How can I help my adolescent build grit and resilience?

Photo Credit:  Greg Raines

Photo Credit:  Greg Raines

If you are like me, you scroll through Facebook and most of the time leave feeling more disheartened about the world than when you started.  Especially if you are the parent of an adolescent.  Daily I read articles about tweens/teens and anxiety and depression, I see entries from parents who are looking for advice because they are worried about their college age son or daughter's critical inability to launch dilemma, I read news stories shared about teen self-harm and suicide tragedies, and I hear about the all-too-often accidental overdose...what can we DO as parents to help our kids navigate the culture we're living in and cope with the challenges life brings their way?

A teen who is able to maneuver and bounce back from what pops up in life has developed grit and knows how to be resilient.  According to Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg and his book Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings the 7 characteristics of resilience are interwoven and depicted in this excellent quote:

Children need to experience competence to gain confidence. They need connections with an adult to reinforce those points of competence. They need character to know what they should contribute to their families and the world, and character is forged through deep connection to others. Contribution builds character and further strengthens connections. Children who contribute to their communities gain confidence as they feel more and more competent. All of this leads them to recognize that they can make a difference and change their environments, and this gives them a heightened sense of control. Children with a sense of control believe in their ability to solve problems so they will more tenaciously attack a problem until they find a solution. This new found area of competence then enhances their confidence, which will be used the next time they need to reinforce their believe in their ability to control their environment. When children know they can control their environment, they will more likely use healthy coping strategies because the need to deaden the senses or escape reality will be lessened. A key coping strategy is turning to people with whom you have strong connections.
— Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP

The SEVEN C's of resilience, as stated by Dr. Ginsburg are: competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, control, and coping strategies.  Because parents are the most powerful models for their kids, and because we know we cannot possibly protect them from all of the physical or psychological challenges that will come their way, it's in our kid's and our own best interest to help them internalize these seven qualities that will best guide them through the rough spots along the way.  

But how?  

It may seem daunting as we look at the quote above; let's break each of these 7 down down into bite sized pieces so they are easier to digest!


The ability to handle situations effectively; competence is not a vague feeling, but is acquired through actual experience according to Dr. Ginsburg. A child needs to feel as if you understand his/her strengths as an individual (without comparing them to their siblings).  This comes about through your focused positive feedback on his/her EFFORT, rather than on the outcome.  Ask yourself, do I speak to my child in a way that empowers him and leads him to believe that I have confidence in his ability to make healthy choices for his life?  Do I allow my son to make safe mistakes that will help him to learn, or do I rush in and "save the day" protecting him from every little slip up?  

Our kids can't learn from what they don't go through.

When you step in too quick or too often, you indicate to your child they are incapable.  Do you communicate your actions with verbiage that tells her that you are stepping in for a specific purpose, and not because you do not believe she is capable? It's important to make that clarification to your child.  There are times when it's necessary to step in for your child's well-being, but the older they get the less often this should be the case, to a point where it's only in the case of their immediate safety being in question.


The belief in one's ability, which is rooted in competence, our kids gain confidence by showing the world (and us) their competence within the arrival of life's circumstances, choices made, and consequences worked through that are (sometimes) unseen.  Confidence does not come from warm fuzzies we give freely for every little thing they accomplish.  When we allow our kids to do things for themselves, and not step in when they are fully capable, we give them the assurance we believe in them.  This is how we help prepare them for life and build their confidence in a genuine way.  Great question to ask yourself (taken from Dr. Ginsburg's work) Do I see the best in my child so she can see the best in herself? Just like when they were in preschool and we wanted to "catch 'em being good"...this practice should not be gone because your daughter is now a "too cool" middle school student.  Find the good in her behavior, like when she offers or do something for someone else without being asked to do so, or when she's pitching above and beyond the call of duty.


Strong family connection is one key to a child's feeling secure in their world, especially during adolescence when so much about their physical, social, and emotional reality is changing.  Additional connection to community, sport activities, arts, and/or a religious organization can all play a part in their feeling as if they "belong" a key to feeling safe and accepted.  Here are some great questions to ask yourself with regard to connection in your family...Do we build a sense of physical safety and emotional security within our home?  Does my son know that there is nothing he could ever say or do that would diminish or stop my loving him?  Do we work together to address and resolve family conflict when it arises?  Do we take the time, on a regular basis, to have meals and family time (without electronics) to really ask about how one another is doing?  

Another note on connection, I believe it's important to have other trustworthy adults in your child's life that they can turn to if (for some reason) they are unable to come to you with a problem or an issue they are facing.  My youngest two have their older brothers, but I know they would also feel fairly comfortable talking to a few of their friend's parents that have been in their lives for years as well.  Does your son or daughter have an adult in their life, other than you, they could turn to that would listen with compassion?  Though I'd never want to be a "friend" to my kid's friends, I try to be warm and relatable enough that they could approach me if they needed/wanted to do so.


Character is built when a child has a fundamental understanding of right and wrong; this helps them develop their self-worth and confidence to make healthy choices for themselves as they face greater life decisions and independence.  Character is built on the values we exhibit and teach our kids as they encounter social emotional situations throughout their lives.  Kids with goals and a desire to accomplish will usually make wiser choices for themselves during their adolescence.  Some good questions to ask ourselves as parents are:  Do I help my son understand how his behaviors affect other people in good or bad ways?  Do I allow my child to clarify his/her own values as they begin to form?  If they differ from my own values, how do we discuss the differences?  Do I help my daughter build a sense of community, spirituality, and encourage her effort and tenacity?  Do I demonstrate tolerance for others, or do I vocally share negative comments that my kids pick up on?  Our kids see our actions and hear our voices, even when we don't think they are paying attention.


When we model the world as being "bigger" than our own family, we give our kids a sense of purpose greater than their own immediate needs.  We teach them about delayed gratification when instead of going to a movie, we spend an hour or two creating Thanksgiving baskets at church or sorting donations at Goodwill. Kids who volunteer for a cause they understand and have passion for enhance their competence, character, and definitely their sense of connection.  Things to consider as parents include: Do I model contribution for my kids?  (ie:  Am I active in my community in some meaningful way?) Do I teach the value in serving others by being generous with time and/or money or sharing my talent with others?  Have I ever shared with my son that he can improve the world? Do I make it a priority to find places for our family to pitch in? Do I share stories of those in the community who contribute so my kids can learn from others?  


Helping our kids learn to cope with life's inevitable ups and downs is critical to their becoming resilient.  According the Dr. Ginsburg, the best protection against unsafe, worrisome behavior may be a wide repertoire of positive, adaptive coping strategies.  In order to do this, WE have to practice them ourselves.  Ask yourself....Do I model positive coping strategies on a consistent basis?  Do I monitor our schedules so there is a good balance of "down time" and make time for family connection a priority?  Do I recognize that for many adolescents risk behaviors are an attempt to alleviate their own stress and pain?  Do I model problem-solving in a step-by-step fashion, or do I immediately react in an overly emotional manner?  Am I a good example of taking care of mind, body, spirit in my own life? Do I actively create an environment in our home that let's my child know we can talk, listen, and share and it's welcome and productive?


"When children realize that they can control the outcomes of their decisions and actions, they're more likely to know that they have the ability to do what it takes to bounce back, " Dr. Ginsburg warns us not to make all of our kids decisions for them so they are denied the opportunity to learn control.  A resilient child understands they have internal control to respond, even when they may not have total control over the circumstances.  Great questions for us to ask ourselves and evaluate whether or not we are instilling a sense of internal control are:  Do I help my child understand that life's events are not purely random and most things happen as a direct result of someone's actions and choices?  Do I also help my child understand she isn't responsible for many of the unwelcome circumstances in her life (like parents' separation or divorce)?  Do I model and help my kids to understand it's important to think about the future, but to take it one step at a time?  Do I use control in a negative manner with my son, such as unwarranted discipline, instead of taking on the role of a hand-in-hand guide when he's made an unhealthy choice?  Here's a great one...Do I give my daughter increased privileges when she shows responsibility? 

Our kids are often more capable than we believe them to be.  They will also live up to (or, in some cases, down to) our expectations, so we've got to be careful in what we model and ask of them, both verbally and with our behavior.  With love and the best of intentions we want our kids to grow into independent, confident adults who (one day) thank us for giving them the opportunity to become resilient!