Are Your Kids Resilient?

Bouncing Back: Increasing Resilience for Hurting Kids

This is an excerpt from an article by Maria Drews on August 3, 2009. (Fuller Youth Institute)

Our kids face obstacles every day — difficulties with friends, stress at school, issues with boyfriends or girlfriends. But many of the students we work with also face larger obstacles-poverty, violence at school or in their neighborhood, parents getting divorced, substance abuse in their homes, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, abuse, or domestic violence. Remarkably, some kids seem to make it through these situations intact, while others crumble before our eyes.

Even more remarkably, there are kids who even thrive despite facing huge struggles. Which leaves us scratching our heads — Why are some kids able to bounce back from tough stuff, while others aren’t? What are the differences between those who seem to make it through in one piece and those who seem to fall apart? And what can we do to help more kids survive — and even thrive — in the midst of steep challenges?

Responses to Adversity

When adolescents face tough stuff, they experience adversity — defined in the research as serious stress or trauma that can be physical or psychological.1 Adversity can be a one-time event (such as a violent incident at school) or a long-term situation (like living in poverty). There are a lot of ways the teenagers we know might respond to adversity in their lives.  Here are a few typical possibilities:

  • Succumbing: Kids succumb to the adversity and enter a downward slide in their lives, decreasing their level of functioning and their ability to cope with everyday life.
  • Survival with Impairment: They survive the adversity, but never fully recover to their previous level of functioning, leaving them hurt long-term by the adversity they faced. This leads to more vulnerability to future adversity.
  • Resilience: Resilience is the capacity to recover from adversity and return to their former state of well-being. 2 These kids are able to “bounce back” to their previous levels of functioning after the adversity ends, or even in the midst of long-term adversity.
  • Thriving: Finally, a fourth group of kids are able to overcome the adversity and actually surpass their previous level of functioning.3 This is because adversity can be an opportunity to grow, gain new skills or knowledge, new confidence about their future, or strengthen trust in personal relations.4 All these developments can help them face future adversity and become higher functioning people in general. Because adversity can lead to either succumbing or to resilience/thriving, we should see it as both a threat and an opportunity for growth.5

The Path Toward Resilience and Thriving

All of us possess resilience. It is not a quality some people have and others don’t. We all have the ability to overcome problems and adapt to challenging and new situations. 7 If we didn’t, we would never make it through the day, because we would not be able to bounce back from the small problems we face. Although resiliency is an innate capacity in kids, their ability to actually be resilient can either be strengthened or hindered by the amount of assets or risks in their lives.  As Fuller psychology professor and youth development specialist Dr. Pamela King notes:

All young people have the potential to grow and change — especially in the face of adversity. Youth who have more internal resources and external supports, and the ability to activate them, will weather the waters of life more effectively. For example, kids who are anchored by a strong sense of purpose and hope will not easily be overcome or deterred by obstacles. Similarly, young people who are buoyed up by family and adults who can affirm and empower them will face life’s challenges with more fortitude than those who go it alone.8

Assets are the resources and supports available to a kid both internally and in their environment, like having a sense of purpose (internal) or a supportive family (environmental), that are the building blocks of healthy development.9 Risks are the adversities and disadvantages the kid faces (also both internal and external), such as lack of desire to learn or violence at school. The more adversity and risk factors a kid faces, the more likely there will be poor outcomes and lowered levels of functioning. Fortunately, the more assets and resources an adolescent possesses, the better chance they have of meeting obstacles with resilience or thriving.10

There is no “silver bullet” that we can give kids to ensure that they thrive, but we can increase assets and resilience factors in kids’ lives through relationships.

  1. Charles S. Carver, “Resilience and Thriving: Issues, Models, and Linkages,” Journal of Social Issues (vol. 54, no. 2, 1998) 245. []
  2. Carver, “Resilience and Thriving,” 248. []
  3. The four responses to adversity are described in Carver, “Resilience and Thriving,” 246. []
  4. Carver, “Resilience and Thriving,” 251-252. []
  5. Carver, “Resilience and Thriving,” 247. []
  6. Chart from Carver, “Resilience and Thriving,” 246. []
  7. Ann S. Masten, “Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development,” American Psychologist (vol. 56, no. 3, March 2001) 227. []
  8. Pamela E. King, personal correspondence, July 2009. []
  9. Pamela E. King and Peter L. Benson, “Spiritual Development and Adolescent Well-Being and Thriving,” in The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, ed. Eugene C. Roehlkepartain et al. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers, 2006) 388. []
  10. Masten, “Ordinary Magic,” 228. []

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