Raising kids who are happy, strong, and able to navigate the challenges of life successfully is a universal parenting goal. Another term for this goal is raising resilient kids. What does it mean to be “resilient”? This term has been all over the news and popular media as a parenting goal. Simply put, resilience is the ability to recover from or adjust easily to stress, challenges, or unexpected situations.
While it is a natural parent instinct to want to protect our kids from as many difficulties as we can, the truth is that a life without stress is impossible. As clinicians, we often observe that the presence or amount of stress is not always the problem - a life without stress is impossible. Often the negative effects of stress emerge because we don’t have the resources needed to handle that stress. While we can’t create a life devoid of stress for our children - or solve every problem for them - we can help them build their resources for coping with stress. In doing so, we are raising resilient children.
This article will review a step-by-step guide for helping your teen become more resilient by building skills for managing stress.
An important part of the process of raising resilient kids is reframing our own parental perception of our teens’ stress. As a parent, you may feel overwhelmed by the amount and types of problems that your teen is navigating, and feel resentful that they have been dealt these burdens. Conversely, you may struggle to have empathy at times for what you perceive as more trivial problems compared to what adults navigate. In order to best help our children cope with problems large and small, pausing for a personal mindset shift is a good place to start. Try to think of each problem as an opportunity to help your child practice existing coping skills, develop new coping skills, and grow their tolerance for handling hard situations. Approaching each new challenge with this small mindset shift can help you create more bandwidth for solving problems together.
The first step in helping your teen navigate a problem is to help manage their immediate stress response. No one is effective at solving problems when we’re upset, so we have to calm down first. A few strategies for calming down immediate emotions are deep breathing, scheduling a time to revisit the problem after a break, or “sleeping on it.” Many of us feel compelled to act by emotion - like we simply can’t rest until the problem is solved. Taking a break or purposely calming down our feelings is not the same as ignoring the problem. It’s the necessary first step.
Example: Lena is 15 year old sophomore in high school. She plays competitive soccer, but an injury last year has caused her to withdraw from her club team, leaving only her JV school team where she does feel supported. Lena’s best friend moved during Covid, so returning to school in person has been especially hard. She’s also been arguing with her parents about her grades since her mom found out she has not been turning in all her homework. Today after school, Lena tells her mom that she has been benched on her school soccer team because her coach felt her attitude was poor. Lena is crying and says she refuses to return to school on Monday at all.
To help manage Lena’s immediate stress response, Lena’s mom validates her experience (even though she is angry herself about Lena’s attitude) and suggests Lena take some time to rest in her room before a family dinner when they can discuss next steps if Lena is ready.
The next step is reframing thoughts. As clinicians who provide cognitive-behavioral therapy, we often find that negative thought patterns interfere with our ability to solve problems effectively. Often changing our thinking can help problems solve themselves, or free up mental and emotional space to cope with the unsolvable. Some good questions that can help reframe thinking are:
Example: While at family dinner, Lena shares how frustrated and powerless she feels in the situation with her soccer coach. She tells her mom that she feels like she messes up everything she tries. She also says the coach is being really unfair and hard on her. Lena’s mom wants to correct her and point out the things she does well, and also tell her to take responsibility for her behavior in getting benched. Instead, she tries to coach Lena in reframing her own thinking. Is there any creative solution Lena hasn’t thought of before? Is there any part of this she can control? If there’s no other outcome possible, how can Lena use the time to get better at soccer and school? If that doesn’t work, how long does Lena have to tolerate the problem, and what would help with tolerating that?
The third step is focusing on what you can control. Sometimes we can get stuck in a loop of trying to solve a problem that we don’t completely own. It may be that solving only a part of it that we can influence can work to unravel the whole knot in time, or at least release you from the ties connecting you to the knot, even if the knot remains. In most situations, things you can control are: your emotions, your reactions, how you treat others, your work ethic and attitude, value-based actions, and situations you can choose to be in. Things you can’t control are: others’ emotions, thoughts and behavior; others’ expectations; others’ work ethic and attitude; others’ values; and others’ choices. In simpler terminology, this is about finding the right boundaries with other people and situations. Helping your teen talk through their boundaries can make problems seem less overwhelming, and help them commit to more positive choices within the boundary of things they can control by feeling less responsible for all the parts outside of their control
Example: Lena and her mom eventually conclude they can’t change her coach’s choice to bench her, but they can work on Lena’s approach to balancing soccer, friends, and school moving forward. Talking with her mom helped Lena realize how all of the changes at the beginning of the school year led Lena to feel overwhelmed and unable to prioritize what matters most to her. They make a list of Lena’s priorities, and focus on what Lena can control in her environment right now. The time gained back from losing club soccer can be split between friends, homework, and seeking PT for her injury. Lena can work on being more positive at practice when she’s less stressed in these other realms as a result.
The final step in helping your teen develop resilience is seeking support. Most of the time, we are better equipped to solve problems when we team up with others. Help your teen learn to ask these questions when they’re confronted with a problem that feels too big for them to handle: Who can I talk to? Who can help me manage my stress, reframe my thoughts, or accept what I can’t control? Who can help me problem-solve? The answers to those questions can and should be different people at different times. It’s also a great parenting strategy to make seeking counseling feel normal and ok. Counselors are basically just professional problem-solvers! Normalizing seeking support when your child is a teen can help them build healthy relationship patterns throughout adulthood.
Example: Lena learned that she has her mom to support her, but she also learned she can and should seek support from Lena’s friends who understand how important soccer is, especially the friend who moved recently. Lena’s mom also brings up connecting to a counselor to see if that can help with Lena’s worries about school, friends, and soccer.
It can be intimidating to coach our children toward more resilience when we are still learning how to manage problems ourselves. Luckily this is a process you can learn together, that will improve your relationship with your teen, and help them become more resilient adults. Focusing on each problem as an opportunity to learn and improve as a family will have long-term positive impacts for both of you.
If you are ready to take the next step recommending therapy for your teen or young adult, visit Joon’s website to book a free consultation. For more information on building resilience and learnings from medical professionals read Parents: How to Identify Resources and Build Resilience, available on our blog.