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How to Build Resilience

Updated: May 28

We all need tools to navigate hard times and difficult emotions. This is especially true for children and teens. Building resilience against stress and depression during times of intense change and challenge is crucial.

Every child and teen has a different temperament and constitution. But no matter what their personality is like, parents can support them to find ways to become more resilient, purposeful, and positive.

What Is Resilience?

10 Top Traits of Resilience in Children and Adolescents

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines resilience as the ability to withstand, adapt to, and recover from adversity and stress. Having resilience doesn’t mean we avoid sadness, disappointment, or failure. But people who are resilient bounce back more easily from roadblocks.

Psychologists have identified a number of traits and behaviors that are associated with resilience:

  1. Optimism

  2. Gratitude

  3. Strong moral compass

  4. The desire to help others

  5. Having a sense of purpose

  6. Humor

  7. Positive role models

  8. Social connection

  9. Supportive family relationships

  10. A willingness to confront and grow from fears.

Levels of Resilience in Children and Teens:

What Makes Us More or Less Resilient?

Why is it that two teens can both experience a difficult situation, but one comes out of it emotionally unscathed while the other spirals into depression? Much of how teens react to situations is based on teen resilience—how easily and quickly they rebound from stress or adversity and return to their usual level of well-being.

Biological, psychological, and environmental factors contribute to how young people respond to distressing events or circumstances. However, there are tools that can cultivate resilience in teens and help them develop greater inner strength.

Why Is Being Resilient Important?

Resilience and mental health are closely linked. Strengthening the ability to adapt in the face of adversity can help teens heal more quickly from trauma, depression, anxiety, and other difficult conditions and experiences. For example, a study done with junior high and high school students in China at the start of the pandemic found that teens with greater resilience and positive coping skills had better mental health in 2020 than their peers.

Resilience is a source of positive emotions, overall well-being, and self-compassion. Resilient children and resilient teens also have a lower risk of turning to unhealthy coping strategies such as substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, or other risky behaviors.

“People with higher levels of emotional resilience have an easier time adapting to stressful situations or crises, with fewer negative effects. They’re able to bounce back more quickly from setbacks, and to take life’s challenges in stride.”

Kristin Wilson, Chief Experience Officer, Newport Academy

What Are the 7 Cs of Resilience?

The 7 Cs model of resilience was first published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2006. It draws from the 5 Cs Model of Resilience, which was established by the Positive Youth Development movement, and adds two more (coping and control). Together, these seven qualities create a roadmap for building resiliency in children and teens.

The 7Cs of resilience are:

  1. Competence: the sense that you have the ability and skills to deal with stressful situations and tough times

  2. Confidence: a feeling of self-worth and self-esteem that allows you to move forward and take risks when necessary in order to recover from adversity

  3. Connection: social support in the form of authentic and trusting relationships with friends and family, and a larger community, such as school or a youth group

  4. Character: a sense of integrity, the desire to do the right thing, and the strengths that support you to do so

  5. Contribution: giving one’s time, talents, and caring to others and to the world, which is proven to enhance meaning and purpose, boosting self-resilience and well-being

  6. Coping: healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress rather than maladaptive coping strategies like self-harm, disordered eating, or substance abuse

  7. Control: a sense of agency over and responsibility for one’s own life.

How to Raise Resilient Teenagers: 5 Tips for Parents

It’s never too early to teach resilience and “mental health hygiene.” Start when kids are young. You don’t need to know how to explain resilience to a child, but you help a child build resilience through leading by example and teaching them simple exercises. Parents and caregivers can help children learn tools for building resilience and well-being that reduce chances of teen depression or other mental health issues.

Here are five approaches for how to build resilience in children and adolescents as they grow, starting as early as possible.

  • Help them express their emotions: Whether your child is a toddler or a teen, they will benefit from learning how to express what they’re feeling. The ability to talk about our emotions is a skill that serves us in every area and stage of our lives. It’s easy for most of us to express positive emotions like joy and love, but it’s just as important to pay attention to and talk about the tough stuff—pain, fear, anxiety, anger. Remind them that all emotions are okay, and that the pain or discomfort they might be experiencing will pass. Hearing the words “It’s okay to feel sad” might be just as meaningful for your teenager as it is for your toddler.

  • Listen carefully: If you think your child is struggling with teen depression, ask questions. Furthermore, find out what their emotions may be telling them. Be empathetic, but don’t try to fix it or brush it under the rug. Talk to them about what they’re feeling. In addition, ask why they might be feeling that way, and what helps and doesn’t help when they feel that way.

  • Give them practical tools to use. If only we all had a toolkit to reach into when life was challenging! Your child can start building one at any age. For example, “Riding the wave” is a simple and accessible mindfulness tool for coping with strong emotions. Guide your child in bringing awareness to what they’re feeling and where it’s located in the body. Then have them breathe slowly and gently into that area and stay with the breath until the intensity of the emotion eases.

  • Remind them of their strengths. A powerful way to build resilience in children and teens is by helping them to identify and activate their strengths. When teens recognize their own unique talents and character strengths, they can learn how to utilize these gifts to handle future challenges.

  • Build healthy habits. Such habits include physical activity, yoga and meditation, time in nature, and wholesome food, which support mental health as well as physical health. If you incorporate these things into your life as a family, it’s more likely that your child will continue them as they grow into adolescence and young adulthood.

Below are more specific approaches to building resiliency in children and teens as they grow.

Mindfulness and Resilience

Mindfulness is the state of being present, in the moment, with nonjudgmental awareness of what’s going on within and around you. According to a 2019 study in Psychology Research and Behavior Management, this skill allows teens to better regulate their emotions and be fully present in their experiences. Mindfulness mediation is a powerful form of meditation in which teens can learn to tune into their feelings and sensations, witnessing their emotions rather than being overwhelmed by them.

As teens practice this valuable skill, their minds become better at simply noticing, rather than judging and reacting. This creates a strength and mental resilience that can help them whenever they face adversity or need to solve problems. Mindful breathing can also assist teens in calming racing thoughts and fears. When they’re able to remain calm, they can often find their own solutions to what’s bothering them.

Social Connections and Resilience in Teens

Social connections are vital for everyone, and perhaps especially young people. Having supportive and meaningful friendships makes a huge difference in terms of teen happiness and resilience. Studies show that teens with close friends have fewer symptoms of

depression and anxiety. In addition, they feel a sense of belonging. And they recover more quickly from stressful events.

Furthermore, positive psychologists identify three specific types of social connections that can be helpful during difficult times:

  • Connections with experts, such as therapists, counselors, and coaches

  • Time spent with others who have experienced similar situations, as in a peer support group

  • Close family and friends who offer unconditional love and support.

When teens are coping with a mental health crisis, for example, all three types of connections are essential for healing.

How Having a Sense of Purpose Builds Resilience

Recent studies show that having a sense of purpose and meaning boosts teen resilience. Therefore, finding a passion and purpose is one important way for teenagers and young adults to enhance their resilience and recover more quickly when life brings them down.

Our tech-saturated society keeps teens distracted and entertained. But the research is clear: These diversions won’t make them happier. However, discovering a sense of purpose supports self-esteem, well-being, and mental health. When teens feel a sense of purpose and meaning in life, they demonstrate signs of resilience, including the following:

  • Lower levels of teen depression

  • Less binge drinking

  • Decreased drug abuse

  • Healthy habits, such as exercising

  • Stronger commitment to schoolwork

“The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress, it’s meaninglessness.” 

—William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence

How Parents Can Support Teens to Find Purpose

Parents can help uncover a purpose driven life for teens by encouraging them to go toward what lights them up. As a result, teens will find their passion through discovering and exploring new things. That might mean traveling abroad, volunteering, or taking healthy risks, such as acting or going on an outdoor adventure.

In addition, parents can assure their teens that they will find their own unique gifts and strengths. But, at the same time, parents need to step out of the way and let teens make decisions about what matters to them. The way a teen defines success and meaning in life might be different from the way their parents define those things. Moreover, parents can support teens to take their time. Finding purpose in life may mean hitting a few dead ends and starting anew. That’s all part of the process.

Building Resilience in Children and Teens Through Gratitude

The importance of practicing gratitude has been well-documented by researchers, many of whom correlate the practice of gratitude with a greater sense of well-being. By consciously activating a sense of gratitude, teens enhance their happiness levels and strengthen their overall resilience. Simply by being grateful for the things they have and demonstrating that gratitude to others who have helped them, teens promote their own mental wellness and develop more satisfaction in their lives.

Some therapists will have clients create a gratitude journal, where they can list the things in their life that they are grateful for, as a part of the healing process. Teens can also write gratitude letters to people who have supported them. One study found that a one-time act of thoughtful gratitude produced an immediate 10% increase in happiness and 35% reduction in depressive symptoms.

How Self-Compassion Builds Resilience for Teens

The art of self-compassion can be difficult for some teens to learn. Compassion and empathy toward others are not always naturally occurring traits in teens. However, most teens tend to be able to demonstrate compassion for others on some level. Self-compassion means extending the same compassion and forgiveness to oneself as we would to a friend or loved one.

In fact, self-compassion in teens may be more important for happiness than self-esteem: research shows that people who are compassionate to themselves are much less likely to be depressed, anxious, and stressed, and much more likely to be happy, resilient, and optimistic about their future. Having parents or caregivers who are loving and compassionate to themselves, as well as being supportive and loving to their children, is the ideal way for teens to learn self-compassion.

10 Tips to Build Resilience

Kids, teens, and parents can do these simple exercises every day to strengthen the “resilience muscle” in preparation for future challenges.

  1. End each day by looking back at the last 24 hours and appreciating three good things that happened, whether big or small.

  2. When you feel stressed, step outside or go to a window, and simply look at the sky. Notice the clouds, the color of the sky, and the quality of the light.

  3. Make family meals a no-phone zone for everyone.

  4. Before you brush your teeth in the morning and evening, close your eyes and take three slow, deep breaths.

  5. Whenever you notice negative self-talk in your head, stop and imagine you were speaking to a close friend. Then give yourself a new, positive message.

  6. Express your gratitude to someone you appreciate—in person, by phone, or by text.

  7. Make a list of your greatest strengths (you can ask a close friend and/or family member for help). Write them on a sticky note and post it somewhere you’ll see it frequently. Then, in tough moments, think about how one or more of your strengths can support you to solve problems and find a way through.

  8. Get a journal or sketchpad and write or doodle something in it every night before bed.

  9. Do something for someone else every day, even something small like holding open the door for the person behind you.

  10. Put both hands on your heart and remind yourself that you are loved and you are worthy.

Article courtesy of Newport Academy

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