What parents can do to encourage emotional resilience in teenagers

It seems like every parent has the same worry about their teenager: ‘What happened to my happy-go-lucky kid? Where did the moodiness come from? What’s gone wrong?’

Well, we know what’s happening to them – the stresses are now coming thick and fast, with a host of challenges being thrown at them, from within as well as from without. As daunting as these challenges are, we can give our teenagers strategies for dealing with them, and help them to emerge stronger and better prepared for whatever life throws at them.

What is emotional resilience?

Resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ from a difficult situation. For teenagers, challenges can include physical illness, study workload, change of schools, conflict with peers or family, and loss or grief. If they have a positive attitude and can learn to see any setback as a form of positive feedback, then these challenges won’t seem so daunting.

The role of friendships

Our daughter Isabella is now 16. It has sometimes worried us that, as an only child, she didn’t have the experience of growing up with a sibling – with its attendant ups and downs – that my wife and I had. But Isabella has a wide and growing circle of friends. We’ve had the advantage of living in the same place virtually all her life, so she hasn’t had the stress of moving away from an existing friendship group. In fact, she’s known some of her friends since pre-school. Two of these friends recently made her a joint card for her 16th birthday. But at the same time, she’s found more friends, with a wide variety of backgrounds and personalities, since starting high school.

Friendships can come and go – and you may either be worried or relieved when they do go – but they can play a major role in resilience as a resource your teenager can draw on for support.

Creativity and skills building

We’ve always encouraged Isabella to nurture her creativity. By her teens she was going to art and drama classes after school, and then started learning dressmaking. By Year 8, she was getting to her after-school dressmaking classes on her own by train. Initially, I’d pick her up afterwards, but soon she was coming home on her own as well.

This had several benefits: not only was she learning new skills, but she was also experiencing life outside school and the home. I’ve had to overcome a tendency to be a helicopter parent and to let her be, including letting her make her own mistakes. By having artistic outlets, she was expressing herself emotionally, but also demonstrating ‘self-efficacy’, which psychologist Albert Bandura has defined as a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in specific situations or in accomplishing a specific task. You can foster self-efficacy in your child by asking them what things they have done in the last week that they did well, and what things they’ve done recently that people have noticed. This encourages them to feel hopeful about themselves when things seem daunting, because it reminds them of what they can do. Being in the habit of using positive ‘self-talk’ can help to increase their positive mindset and motivation.

Teenagers and stress: positive coping behaviours

Many issues that teenagers face can cause stress, whether it’s schoolwork, family expectations, social relationships, sex, or fears of future life challenges. Emotional resilience is important because a teenager’s response to these stresses can be negative. But instead of becoming withdrawn, angry or aggressive, or taking refuge in alcohol or other drugs, resilience allows them to get their lives back on track after a traumatic experience.

Isabella had one such challenge a few months ago, when she faced her first catcall at the train station. When I picked her up, she initially seemed normal, but soon burst into tears and told me what had happened. ‘Ugghh,’ he’d said, ‘with legs like that, you’re going to get in trouble when you’re older!’ Charming. I was tempted to go and look for the creep, but he was long gone and Isabella just wanted to get home. I gave her space, and she went to her room and calmed down. When she was ready, she came out and my wife and I talked with her about it. After the initial shock, she soon felt better, and hasn’t let the experience put her off travelling on her own.

Isabella felt confident enough to speak to us and to seek help when faced with this and some other stressful situations. She has developed strategies to cope with these sorts of potentially negative experiences. Exercise, adequate sleep, a healthy diet, talking with friends, physical relaxation techniques, and seeking professional help when necessary, can all be useful. For a time she went to yoga, but she didn’t feel it made much difference for her. Now she prefers to bake cookies – it’s an activity she enjoys and the results are tangible! Encouraging these sorts of positive coping behaviours will enhance your teenager’s resilience.

Isabella is now an aspiring filmmaker, and is expanding her skill-set even further by combining technical and artistic skills with interpersonal ones, as film is a collaborative art. Making a series of films has increased her confidence in undertaking more difficult projects. She knows that, if you have confidence in yourself, other people will also have confidence in you: this is a ‘virtuous circle’, a form of positive reinforcement. And when she tells us about what she’s doing, we let her know that she’s on the right track by showing her that we’re interested in her activities and proud of her achievements.

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