What Is Resilience and How Can It Help with Teen Anxiety and OCD?

Teens With Anxiety Can Learn Practical Resiliency Skills

When we hear or read the word resilience, most of us know exactly what it means. Resilience, or resiliency, is an ability an individual has that allows them to deal with hardship as it’s happening or bounce back from a stressful or difficult experience after it happens. The hardship or difficultly we bounce back from might be emotional, psychological, physical, or financial. Or it can be all of the above – or include stressors we didn’t mention – all rolled into one.

We demonstrate resilience when we do what countless adages advise. Resilience happens when we:

Get knocked down and get back up again.

Get back on the bicycle.

Turn lemons into lemonade.

Roll with the punches.

The problem with those platitudes and adages is that they don’t really help someone who’s going through a difficult time. In fact, they’re almost worthless for someone who doesn’t have the skills required to get back on the bike or roll with the punches or turn lemons into lemonade.

But why?

Why Platitudes Don’t Help

Those phrases describe what resilient people do. They don’t explain how they do it. In addition, there’s a common misunderstanding about resilience in our culture. Many of us may think resilient people are simply born that way. We may believe resilient people are naturally well-adjusted. We think the skills that allow them to bounce back from hardship or get back up again after being knocked down are a default part of their character or personality.

They’re wired to be resilient.

While this may be true for some people, research shows that that’s an unlikely explanation for why some people have resiliency skills and some don’t.

And for teens living with a mental health condition such as a clinical anxiety disorder – particularly an anxiety disorder like obsessive-compulsive disorder – these ingrained attitudes about resilience can be counter-productive, because the disorder itself prevents them from rolling with the punches or turning lemons into lemonade.

For a teen with anxiety, those normative attitudes can lead to feelings of inadequacy. Those feelings, in turn, can exacerbate their anxiety, which is not a good thing. What teens with anxiety need help with is the how.

This article is about the how. It’s about how teens with an anxiety disorder can develop the resiliency skills they need to manage their anxiety – and enjoy the benefits those skills confer once they take the time to learn, practice, and implement them.

What is Resilience?

We’ll start by offering an official definition of resilience in the context of mental health, mental health disorders, and treatment for a mental health disorder such as teen general anxiety disorder (GAD) or teen obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Here’s how they dictionary of the American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience:

“The process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.”

That aligns with what most of us think of when we consider the concept of resilience.

But where does it come from?

And how do people – especially those who need it most, like teens with a mental health disorder like anxiety – develop resilience?

We’ll start with the first question.

The Foundations of Resilience in Children and Teens

Where does resiliency come from?

According to the helpful online resource A Short Primer on Resilience published by the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University:

“Resilience is the result of an interplay of protective factors…it’s the result of an interaction between biology and environment.”

Let’s dig deeper into that theory. The child experts at Harvard identify four common factors that contribute to resiliency in children and adolescents:

  1. The presence of supportive relationships between a child and the adults in their lives
  2. A sense of self-efficacy and a sense of control over events in their lives
  3. Opportunities to develop adaptive skills and enhance the capacity for self-regulation
  4. Accessing and utilizing resources such as faith, hope, and various protective/supportive cultural traditions

We have an important point to make here. Most articles on resiliency describe the characteristics of a resilient person, which researchers, writers, or clinicians present as a set of resilience factors. The presence of these factors leads to the benefits of resilience, which – according to a pre-eminent researcher on the topic of resiliency, Dr. Ann Masten – include:

  • Improved self-esteem
  • A positive attitude toward friends and family
  • Hope, optimism, and confidence
  • Improved self-regulation
  • Improved problem solving

And for teens with a clinical mental health disorder, the presence of resilience factors leads to decreased symptoms of:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Trauma

That means resilience is an essential skill, crucial for teens with anxiety, depression, or a history of trauma. But it’s important to understand that, according to researchers like Dr. Masten, cited above, resiliency itself is not a trait. It’s the product of “…an interaction between the child and the environment.” Furthermore, researchers like Marsten believe the idea of resilience as a character trait “should be put to bed once and for all.”

All that makes perfect sense to us. But the idea that resilience is neither a trait nor a set of factors that describe its outcome may be new to some. If it’s not a trait or a list of qualities, then what is it? Here’s a nuanced definition:

“Resilience is a multisystemic dynamic process of successful adaptation or recovery in the context of risk or a threat.”

With that more complex concept of resilience in mind, let’s answer the second question we pose above.

How can we help teen with an anxiety disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, develop resilience?

How to Help Children and Teens Develop Resilience

To answer that question, let’s go back to those four common factors that contribute to resiliency described by the team at Harvard. We can think of these as the building blocks of resiliency. When resilience is present, children and adolescents most often have:

  1. Supportive relationships with adults
  2. A sense of self-control or some perceived control over things in their lives
  3. The chance to develop adaptive skills
  4. Community/family resources such as faith, hope, and cultural tradition

Those are the building blocks. Let’s go through them one by one and identify how parents can create, enhance access to, or teach children and adolescents these building blocks, so that they can then use them in practical ways to manage typical anxiety or the symptoms of an anxiety disorder.

1. Supportive Relationships With Adults

Ideally, this starts with parents. For a child or adolescent with a mental health disorder, the unconditional love and support of parents or primary caregivers is essential. These relationships form the basis of almost all resiliency skills. Therefore, to help a teen with anxiety develop resilience, understanding, empathy, and compassion from parents or caregivers comes first. Parents can help their teens by learning everything there is to learn about anxiety, anxiety symptoms, and the specific things that make their teen anxious or trigger their anxiety.

2. A Sense of Self-Control or Perceived Control

This also starts at home, with parents, siblings, caregivers, or other loved ones – and it also starts early. Parents and family members, by example, can show a child they have agency over their choices and their environment by modeling positive habits and activities on a daily basis. Things like regular exercise, stress-management techniques, consistent and regular sleep, and healthy eating – which are all protective factors against stress and the symptoms of anxiety, and promote resilience – don’t happen by accident.

For children, they happen because they see people they want to emulate doing them. For teens, they happen when parents make them part of the family culture. The point here is that these are things parents do and teach, which children or adolescents then practice, learn, and apply to their lives. These habits don’t fall from the sky fully formed: they’re part of a lifelong practice, which can start at any time during anyone’s life. The idea here is to learn there are simple, proactive steps to take that can help to build resiliency, and when they’re in place, they do double duty: they help a person both manage stress and recover from the effect of unavoidable stressors.

3. The Chance to Build Resiliency Skills

This is important, but sometimes very hard for parents to allow. We’ll explain: to learn to overcome adversity, an individual must experience adversity. The experts at Harvard warn parents against trying to shield an anxious child from the things that make them anxious. From their perspective, that’s not helpful: that’s avoidance. Rather than avoiding a trigger – i.e. an environmental cue that leads to anxiety symptoms – it’s important for teens to identify triggers and learn the skills to manage them. The best way for a teen with clinical anxiety to learn specific skills to manage the symptoms of anxiety is with the help of a qualified, professional therapist who specializes in teen mental health. Therapeutic methods such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCBT) are proven effective for the teens, and include practical tools and skills teens can apply right away – literally the day they learn them.

4. Community Resources, Faith, and Culture

When a teenager with anxiety – or anyone, for that matter – feels connected to a welcoming and supportive community, that connection promotes resiliency. The associated skill – which can be taught by parents and learned by a teen with anxiety – is to recognize and participate in that community. That community may be secular in nature. Take the close-knit nature of a small rural town or the families in a suburban subdivision, for example. That community may be spiritual. Take the fellowship and support offered by affiliation with a local church, either by the congregation itself or the youth groups it sponsors. Or, that community may be cultural. Take the support systems offered by various ethnic and/or immigrant communities throughout the country, for example.

In each case, the community, spiritual group, or cultural tradition contain both people and practices that can promote wellbeing, support positive mental health, and improve resiliency. By giving and their teens access to these communities, parents help their teens build a type of resiliency that’s dynamic, evolving, and sustainable.

The Importance of Resilience: Managing Anxiety in Adolescents

The presence of a clinical anxiety disorder creates obstacles for a teen that can prevent them from fully participating in and enjoying teenage life. With no coping skills or resiliency tools, the symptoms of anxiety can dominate virtually everything they do. However, a teen with robust resiliency skills can:

  • Believe in themselves and their ability to manage their anxiety
  • Participate fully in family, school, and social life
  • Identify and prepare for triggering situations
  • Adapt to changing circumstances
  • Solve problems and plan for the future
  • Live with hope and confidence
  • Help other teens facing similar issues

These skills can from family, friends, or the expert guidance of a mental health professional. What parent should understand is that it’s never too late to learn these skills. And once they’re learned, they’re there for life.

We’ll end with a quote from the resiliency researcher we cite several times above, Dr. Ann Masten:

“Resilience does not come from rare or special qualities, but from the everyday magic of the ordinary, normative human resources in children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities.”