How a Sense of Purpose Builds Resilience in Teens

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We all need tools for navigating hard times and difficult emotions, especially right now. Hence, we need ways to build resilience against stress and depression. And building resilience in teens is especially important, because adolescence is a time of intense change and challenge—and those challenges and uncertainties have been multiplied by the stressors of the global pandemic.

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, even during uncertain times, 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.

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

—William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence

What Is Resilience in Teens? 

The US 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.

Positive psychologists have identified a number of traits and behaviors that are associated with resilience. As mentioned above, having a sense of meaning and purpose is one important component of resilience. Other components include the following:

  • Optimism
  • Gratitude
  • Strong moral compass
  • The desire to help others
  • Humor
  • Positive role models
  • Social connection and support
  • A willingness to confront and grow from fears.

“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 challenges in stride.”

Kristin Wilson, Vice President of Clinical Outreach at Newport Academy

Newport Academy Well-being Resources: resilience in teens

What Is Purpose? 

In 2003, youth development researchers William Damon, Jenni Menon, and Kendall Cotton Bronk developed a definition of purpose:

“A stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.” 

According to Bronk, purpose has four defining features:

  • Dedicated commitment
  • Personal meaningfulness
  • Goal-directedness
  • A vision bigger than self.

Hence, purpose isn’t just about the pleasure we take in doing something we love. It also involves making a meaningful contribution to others.

The Link Between Purpose and Resilience in Teens

Researchers have linked a sense of purpose to greater resilience in teens. 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.

A Case Study of How Purpose Builds Resilience in Teens

To explore the link between purpose and resilience, Kendal Bronk conducted a study with a group of 30 young people during the Great Recession in Greece that began around 2009. Hence, the researchers interviewed youth with an above-average sense of purpose and youth with a below-average sense of purpose.

Subsequently, the survey results suggested that leading a life of purpose helped young people envision a positive future, despite poor economic conditions. The high-purpose participants demonstrated optimism, resilience, and positive expectations. In addition, these adolescents reported that helping others succeed was a critical component of their own success.

Finally, the youth were confident that they could help improve their country’s economy. As a result, they wished to stay in Greece despite the struggles there at that time. In summary, a purpose-driven life for teens can help them overcome troubles in the present and also look ahead to the future with hope.

Finding Your Passion and Purpose

Many of the qualities that support resilience are also associated with purpose and meaning. Damon’s research shows that teens with high levels of gratitude, compassion, and perseverance tend to develop purpose.

However, purpose is a process. Thus, we develop a sense of purpose and meaning over time. Hence, a 2009 study of 237 young people found that only 17 percent of high school freshman have a sense of purpose. That number increased to 23 percent in senior year.  And more than 40 percent of college students surveyed reported having a sense of purpose.

Researchers often measure purpose in adolescents using a 45-minute structured interview called the Revised Youth Purpose Interview. Furthermore, the interview itself seems to increase participants’ sense of purpose. In one study, 38 college students who took part in the interview had a greater sense of purpose nine months later. These findings suggest that having the time, space, and encouragement to explore their hopes and dreams was beneficial for adolescents.

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.

Newport Academy Well-being Resources: resilience in teens

How to Build Resilience in Teenagers

Finding meaning in life is one approach to building resilience in teens. However, there are other ways to strengthen the “resilience muscle.” Parents can start by teaching resilience skills when kids are very young.

For example, not everyone is naturally optimistic and grateful. But we all have the ability to increase our levels of positivity and gratitude. One simple exercise is to end each day by looking back at the last 24 hours and appreciating three good things that happened, whether big or small.

Another powerful way to build teen resilience is by identifying and activating our strengths. When teens discover their own unique talents and character strengths, they can learn how to utilize these gifts to address daily challenges.

Moreover, building healthy habits can promote resilience in teens. Such habits include physical exercise, yoga and meditation, time in nature, and a wholesome diet. Hence, teens can create a daily routine that supports a positive outlook.

“It’s never too early to start teaching your child ‘mental health hygiene.’ Start when they’re young. Kids can learn tools for building resilience and well-being that reduce chances of teen depression.”

Heather Senior Monroe, Director of Program Development for Newport Academy

Mindfulness and Resilience

Research—including a 2018 review study—has found that mindfulness practices are effective for reducing stress-related symptoms. Mindfulness meditation builds resilience in teens by encouraging them to witness their emotions from a distance. Hence, they are less likely to get caught up in them.

Furthermore, researchers theorize that the mindful movement and breathing done in yoga activates the relaxation response (rest-and-digest system), via the vagus nerve. Therefore, yoga moves us out of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”). Consequently, it moves us into the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) system.

As a result, mindful practices such as yoga and meditation increase vagal tone (the state of the vagus nerve). Vagal tone can be tracked using a measure called heart rate variability, which counts the time between heartbeats. Hence, when there is variability between heartbeats, this implies “high vagal tone.” And high vagal tone is correlated with good stress resilience.

Newport Academy Well-being Resources: resilience in teens

Social Connections and Resilience in Teens

Social connections are vital for everyone, including teens. 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. 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.

In summary, every teen has a different temperament and constitution. But every teen can find ways to become more resilient, purposeful, and positive—and thus happier and more fulfilled.

Photos by Newport Academy and Samuel Clara from Unsplash.


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