Bouncing back

Increasing resilience for hurting kids

Maria Drews | Aug 3, 2009

Our kids face obstacles every day—difficulties with friends, stress at school, issues with boyfriends or girlfriends.

But many of the students we work with also face larger obstacles-poverty, violence at school or in their neighborhood, parents getting divorced, substance abuse in their homes, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, abuse, or domestic violence. Remarkably, some kids seem to make it through these situations intact, while others crumble before our eyes.

Even more remarkably, there are kids who even thrive despite facing huge struggles. Which leaves us scratching our heads—Why are some kids able to bounce back from tough stuff, while others aren’t? What are the differences between those who seem to make it through in one piece and those who seem to fall apart? And what can we do to help more kids survive—and even thrive—in the midst of steep challenges?

Responses to adversity

When adolescents face tough stuff, they experience adversity—defined in the research as serious stress or trauma that can be physical or psychological. [[Charles S. Carver, “Resilience and Thriving: Issues, Models, and Linkages,” Journal of Social Issues (vol. 54, no. 2, 1998) 245.]] Adversity can be a one-time event (such as a violent incident at school) or a long-term situation (like living in poverty). There are a lot of ways the teenagers we know might respond to adversity in their lives. Here are a few typical possibilities:

  • Succumbing: Kids succumb to the adversity and enter a downward slide in their lives, decreasing their level of functioning and their ability to cope with everyday life.
  • Survival with Impairment: They survive the adversity, but never fully recover to their previous level of functioning, leaving them hurt long-term by the adversity they faced. This leads to more vulnerability to future adversity.
  • Resilience: Resilience is the capacity to recover from adversity and return to their former state of well-being. [[Carver, “Resilience and Thriving,” 248.]] These kids are able to “bounce back” to their previous levels of functioning after the adversity ends, or even in the midst of long-term adversity.
  • Thriving: Finally, a fourth group of kids are able to overcome the adversity and actually surpass their previous level of functioning. [[The four responses to adversity are described in Carver, “Resilience and Thriving,” 246.]] This is because adversity can be an opportunity to grow, gain new skills or knowledge, new confidence about their future, or strengthen trust in personal relations. [[Carver, “Resilience and Thriving,” 251-252.]] All these developments can help them face future adversity and become higher-functioning people in general. Because adversity can lead to either succumbing or to resilience/thriving, we should see it as both a threat and an opportunity for growth. [[Carver, “Resilience and Thriving,” 247.]]

The path toward resilience and thriving

All of us possess resilience. It is not a quality some people have and others don’t. We all have the ability to overcome problems and adapt to challenging and new situations. [[Ann S. Masten, “Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development,” American Psychologist (vol. 56, no. 3, March 2001) 227.]] If we didn’t, we would never make it through the day, because we would not be able to bounce back from the small problems we face. Although resiliency is an innate capacity in kids, their ability to actually be resilient can either be strengthened or hindered by the amount of assets or risks in their lives. As Fuller psychology professor and youth development specialist Dr. Pamela King notes:

All young people have the potential to grow and change—especially in the face of adversity. Youth who have more internal resources and external supports, and the ability to activate them, will weather the waters of life more effectively. For example, kids who are anchored by a strong sense of purpose and hope will not easily be overcome or deterred by obstacles. Similarly, young people who are buoyed up by family and adults who can affirm and empower them will face life’s challenges with more fortitude than those who go it alone. [[Pamela E. King, personal correspondence, July 2009.]]

Assets are the resources and supports available to a kid both internally and in their environment, like having a sense of purpose (internal) or a supportive family (environmental), that are the building blocks of healthy development. [[Pamela E. King and Peter L. Benson, “Spiritual Development and Adolescent Well-Being and Thriving,” in The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, ed. Eugene C. Roehlkepartain et al. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers, 2006) 388.]] Risks are the adversities and disadvantages the kid faces (also both internal and external), such as lack of desire to learn or violence at school. The more adversity and risk factors a kid faces, the more likely there will be poor outcomes and lowered levels of functioning. Fortunately, the more assets and resources an adolescent possesses, the better chance they have of meeting obstacles with resilience or thriving. [[Masten, “Ordinary Magic,” 228.]]

Helping kids thrive

The great news is that we can actually help increase the assets and resilience factors in kids’ lives as youth workers. King notes, “Youth workers have the privilege of acting as scaffolding—or support—in young people’s lives. They can leverage their impact on the kids they serve by providing relational support as well as boundaries and expectations. Kids need both affection and direction.” There are several ways to promote resiliency and thriving in adolescents in the face of adversity:

Protect and promote the essentials: A few essential elements are necessary to develop and protect that natural resilience we all possess. Studies show that good intellectual functioning (including IQ, problem solving, and information-processing), competent and effective parenting (including monitoring, boundaries, and support), [[Ann S. Masten and J. Douglas Coatsworth, “The Development of Competence in Favorable and Unfavorable Environments: Lessons From Research on Successful Children” American Psychologist (vol. 53, no. 2, February 1998) 213.]] and the ability to regulate emotion and behavior are all essential parts of developing natural resiliency. If these systems are compromised, a kid’s natural resilience will be hindered, and the chance of poor outcomes in the face of adversity will be much higher. [[Masten, “Ordinary Magic,” 232, 235.]] On the other hand, if a kid has adults who care for them, normal cognitive development, and the ability to manage their attention, emotions, and behavior, they are more likely to develop a strong natural resilience to adversity. [[Masten and Coatsworth, “The Development of Competence,” 215.]]

Add more assets and strengthen assets: To compensate for increased adversity, kids need an increase in assets. Enough positive assets can offset burdens of adversity in a kid’s life. [[Masten, “Ordinary Magic,” 230.]] For instance, if an adolescent lives in a violent neighborhood, new relationships with caring and watchful neighbors may offset the risk. Youth ministries are especially equipped to give teens other adult relationships, a community that values youth, a place where youth are seen as resources and can serve others, adult role models, high expectations, and a religious community. Discovering and strengthening the assets they already have is a great place to start. [[Masten, “Ordinary Magic,” 230.]]

Prevent or reduce risk factors: Although we cannot completely protect kids from adversity, we can work to prevent some of the risk factors in their lives and lessen the impact of others. [[Masten, “Ordinary Magic,” 230. Masten and Coatsworth, “The Development of Competence,” 214.]] We can understand the risks the kids in our ministry face, work to improve the systems they are part of (like schools, neighborhoods, or families), and be an advocate for them as they face adversity. For instance, if your kids attend under-resourced schools, find ways your ministry can donate classroom resources to help teachers or be an advocate to get your kids into programs like honors classes or after-school tutoring. Go beyond helping kids be resilient and work to prevent adversity in their lives in the first place.

Create buffers: Buffers act like airbags in the lives of kids. When you are in a bad collision, an airbag protects you from the full impact of the accident. When a kid faces adversity without a counterbalancing amount of assets, buffers can help reduce the impact of the adversity. [[Masten, Ordinary Magic, 231.]] Buffers include caring adults that kids and families can turn to when they are overcome with tough stuff, giving them support, helping them problem-solve, and promoting healthy ways of coping. Youth pastors, school counselors, and therapists, as well as programs like crisis services, can all act as buffers. Make buffers easily accessible to your kids and families.

There is no “silver bullet” that we can give kids to ensure that they thrive, but we can increase assets and resilience factors in kids’ lives through holistic ministries and relationships.

Resilience in action: An interview with Michael Mata

Michael Mata currently provides technical support to World Vision U.S. community transformation efforts which has youth empowerment at its core—that is, training youth to be advocates of change. Michael teaches in FYI’s Urban Youth Ministry Certificate program and in Urban Studies at Fuller and Claremont seminaries. Michael spent several years as a youth pastor in Los Angeles and has seen all sorts of kids face all sorts of adversities.

Michael, what is the role of the youth worker in promoting resilience?

When a kid is facing adversity, as a youth minister, you act as an asset to the youth. You are not standing in front of them, but you are seeing where they want to go and acting as an asset in their life to get them there. Adults have some resources students do not, and we can walk alongside them and be an asset to them when they need it. This takes trust between you and the youth. If you don’t have strong trusting relationships with the youth already, when they face really tough stuff it will be hard to walk alongside them. Teens are looking for people to be on the sidelines and step in when things get rough. Be there when things aren’t going well, affirm what they were able to accomplish, and help them reflect on what they have learned.

How can we build assets when a teen is facing adversity?

One of the best things we can do is look for the assets the adolescent already has and strengthen those assets or channel them in healthy ways. For instance, a lot of teens facing adversity are prone to take risks. I see being risk-prone an inherent asset in itself. Teens are willing to do things and try things adults aren’t willing to do. They like to experiment and test boundaries. As a youth worker, we can nurture those tendencies in a positive way, through “asset jujitsu”, instead of trying to restrict their behavior.

If we understand risk-taking as trying new things then a youth worker can create “adventures” all the way from actually going on an adventuresome hike or camping experience to challenging youth with new ideas and ways of looking at life. It really is giving youth positive and creative options, within a safe environment, to channel their risk-taking behavior to “new” life-affirming activities, ideas and ultimately a way of life—the one that the creator of universe challenges us to make real. Now that is an adventure!

Why do you think it is important that the church is working on promoting resiliency in teens?

The church is in a unique place to bring out assets that adolescents cannot explore or demonstrate in other areas of their lives, especially if they live in very adverse environments. In the church teens can be affirmed, valued because they are created in the image of God, and find a special place that is their own. In youth ministries we can create safe places where teens do not denigrate themselves or others and where they can work out healthy relationships. In this context, a teen’s natural assets may shine through, and as youth ministers we can call out those assets and work with the teen to strengthen them. Supportive adults can make a learning ground for teens within the church, helping them develop the assets that are already there by prodding their natural capacities. We only see kids a few hours of week, and there is a lot of damage that goes on outside of the walls, so we need to build assets inside the church so they can cope with the world outside.

What do you think is the role of the youth worker in reducing the risks teens face in their communities?

Go with your strengths. Youth workers know youth. A youth worker can easily be a voice for young people. In the community there are typically no youth in the places that make decisions for youth, like neighborhood councils, city councils, and school boards. Show up to these places and ask how the decisions they are making are going to impact kids. It is not only about advocating for policies but letting the community know how their decisions are impacting youth. Bring youth along to these places and get them involved and get their voice heard. Do what you do best in a public way—be a friendly advocate of them.

Any final words of advice?

Remember you are not the Messiah. You are not their savior. You are not their parent. You are not the entertainment director. You are not the police. In the face of adversity, you can’t do it all. You are there to help them develop a healthier life in the present, which will help them in the future.

And have hope. You may not see the fruit of your efforts immediately. I got an email several weeks ago in which a kid asked me if I remembered him. He talked about remembering this time I drove him and his friends around and talked to them. He said he “remembered you were committed to us. We all do.” These guys were facing a lot of tough stuff. They could have gone the other way really easily. Now they are all doing well. I didn’t get to see the fruits until now, many years later.

Action points: First steps to promote resilience in your ministry

We know we want resilient and thriving kids, but where to start? Here are a few ideas of first steps you can take to promote resilience in your ministries:

  1. Do an asset inventory: Using Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets, assess what assets you are already providing or promoting in your youth and celebrate them. Assess which assets you have the resources to easily promote in your ministry and set goals to incorporate them. 
  2. Continue to strengthen relationships between adults and youth: Not only are trusting relationships between teens and adults one of the biggest assets youth ministries can offer teens, but they are a basis for building up other resources and assets that promote resilience.
  3. Work with families: Effective and supportive parenting is essential to a kid’s natural development of resilience. The family is a source of many assets, as well as a possible source of a lot of adversity and risk. Your ministry and church can be a support to families, provide resources, and include them as a holistic and essential part of youth ministry.
  4. Let teens know you want to help them through tough stuff: We assume that teens understand that we want to help them through tough stuff, but when a student feels overwhelmed or embarrassed about the issues they face, they may have a hard time opening up about it. Frequently remind kids you are available to them if they need to talk. Make it a practice to sincerely ask kids “How are things going?” when you see them, and wait to listen for their response.

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Photo by Robin Li

Maria Drews

Maria Drews worked in youth ministry in Madison, WI and Chicago before moving out to Pasadena to pursue her Masters of Divinity at Fuller Seminary. She loves the church, living in community, learning new things, and a good cup of coffee in the morning. Maria and her husband are part of the Kairos LA church community and love going on adventures with friends.

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