Your Health

Helping teenagers to bounce back from life's challenges

Hand foot and mouth disease in child
Photo of Laurie McPherson LAURIE MCPHERSON
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, September 16, 2016

All parents want their teenagers to be resilient.

After all, resilience helps us cope with life's setbacks and allows us to grow and thrive.

Yet parents can sometimes forget moving from childhood to adulthood is a long process that takes several years and includes many complex areas of brain development. Instilling resilience in your child can take a fair amount of time and effort.

It helps to have an understanding of the four key principles of resiliency. The most important factor in youth resiliency is positive relationships.

Feeling valued, having a sense of belonging and the ability to reach out for help are all important aspects of a healthy relationship.

These things begin to develop in infancy when parents and other caregivers respond to their children and help them manage difficult feelings. Support and encouragement from parents at an early age lays the foundation for resilience down the road.

Since having a sense of belonging is a strong protective factor for teens, it is important to stay connected. Find things to do together or have good conversations in the car when driving. Show interest in the things they are interested in. Develop or preserve family rituals that bond family members such as family dinners or game nights.

Listening to your teen while resisting the urge to solve all their problems is another key way to enhance your relationship. You could begin by asking your teen, "What do you think about the situation?" before offering your perspective.

Trust is an important aspect of a healthy relationship. Demonstrate trust, for example, by not going into your teenager's bedroom or going through his or her personal belongings without their permission.

Make sure they can come to you when they mess up. Encourage them to reflect and think about what happened and why. Provide guidance as they find an appropriate response to the situation and how it may be prevented in the future to increase their problem-solving skills. Learning from mistakes builds confidence to make good decisions and enhances resilience to face future challenges.

It is important to respect a teen's feelings. Remarks that diminish how they feel, such as "Don't be so dramatic, it's not that bad," while well-intended, are likely to discourage your teen from sharing with you in the future. Instead, validate what you are hearing without judgment: "You sound really upset about that."

Help your teen find a variety of healthy ways to express themselves through talking, writing, music, art, dance, etc. Teens also need to find healthy ways to manage strong feelings. Physical activity, reaching out to others and using humour are all good ways to manage our emotions.

Teens often feel judged by parents, peers and others around them. Feelings of rejection from a friend, being teased in front of a group or experiencing bullying through social media are all common occurrences for teens. How they resolve these situations is related to the other factors of resilience, which include having supportive relationships, critical thinking skills and a sense of optimism.

When your teen is facing a problem, help them figure out the solution rather than offering your own. Parents can help build self-esteem by believing in their teen's ability to make good choices. If we continually demonstrate our lack of trust and confidence, it undermines their belief in their own abilities.

Staying optimistic when the going gets tough helps us push through challenging circumstances and develop what is referred to as "grit."

Optimism is not about only seeing the positive. Healthy optimism helps us evaluate our capabilities realistically and see how we can grow or move forward. For teens, this could mean understanding and accepting the fact they may sometimes fall short of their own expectations, such as when they get a poor mark on an exam, while also having the capacity to see they are capable of doing better next time.

Building resilience is a lifelong journey for all of us, and helping teens move along in the right direction will provide a multitude of benefits for years to come.

Laurie McPherson is manager of the mental health promotion program in the Winnipeg Health Region. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Sept. 16, 2016.

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