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4 Strategies to Build Resilience: How I Helped My Teens Bounce Back

Our entire community was shocked when my husband was arrested in 2003, but my sons and I were especially thrown off. We were completely blindsided by his criminal behavior, and we had to pick up the pieces together.

There were tantrums—for all of us—but as the clouds parted, I began to research how to help my sons build resilience and bounce back from the trauma of their father’s arrest. We worked together, and I watched as they found ways to heal themselves.

I learned that teaching teens resilience, necessary as it may be, is also a lofty and difficult task.

How can we prepare our children for life’s inevitable disappointing moments? How do we encourage them to aim high to achieve their goals while giving them tools to manage the times when things do not go as they hope? These are some strategies I have found successful:

How to Build Resilience in Teens

1. Make time for service projects.

When things got tough for my family, we turned to acts of service. On difficult days, volunteering brought us together and helped us re-center. Service projects opened our eyes to the broader world and helped us contextualize our difficulties.

Giving back to the community takes a teen’s attention away from themselves and moves it to someone else, which can actually be very powerful. When a teenager is self-absorbed and constantly focused on themselves, it can actually feel like the end of the world when something goes wrong. Service work has a way of helping us appreciate what we do have and enables us to focus on gratitude.

2. Let kids manage difficult situations on their own when the stakes are low.

This might seem cruel, but in our eagerness to give our children an easy life without difficulties, they may be missing out on opportunities to learn how to handle things themselves.

We have to remember that we cannot control every aspect of our kids’ lives. There are going to be dream teams they don’t make, perfect jobs they don’t get, and parties they aren’t invited to. Teaching them how to navigate these disappointments, such as by asking for help and being humble enough to accept it, is an important skill for our teens to learn.

3. Schedule exercise, and make it a priority, no matter what is going on.

When one of my kids was experiencing stress in the classroom, we used to walk around the neighborhood after dinner to discuss the events of the day. I scheduled this time with him, and he knew that this was his time to vent without anyone else in the family interrupting us.

Older kids might enjoy training with a parent for a 5k or doing a charity run/walk and fundraising together. Getting out and being active, despite the difficult times, is a great way to give teens the soft skill of self-care before they need it most.

4. Get professional support when you need it.

Of course, I’ve learned there are times when professional assistance is necessary and valuable. A counselor can address depression and anxiety, as well as offer strategies for dealing with the pressures of home and school. In the aftermath of our experience, my sons and I benefited from the additional support.

While finding a counselor can feel daunting, it may be just what your teen needs if other strategies aren’t enough.  For instance, a child coping with a death in the family or an impending divorce might find it helpful to speak to someone outside the family. In other situations where you might be concerned about your teen’s behavior, a teacher or pediatrician may be able to help you decide if counseling is needed.

The struggles my kids endured made them more resilient and taught them the importance of self-care and empathy. In the years since our family trauma, both of them have successfully graduated from high school and college. I believe helping our teens build their resilience when they’re young makes them better able to handle the challenges they face in the future.

Diane Stelfox Cook

Following a 15-year career as an attorney, Diane Stelfox Cook became a special education teacher, serving in the Massachusetts public schools for 11 years. Her new book, So Many Angels: A Family Crisis and the Community That Got Us Through It, documents her husband’s arrest, her subsequent MS, and how she and her sons eventually thrived in spite of it all.