Resilience – How to Help Our Teens Stay Strong

Written By: Charlotte Villemoes, ACS Site Supervisor, On-Campus Counseling Program

I have the privilege and the pleasure of listening to teens every day. They tell me stories about their lives, stories that often move and inspire me. Many of them describe hardship that seems close to unbearable, yet the vast majority somehow perseveres and moves forward. At the end of the day I am often in complete awe by the power of human resilience, it is a force to be reckoned with, just like the stories of these two girls illustrate:

  • Maria* is the oldest of four. Last year her father died which left the family grieving and the mother as the sole provider. She is now working two jobs to make ends meet, and the family has had to move in with another family to survive. Maria shares a bedroom with her mother and youngest sister while her two brothers sleep on mattresses in the living room. Because of her mother’s work schedule, Maria has to take care of her younger siblings when she gets home from school. She is in charge until her mother gets home by 8, after which she has to find the energy to do all her homework. Although stressed, overwhelmed, and still grieving the loss of her father, Maria somehow has the strength to keep going.
  • Mindy* is 16 and from Malaysia. Two years ago her parents decided to move to the US to pursue a better life for their three girls by providing them the best possible education. Sadly, her youngest sister was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer recently, and it is still unclear if she can be cured. In the midst of all her worry, Mindy is doing everything possible to move ahead in the world, right now her goal is to be admitted to one of the top colleges. As a result Mindy has taken on a full schedule that involves four AP classes, a spot on the swim team, and a position as the president on the student board. Every weekend she volunteers for the Humane Society. Although stressed, overwhelmed and extremely worried about her sister’s health, Mindy too has the strength to keep going.

When I think about these two girls, I’m struck by their ability to cope with adversity. They both have work days that are way longer than many adults, they both carry a lot of responsibility, and they both have to function in the midst of their emotional pain. They are extremely resilient. Not everyone has what it takes to keep going in the midst of such challenges, but the good news is that as parents we can actually help our teens build that core strength.

I once worked as a consultant at a school in Redwood City, a job that was based on research results regarding resilience. A study had followed a large group of kids who had been challenged with extreme adversity, with the intention of pinpointing what had helped them grow up to become happy and healthy adults. The findings were very clear and they also turned out to be useful as guidelines for anyone who wants to foster resilience in their teen. The study concluded that three simple factors had helped the kids:

  1. They had at least one caring adult in their life who believed in them
  2. They were met with high – yet realistic – expectations, and
  3. They had all been involved in meaningful activitiesFirst of all, know it takes just one person to help a child make it in this world. That person is very often you, so even if your teens seem eager to push you away, know that your unconditional love, your support and belief in them is absolutely crucial to them. Remember that the little things often go a long way, like an out of the blue expression of love and appreciation, a word of gratitude for simply being in your life, or a family dinner where you take the time to truly listen.
  4. All research shows that a teen who feels connected to their family does much, much better when the going gets tough. Connections with other adults who can help them navigate through difficult times will add to their strength as well so try to encourage them to reach out and talk to other trusted adults, like a favorite family member, a teacher, a coach, a priest, or a counselor. Although it only takes one caring person to carry them through, a village does an even better job.

Expectations are very important too, and once again you need to trust that even though your teens might be fighting you, they are paying close attention to your expectations underneath their resistance. Make sure your expectations are high but realistic and based on an accurate assessment of what your teen is capable of; for some passing all their classes and graduating high school is a lofty goal that will require all the strength they possess, for others A’s and B’s are a stretch, but still realistic. The same goes for extracurricular activities, another area where you have to make sure your expectations fit the abilities and interests of your teen. It is also helpful if you communicate your expectations clearly, “getting C’s and above” is much clearer than “doing good in school”.

Finally, there is no doubt that being involved and engaged in meaningful activities is a source of strength for all teens. It is very important for them to feel that their contributions matter, that they are needed and appreciated for what they do. Getting a job is a big source of pride for teens. Helping out in the family with younger siblings, cooking or cleaning might cause them to complain, but it also makes them feel valuable and strong. In addition, you can have a conversation with your teen about what they are interested in and use that to create a list of possible clubs, groups, or organizations where they can contribute to a meaningful cause and meet likeminded people.

If you use these three basic principles, chances are that your teens will be able to join the ranks of the Marias and Mindys of this world. You will be helping your teens become much more resilient human beings, a valuable gift they will be able to utilize and benefit from for the rest of their lives.

*Names have been changed to protect identities