normal” that seems lost. This is what psychologists call “avoidance motivation” and it often leads to disengaging from challenging experiences as a form of protection. Instead, you can help teens set goals that can lead to “approach motivation.” The difference is important: It’s the differences between running away from things, and running toward them. Once you help teens set goals, write them down. Make them measurable. And then check in. When a young person reaches a goal or a milestone on the way to a goal, encourage them to celebrate their success; and when a young person fails to meet their goal, that’s another opportunity to build resilience.
Some of your teenager’s struggles will seem trivial to you. But if you minimize your teenager’s negative experiences in hopes of helping them find perspective, the natural result is only to drive a wedge into your relationship. Instead, when helping a teen find a new perspective, it’s important to start by looking at situations from their perspective. Ask yourself WHY an event or experience is so meaningful to your teenager? Maybe a situation seems small to you, but speaks to a teen’s larger worries or fears about the world or about themselves. Avoid saying versions of, “Yeah, everybody goes through that,” or, “I know exactly what you’re going through,” in favor of nonjudgmental listening and advice only when asked. Rather than offering what seem to be solutions, help your teen “think through” these experiences. Ideally, your teenager will eventually come to the conclusion that things could be worse.
4. “Positive Rumination”
Humans have a hardwired tendency to rehash negative situations — psychologists call this “ruminating.” We’ve all done it: Think about those times you’ve been in the shower thinking about what you should have said during that argument with your partner, friend, or coworker. But our tendency to ruminate can entrench negative thinking. Evolutionarily, this might have been a good thing — reinforcing a negative situation could help us avoid a similar negative situation in the future. But in terms of resilience, rumination takes us further from the goal. Instead, try encouraging young people to explore negative experiences in a new way, using expressive writing or other tools like our game, Shadow’s Edge, to search their negative experiences for positive outcomes. Transforming rumination from its natural focus on negative actions and outcomes, toward a new focus on positive outcomes can help lead young people toward the form of resilience known as posttraumatic growth.
There’s a lot going on during the teenage years, not just with school, friends, and activities, but in the psychological maturation of a child into an adult. A child sees limitless possibility in which problems are someone else’s concern. An adult owns their struggles and realizes that in challenge there can also be the opportunity for growth. Your job as a parent or a professional working with young people is to help guide this transition into the world of struggle and possibility.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.