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Is Your Teen Resilient? Can You Train Resilience?

Building Resilience in Adolescents During the Extended Pandemic

The past two years have tested us all in ways in which we never could have predicted.

We’ve all faced adversity before. Maybe not all of us, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we all have.

As adults, we face things like how to pay bills, how to handle workplace difficulties, how to handle challenging friends, how to navigate relationships with siblings and parents, how to handle dating, marriage, and divorce, how to deal with health issues, and how deal with grief.

The list is long.

Our teens face adversity, too. They learn how to handle the internal and external changes of puberty, how to navigate relationships with their parents and siblings, how to behave in school, how to handle teachers they don’t like, how to handle schoolwork, how to deal with the ups and downs of sports, hobbies, and interests, and, above all, how to handle the adversity associated with friends, romantic interests, and social activities.

To handle all that, adults and teens need coping skills. They need resilience – which we’ll define in a moment.

But no matter what coping skills we’ve developed over the years, it’s safe to say almost none of us have had to deal with adversity like the coronavirus pandemic.

Be honest.

How many of us have:

  • Been forced to do virtual school
  • Been forced to work remotely
  • Lived under shelter-in-place rules
  • Had to maintain social distance from anyone not in our pandemic pod
  • Had Avoid all indoor group events
  • Worn a protective face mask in all public indoor spaces
  • Lost almost all in-person social contact
  • Lost the ability to engage in our favorite group activities
  • Gone without hugs from friends for almost a year

All that was new to us – and we bet all that was new to most of you.

How Did We Cope?

Most of us coped with all these changes and adversity with a trait known as resilience. Here’s a basic definition of resilience:

The ability to positively adapt to stress, crisis, and adversity while maintaining overall wellbeing.

As adults, we developed resilience over time, in response to the challenging things in our lives that we identify above as adversity. But that brings up an important question. Actually, it brings up a series of questions:

Were we born with this trait known as resilience?

If not, did we develop it over time, as we imply above?

If we weren’t born with resilience, how did we develop it?

Is experiencing adversity the only way to develop resilience?

If not, how do we develop resilience?

For parents of teens, we’ll combine and rephrase those last two questions:

If our teens aren’t naturally resilient, is there a way – other than experiencing adversity – to develop resilience?

Answering those two questions is what this article is all about – and we found a study performed in China during the pandemic that sought to answer those exact questions. We’ll get to the results of that study in a moment. First, though, it’s important to understand why resilience is a valuable trait – and why we should strive to develop resilience if we haven’t yet.

The Benefits of Resilience: Teen Coping Skills

The authors of the study, published in April 2021 and called “Mindfulness Training on The Resilience Of Adolescents Under The COVID-19 Epidemic,” describe the following positive benefits of resilience.

Resilience can:

  • Play a protective role in the life of a teen
  • Moderate the passive consequences of internalizing and externalizing issues:
    • Resilience can help a teen handle the symptoms of internalizing mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression
    • Resilience can help a teen handle the symptoms externalizing disorders such as conduct disorder (CD) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Prevent further emotional and behavioral problems in the face of serious stress and challenge

In addition, when different individuals face the same adversity:

  • People with high levels of resiliency can maintain positive overall wellbeing
  • People with lower levels of resilience may develop mental distress, which results in lower overall wellbeing

Finally, researchers indicate resilience can:

  • Mediate the impact of early psychological maltreatment and adversity
  • Mediate the impact of emotional and behavioral problems
  • Protect against the development of psychiatric disorders

When we read about the benefits of resilience, we quickly understand why it’s an essential trait for our overall happiness and wellbeing. We can also understand why people who were already resilient before the pandemic may have handled the adversity without significant negative consequences, while people with lower levels of resilience may have experience significant negative consequences as a result of the adversity experienced during the pandemic.

Now it’s time to look at the results of the study performed in China during the pandemic and answer the question relevant to the mental health and overall wellbeing of our teens:

If our teens aren’t naturally resilient, is there a way – other than experiencing adversity – to develop resilience?

Resilience and Mindfulness

Here’s how the experiment worked.

Researchers recruited 1500 adolescents with an average age of 13 years old and administered two psychological assessments: one measured resilience, and the other measured emotional intelligence. We’ll talk about the emotional intelligence survey later – it’s the real Easter Egg in this study. Back to the students: of the 1500, researchers selected 90 who returned low scores on the resilience assessment and 90 students at random. They made the 90 students with low resiliency scores their experimental group, and the 90 students chosen at random their control group.

You remember how these things work, right? In an experiment like this, you have an experimental group and a control group. Both groups start in a similar state, then during an experiment, researchers do nothing to the control group, and do something to the experimental group. The difference they measure determines whether what they did to the control group had any effect.

This experiment took place over six months. During that time, the experimental group went about their lives with no change. The experimental group, however, received and participated in 15 minutes of mindfulness training every day for the duration of the experiment. The training consisted of techniques derived from mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy (MBCBT). Researchers then readministered the resilience and emotional intelligence assessments at three time points after establishing their initial baseline: two months, four months, and six months.

In the experimental group, researchers used advanced statistical analysis to:

  • Examine initial levels and changes in resilience over time
  • Predict initial levels and growth in resilience based on emotional intelligence

Lets’ take a look at their results.

Mindfulness Training Increases Resilience in Adolescents

The top-line results of this experiment showed that mindfulness training does, in fact, increase both resilience and emotional intelligence. During training in mindfulness-based practices, the statistics showed:

  • Individual resilience increases
  • Rate of increase is gradual, in most cases
  • In some cases, resilience develops quickly
  • Emotional intelligence has a significant impact on resilience

Those results are important in mindfulness research vis a vis the pandemic. The experimental questions were does mindfulness affect resilience and can resilience be trained. Our questions, both as mental health professionals and as parents, were if my teen isn’t very resilient – as shown by the pandemic – can they learn resilience and if they can learn resilience, what way is best.

In answer the first parent question – can my teen learn resilience – the experiment showed resilience can:

  • Be developed though training
  • Be enhanced through practice
  • Increase with consistent training
  • Increase with consistent practice

The results also showed that resilience training programs benefit:

  • Mental health
  • Wellbeing
  • Psychosocial functioning, i.e the ability to initiate and maintain positive relationships with peers, family, and others

In answer to the second parent question – what’s the best way to learn resilience – the experiment showed the most effective resilience training includes:

  • Mindfulness-based training
  • Cognitive-behavioral techniques
  • A combination of mindfulness techniques and cognitive-behavioral techniques

Let’s take a moment and think about these results, because they’re more than relevant to our teen’s lives right as they’re living them now. They may be essential. They may be lifechanging. And for some teens, they could be lifesaving – and we’re not overstating things.

Why This Information Matters: Adolescent Resilience is Protective

We opened this article talking about adversity. We discussed adversity adults and teens face simply by being alive and living a typical life. Family, friends, work, and school – all the things that support us can also create stress. We talked about the fact that the way most of us handle stress and adversity is with a trait called resilience, which helps us adapt to our daily challenges and maintain a sense of balance. Resilience helps us keep feelings of positivity and life satisfaction.

Then we discussed the pandemic, and pointed out that – with very few exceptions – none of us had ever faced the type of adversity associated with the pandemic, which created challenges for all of us in nearly every area of our lives.

Most adults have the resiliency skills necessary to navigate the pandemic.

But what about our teens?

If our teens haven’t yet developed the resiliency to handle the stress and adversity of the pandemic, can they learn them?

This question is especially relevant to teens, who experienced increased levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior during the pandemic. Resiliency skills are an important part of what these teens need, because – as previous research shows – resiliency skills can:

  • Play a protective role in the life of a teen
  • Help a teen manage the symptoms of internalizing disorders (anxiety and depression)
  • Help a teen manage the symptoms of externalizing disorders (conduct disorder or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder)
  • Prevent exacerbation of internalizing and externalizing disorders in the face of serious stress and challenge

What this study shows is that a teen can start with low levels of resilience, study techniques based on mindfulness and mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy every day for six months, and increase their levels of resilience.

But that’s not the only important news in this study.

About That Easter Egg

When they increase their resilience, teens who study mindfulness develop the skills to experience the benefits described in that last set of bullet points above. In essence, resiliency promotes positive mental health and overall wellbeing in the face of adversity.

In 2022, our teens need as much resiliency as they can get.

The study shows mindfulness is one evidence-based way to get that resiliency: that’s huge. If you’re the parent of a teen, then you know now that scientific evidence shows mindfulness can help them, especially if the cumulative stress of the pandemic has caused them to show signs and symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Now for the easter egg: this study also shows that mindfulness increases emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence refers to the set of skills that allows an individual to identify, talk about, and process their emotions. Compared to people with low emotional intelligence, people with high levels of emotional intelligence tolerate frustration well, can handle being alone, can focus on and complete tasks, and engage in fewer self-destructive behaviors.

In fact, evidence shows that emotional intelligence is an essential precursor to, prerequisite for, and predictor of psychological resilience. You know where to find mindfulness training for your teen: yoga classes, meditation classes, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCBT).

You may think you don’t know where to find training in emotional intelligence training for your teen, though.

But we think you do – and you know how to do it yourself. Teaching emotional intelligence means helping your teen cultivate qualities like open-mindedness, conscientiousness, empathy, trust, and cooperation. We bet you do that every day. We encourage you to lean in to teaching your teen those qualities. Teach them with intention, and with the knowledge you’re teaching the foundation of the resilience they need to navigate the challenges of life.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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