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Resilient Teens

What makes one teen more resilient than another?

Meet Sam.

He's a 16-year-old boy who just found out his mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The doctor had given her about six months to live. Sam was extremely close to his mom. In fact, she meant the world to him. His dad had run out on them when he was two. Devastated, Sam turned to drugs and alcohol to help him cope. Meanwhile, he stopped going to school and started to give up on everything.

Meet Derrick.

He's a 16-year-old boy who just found out his mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The doctor had given her about six months to live. Derrick was extremely close to his mom. In fact, she meant the world to him. His dad had run out on them when he was two. Devastated, Derrick decided to make his mom proud. He started helping out around the house more, excelling at school, and helping out in the community. Derrick wanted his mom to leave this world knowing that he was going to be just fine.

What makes Sam and Derrick handle similar life events so differently? Is it their individual make-up or could it be their resilience? According to Wikipedia, the definition of resilience refers "to the idea of an individual's tendency to cope with stress and adversity. This coping may result in the individual "bouncing back" to a previous state of normal functioning, or using the experience of exposure to adversity to produce a "steeling effect" and function better than expected."

A couple of weeks ago, I posted "Inner Turmoil," a blog on troubled teens. In the blog I explored the indicators or risk factors that were prevalent among troubled teens. From that blog, I started wondering about resilience and what leads one teen down a road of destruction but another down the path of success. When the world's stacked against you, do you rise or do you fall? Do you lash out or do you survive? We all know people who've overcome some amazing obstacles. We may even think, "would I be that strong?" if faced with a similar circumstance. On the flip side, we all know people who've gone to "hell in a hand basket" when life throws them a curve ball: people who just lose it and can't seem to get it together. Resilience is an amazing thing, but if you don't have it, how can you get it?

Is there a way to help a troubled teen be more resilient? When risk factors outweigh the positive ones, what's a person to do? One answer may be to tip the scale. There are four key connections that resilient teens have that help them deal with life events: family, school, peer, and community, it turns out that being connected really does make a difference.

Does the teen have a strong emotional bond to a parent or family member? If not, this can be a problem. We all need people in our lives that genuinely care about us. Someone who shows his/her love and unconditional positive regard for our well-being is important to our success. Equally important are the expectations our family sets for us. A teen whose parents have high expectations are more likely to graduate from high school and perform better academically. Aside from emotional bonds and expectations, teens need to have family present in their lives. Contrary to popular belief, teens actually need (may not want) their parents around. Parents need to be in the know of what's going on in their teen's life. Checking in on them and expressing an interest in how their day went is a key component to being connected. A great time to do that is a dinner. When is the last time you sat down as a family at dinner and discussed how the day went? Having a wholesome conversation has been shown to strengthen the relationship bond, making you more connected to your teen. Teens that have a parent or loving adult around consistently tend to fair better than their peer counter parts.

Is the student actively engaged in his/her academics and learning environment? Teens who feel like they belong and have future goals tend to fair better when it comes to overcoming life obstacles. Also, having a connection with another adult in the school building is vital to successful outcomes. Teens who bond with a positive role model in the school, whether it be a counselor, teacher, coach, administrator or cafeteria worker, feel like they belong and are part of the greater picture. Teens use the individuals to confide in when things aren't going well in life. These educators play a large role in helping the teen navigate through difficult times. Not only can educators can have a significant impact on a teen's perception of school, but they can also have an impact on their life. To a troubled teen, school can become a second home that's safe and secure.

  • Peer connectedness

Is the teen a loner or well accepted by his/her peers? Teens who don't feel like they belong or aren't accepted by their peers struggle. A part of our social identity is formed by how we interact with others. If a teen is bullied or ridiculed by his peers then odds are the teen is going to struggle not only with friendships, but also with confidence and self-esteem. Peers also serve as counselors to each other. Many teens are more apt to open up to a friend than an adult. Teens help steer and guide each other through life events. Troubled teens that don't have any friends may feel like a social misfit. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and stress. Friends are an important part of life and if you don't have any, then the world can feel like a lonely place. It's important to make sure troubled teens find their connection with fellow peers.

Is the teen involved in the community? It's important for teens to feel like their contributions matter. Teens are the future of our country. Teach them to take ownership and use resources to build the community that they live in. Instilling respect, responsibility, and pride in the community is transferable to other areas of the teen's life. There are many positive youth development programs that intervene in the life of a troubled teen. Some great groups and organizations that help troubled teens feel like they belong in the community are the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Teen Church Groups and the list goes on and on... Aside from community organizations, equipping teens with the skills needed to get a job is a great way to teach youth that they can contribute to society. Bottom line, we need to make sure that our teen feels needed and appreciated; this is especially true in the life of a troubled teen.

So, back to Sam and Derrick...

Two similar situations...

Two different outcomes...


What you didn't know was Sam was a loner. He wasn't well liked by his peers and hated school. Sam had a learning disability and really didn't get school: each day was a struggle and he'd even thought about quitting. None of his teachers liked him and he had the reputation of a trouble maker. It's true that he spent a lot of time in the principal's office, but he'd rather be there than in class. In fact, if he could manage to get suspended that was even better. A couple of days that he didn't have to go to school wasn't a punishment but rather a vacation. Sam didn't have a job. He didn't do anything during his spare time but play games and play on the computer.

Derrick, on the other hand, was a very popular young man. Through commitment and hard work, he excelled academically. His teachers often praised him about what a good student he was. School meant a lot to Derrick. Aside from the classroom, Derrick was active in many sports; he held a position on the student government association and worked a part time job on the weekends. Derrick was an active member of the Boy Scouts of America and was aspiring to get his Eagle's Scout award. Derrick wanted to go to college and study International Business.

Now that you see the whole story, you can better understand why Sam had a more difficult time coping. He didn't have the skills, support, or connections to bounce back. Derrick, on the other hand, was connected and did have the skills to cope with life stressors. Do you know a troubled teen? Does he/she have more positive than negative factors in his/her life? Will they be able to bounce back if a life catastrophe hits? If not, is there something that you can do to tip the scale? How about your own life? How does your scale look?

Resilience, it's an amazing thing...

More from Raychelle Cassada Lohmann Ph.D.
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