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Kids and Teens Need Resilience: They can learn it—and we can help

By Mary Alvord, Ph.D

 

The following article is reproduced here with permission granted by the Pew Charitable Trust. This article appears in Trend Magazine as a Trend Article dated December 8, 2023. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/trend/archive/fall-2023/kids-and-teens-need-resilience

A few decades ago, I met a 6-year-old girl from Russia. For her privacy, I’ll call her K. I saw many Russian-born children in my practice as a clinical psychologist because Russian was my first language, and I have ties to the international adoption community. In her home country, K’s early life was filled with trauma. She was neglected as a child, separated from her younger sister, and after her mother died by suicide, taken to an orphanage. Then, American parents adopted her, and she moved to the United States. Certainly, her challenges were severe.

But K is intelligent, hardworking, and has an easygoing disposition. She had a supportive family, and several of her school environments were a good fit, helping her form friendships and build self-confidence. Today, K is in her early 30s and reports being happy and successful, with children of her own to nurture.

What enabled K to overcome such difficult obstacles? How did she successfully adapt despite the challenges of fending for herself, early abandonment, and changing cultures, languages, and families? How did she cope? She is persistent, proactive, resourceful, and empathic. When faced with problems, she takes action rather than being passive or feeling like a victim, and she was always able to come up with a plan after her setbacks. For example, when one school was not meeting her needs, she advocated for changing to another. She continues to be open to help from others and seeks out opportunities to further develop her personal and professional skills. Facing learning challenges, in college she changed her major to education to best match her abilities. She is now an elementary school teacher, a profession that allows her to apply her strengths: patience, creativity, empathy, and an understanding of child development.

Some would call K stress resistant or invulnerable. Some say she has sheer grit. These days, however, we’d be more likely to call her resilient.

Put simply, resilience is the ability to deal with stress and adapt to big and small challenges throughout life. It involves using various characteristics and skills to positively adapt to traumatic situations, natural disasters, social struggles, learning disabilities, and mental and emotional disorders. This does not mean that resilient people don’t experience grief, sadness, or other strong, difficult emotions, nor that they can control all aspects of their lives. It means that they are proactive about what they can control. People can bounce back from severe adversity if they are resilient or learn to apply resilience. That’s right. While we may be resilient in some areas of our life, we can also build it in other areas. And we can help our children learn it and build it in themselves.

Children in particular need resilience skills to meet the hardships they encounter daily in order to become well-adjusted, successful adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the decade leading up to the pandemic, feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness—as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors—increased by about 40% among young people in grades 9-12.

Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 200,000 kids lost a parent or primary caregiver, 29% of U.S. high school students had a parent or caregiver who lost their job, 55% were emotionally abused by a parent or caregiver, and 11% were physically abused.

In a 2023 survey of more than 130,000 kids and teens ages 9-18 conducted by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, 7 out of 10 youths said that when something important goes wrong in their lives, they can’t stop worrying about it; 67% said they try to keep anyone from finding out; and 70% rated their ability to cope with challenges as medium to very low.

But teaching children resilience skills can help them overcome these major obstacles as well as daily anxiety. According to the journal Child Development, an analysis of 97,000 students showed that those who participated in a resilience program were 11% more likely to graduate from college and were less likely to suffer from mental health problems or be arrested.

It’s often the at-risk kids who need resilience skills the most. For example, a randomized control study in economically marginalized schools, conducted by Resilience Across Borders, Catholic University, and Alvord, Baker & Associates and published this year, found significant increases in resilience and a sense of self-mastery after children engaged in resilience training in a small-group setting. In Resilience Across Borders, the nonprofit I helped found to increase young people’s access to mental health interventions, we help teachers provide lessons on resilience—through topics that include mental flexibility, coping with anxiety, assertiveness and self-advocacy, teamwork, and leadership—to their entire classroom, an approach designed to help all students increase mental wellness.

In short, resilience is a set of skills that we can learn, we can build, and we can support.

During my 40-plus years of clinical practice, I’ve learned that parents, teachers, physicians, mentors, psychologists, therapists, coaches, volunteer leaders, and other caring adults can play a huge role in helping kids adapt to risks, hardships, and challenges, bolstering children’s resilience for the rest of their lives. Kids of all ages can learn how to incorporate the following skills into their lives.

Be proactive. Kids who can take initiative and believe in their own effectiveness have the primary characteristics of resilience. Too often, however, anxiety, self-doubt, and plain old fear encourages kids to avoid a hard situation or do nothing. We’ve all seen the child (or maybe we were that child) who avoided the class trip for fear of being left out or sitting alone—missing out on the fun and on a learning opportunity. Being proactive means that we generate many possible steps we can take to address challenges; there is almost always more than one way to tackle a difficulty, and we can typically do something. Helping children recognize avoidance and decide to take a brave step in spite of negative thoughts can build their confidence and affect the way they think about their own potential. For example, I have worked with teens who find long-term projects daunting and, as a result, frequently procrastinate. A few have set up a buddy system with a friend, and together they develop a plan. They break down the project into smaller steps, devise a timeline, and then check in with each other for encouragement and accountability. They even set up a reward system for themselves for accomplishing tasks, be it getting together with friends, going to a movie, or putting aside time to draw or practice other creative projects they enjoy.

Self-efficacy. Those who believe they can have an impact on an outcome will be more resilient. Encourage kids to realize that they have the ability to affect what happens to them, such as asking for help before an exam, joining a club at school to meet new people, or taking up a new hobby during a lockdown. During the pandemic, when schools were shut down, I asked children and teens in my groups about what they could control. They immediately began to understand that they could make decisions related to using their free time—learning a new skill like playing the guitar—or how they behaved at home when they weren’t learning online. Many rode their bikes. Older teens took walks to see friends (while social distancing, of course).

Problem-solving. Kids can learn to think of various solutions to a problem, consider pros and cons, and choose the most effective plan of action. Adults can model problem-solving by discussing a current issue (e.g., conflicts with peers or siblings; managing anger; trying out for a team; facing a fear, such as the first day of school), identifying steps to take, and asking children to generate their own solutions. For example, I have worked with many kids and teens who are socially anxious and avoid peer groups or joining activities. We brainstorm possible small steps they can take to achieve their goal. Because several students enjoyed musical instruments, we worked on taking lessons with one instructor and then possibly moving to lessons with several students at the same time. Then we worked on talking with the band teacher to explain their hesitation with group situations. Ultimately, we focused on signing up for band at school or playing with a group of friends outside of school. Problem-solving by generating possibilities, as in this example, also helps kids develop cognitive flexibility, the skill to mentally switch gears and consider alternative perspectives.

Increasing self-esteem. Children have their own areas of competence. Kids need to give themselves credit for their own strengths and continue to develop them while maintaining a healthy perspective on what areas could be improved. Adults can provide children with a range of opportunities to succeed, inside and outside of school, exposing them to everything from traditional sports teams, the school newspaper, photography, and volunteering to help at food banks or with younger children to theater, music, and more. Authentic self-esteem comes from specific external feedback (You did well on this science project. You really shined onstage in the school musical.) as well as internal acknowledgement of efforts and achievements.

Self-control and active coping strategies. We all have self-talk, an inner dialogue that can be helpful and encouraging (I have done this before, I can do it again) or unhelpful (I am so stupid. This is so terrible). People of all ages can learn thinking patterns by challenging thoughts that get in the way. They might ask themselves, What is the worse thing that can happen? How likely is it to happen? What might I tell my friend who is thinking the same thought or in the same situation? There are also active ways to relax the body, which in turn calms the mind: muscle relaxation, calm diaphragmatic (from the abdomen rather than the chest) breathing visualization, and physical movement like plain old exercise. Combining these strategies to take action increases effective coping. Teens are often anxious about tryouts, for example, but breaking down the steps necessary to reach the athletic field or the stage can lessen the stress. I have them visualize being in the car going to the tryout, stepping out of the car, getting close to the field, seeing the coach or director, seeing the other kids there, etc. Then, we break down the steps and visualize taking action in each one, and we incorporate breathing exercises and calming techniques at each stage, when needed. Finally, we do each step in the actual environment: We drive to the tryout parking lot, walk to the field, watch a game, and then practice and expose them via small steps to the process leading to the tryout.

Relationship building. “You are not alone” is a phrase I often reiterate because kids can always find people who care and who can support them. Learning to reciprocate, empathize, and read nonverbal cues nurtures connections with people—family, friends, teachers, adult mentors, and others in the community. In what I call the Resilience Builder Program, we practice conversations that go back and forth and are reciprocal using the analogy of playing ball with someone rather than just throwing the ball at them, as in a one-way conversation. We apply the skill by starting a conversation to ensure it is reciprocal (a conversation builder) rather than interrupting, going off topic, or talking without listening (conversation busters). Finding ways for children to build connections with their peers through in-person events, phone and video chats, or text helps build social support. We also teach kids to recognize how their actions and words are received, a concept called intent versus impact. Intention is the message you want to communicate. Impact is how it is received. How one delivers the message affects its impact, and with this awareness comes better communication.

These skills can be taught at home and in club settings, a faith community, school, and small-group settings. But like playing an instrument or being good at a sport, resilience requires practice, and professionals, parents, teachers, community leaders, and mentors can help create situations to encourage it. We can help the country’s children develop resilience, making them happier, better adjusted, and more productive members of society. We can help them face their obstacles, big and small, every day.

The Takeaway

People can bounce back from adversity if they are resilient or learn resilience–it’s time to teach our kids how.

Mary Karapetian Alvord, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, founder of Resilience Across Borders—a nonprofit that helps educators provide resilience training—and an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. She co-authored The Action Mindset Workbook for Teens: Simple CBT Skills to Help You Conquer Fear and Self-Doubt and Take Steps Toward What Really Matters.

Dr. Alvord is lead author for Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents: Enhancing Social Competence and Self-Regulation

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