What are your strengths – the things you are particularly good at? How do you know? Did anyone name and identify these during your teenage years?
When I was in pre-school, aged six, I won a trophy for helpfulness and encouragement. It is a cherished memory of my early school days and occupies pride of place on the bookshelf in my study at home. Some observant teachers saw a gift I had and identified it at an early stage of my life – a life-changing moment, as this became a significant strength in my life.
Once youth take ownership of their strengths, they start to appreciate that they have some key resiliency builders that will pull them through any challenge life throws at them. What we can do—and these are some of the strategies I have shared in most of my work promoting the spirit of mentoring—is build a web of protective factors around teenagers.
These protective factors, which foster resiliency, are characteristics of the teenager’s environment that reduce the negative impact of stressful situations and problems. I share these as part of mentor training and explain each one in more depth. They also appear in my new book: CHOICES: Encouraging Youth to Achieve Greatness.
Six ways to build protective factors around teenagers
The following six well-researched resiliency ways we can build protective factors around teenagers are the result of ground-breaking work over many years by resiliency experts Nan Henderson and Bonnie Bernard.
1. Provide caring and support—that is, unconditional positive regard and encouragement. This factor is regarded as the most important of all the elements that promote resiliency. It is almost impossible to overcome adversity or setbacks if teenagers do not have someone consistently “there” for them with the message: “You Matter!” Address youth by name; encourage participation especially if they are a little reluctant to be involved; investigate and intervene when they are dealing with difficult circumstances. Catch them doing well, and remember to praise their efforts.
2. Increase bonding. Strengthen the connections between youth and positive adults and peers (i.e., foster positive peer and adult relationships)—interdependence—and between youth and any positive social activity (e.g., sports, art, music, writing, dance, community service, reading, learning). Acknowledge the different learning styles of each young person. Encourage greater family involvement in each young person’s life. What might this look like? Youth with strong, positive bonds are less likely to be involved in inappropriate or high-risk behavior than those without such bonds.
3. Set clear, consistent boundaries. Youth require clear and consistent rules or boundaries (e.g., family rules and norms, school policies and procedures, community laws and norms) within which they are encouraged to reach their potential. These must be clearly spelt out and consistently enforced. Encourage input from the youth you work with and guide. Negotiate with them over the boundaries and enforcement procedures (and consequences) with a caring attitude. In this way they gain a sense of ownership, and receive the message that they are a valued community resource.
4. Teach life skills. Some key life skills are cooperative skills, entrepreneurial skills, positive conflict resolution skills, resistance and assertiveness skills, communication skills, problem solving and decision-making skills, and healthy stress management. These skills help youth to deal with peer pressure, and avoid pitfalls such as inappropriate antisocial behavior, and drug or alcohol abuse. They also contribute to a positive learning environment because they help youth feel safe and secure.
5. Set and communicate high expectations. Expectations that are high and realistic are effective motivators: “I believe in you. I know you can do it.” Focus on a cooperative rather than competitive approach and involve youth in decision making: You are valued. “I value and respect you and your opinions.”
6. Provide opportunities for meaningful participation. Give youth responsibility by allowing them opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, plan, set goals, and help others—selfless service. Allow them to share power with adults in real ways. See them as resources rather than as passive objects or problems. Encourage youth to join school and youth committees, or positive peer programs.
The resilience champion significant adult
Whatever your role might be, you have the important task of coaching resilient youth to become the best they can be. Richard Guare and Peg Dawson remind us that, “for [teenagers], anything that arouses emotion—fear of social rejection, the need to look cool, disappointing someone, disagreements with parents—can lead to less rational thinking . . . strong emotional reactions from parents fuel the emotional reactions of [teenagers].” That’s why the significant adult, for example, creates an important buffer between the teenager and the parent over an issue that typically might lead to conflict. “They play that vital role of surrogate frontal lobe (especially the prefrontal cortex) whose influence is gradually reduced over time as the teenagers become more proficient and practical in using their Executive skills.”
Always remember the importance of working on the basis of a developmental relationship rather than a prescriptive “I must save you”, or “I can fix your problems”, or “I will rescue you” attitude. Most youth will rebel against the latter attitudes, as the message you relay to them is that there’s something wrong with them, rather than, “Hey, you’re a normal teenager on this confusing journey through adolescence. I am more than happy to be an encouragement and support to you if you want me to be one of your cheerleaders.”
So, here are some key qualities for the resiliency champion significant adult to develop during their lifelong journey working with youth:
• Show plenty of empathy;
• Express consistent, non-judgmental, and unconditional caring;
• Be an inspiration;
• Be trusting and able to be trusted;
• Be empowering and guide youth how to look at life in a positive way;
• Coach and teach that youth have the power to create their own reality; they can take control of their lives by learning how to set personal best goals, even if these are initially small easy-to-achieve goals;
• Meet their emotional safety needs in a non-life threatening, non-abusive, or manipulative way;
• Be a good listener;
• Be compassionate;
• Be respectful;
• Provide a mirror and positive model of what can be obtained, which includes the important areas of sleep and nutrition;
• Be willing to be vulnerable, flexible, and honest;
• Guide them to understand the importance of taking time out from the internet, or texting, or social media to talk about any problems with someone they trust;
• Share true stories—YouTube clips can help as well—as youth can be motivated and inspired by stories of how others deal with the trials of life.
• Guide them how to look at potential conflict situations with a positive mindset. Judith Glaser states: “As you strengthen your relationship with others by listening and caring, you quell your amygdala and theirs, trigger your mirror neurons and theirs, create greater levels of empathy, and open your executive brain to thinking about conflicts in a new way.”
During these challenging pandemic times and in the post-pandemic months ahead, youth will treasure a significant, non-judgmental adult cheerleader who encourages them to develop resiliency and motivates them to reach their potential. We were reminded by surprise United States Tennis Open 2021 Woman’s Champion, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu – ranked 150th in the world – who had to go through the qualification matches to enable her to participate in the Open that, with hard work, belief in yourself and staying focused, anyone can achieve their dreams.