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 teens respond to distressing events or circumstances. However, there are tools that can cultivate resilience in teens and help them develop greater inner strength.
Strengthening the ability to adapt in the face of adversity can help teens successfully navigate trauma, depression, anxiety, and other difficult conditions and experiences. For example, a study done with junior high and high school students in China during April 2020 found that teens with greater resilience and positive coping skills had better mental health during the pandemic than their peers.
How to Cultivate Resilience
There are a number of scientifically validated tools that can help teens build resilience. Parents and caregivers who learn and utilize these tools in their own lives can help their teens learn by example.
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 meditation 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. Mindful breathing can also assist teens in calming racing thoughts and fears.
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. 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.
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 percent increase in happiness and 35 percent reduction in depressive symptoms.
4. Embracing Change
The teen years are filled with change, yet many teens struggle to embrace change in their lives. Being resistant to change can cause more emotional and mental harm, making healing more difficult. Parents and caregivers can help teens learn to embrace change by offering opportunities to discuss changes before, during, or after they occur, allowing teens to process the experience of change and look at it with acceptance and an open mind. Acknowledging the things that they do and do not have control over—and taking action and ownership wherever possible—help teens to feel less anxious about change, and to accept and embrace it rather than viewing it only from a negative perspective.
Ultimately, supporting teens to build resilience will benefit them in every aspect of their lives, now and into the future.
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