Building Resiliency: 4 Ways to Boost Your Teen’s Confidence and Coping Skills

Tips from an adolescent medicine specialist

You can’t promise your teen a stress-free life — that’s not how it works. But you can help them see that the way they handle problems can intensify stress or release it.

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“Parents can help teens build skills and stockpile tools for turning the lemons life hands them into lemonade,” says adolescent medicine specialist Ellen Rome, MD, MPH.

“But nothing is as important as what your kids see you doing on a daily basis, so it’s important to be a good role model.”

Here, Dr. Rome shares five strategies for boosting your teen’s resiliency:

1. Help your teen tackle problems in bite-size pieces

“If you’ve got 87 billion stressors, what are the top three, and which one can you work on today?” she says. If homework seems overwhelming, suggest that your teen make lists and timelines, and check off each task as it’s completed.

Encourage teens to tell themselves a positive story about what’s going on because visualizing success can increase the odds for a good outcome.

“If you allow yourself self-defeating thoughts, you can make those thoughts your reality,” says Dr. Rome.

Parents can also role-model using the Serenity Prayer, she says. This teaches teens how to discern what can and can’t be changed about a situation; and how to accept what’s beyond their control.

“Sometimes, avoiding stress that is avoidable is a strength in itself,” notes Dr. Rome. “Kids in stressful situations should know when it’s worthwhile to walk away.”

2. Set loving limits — with high expectations

“Be super clear that you want your kids to work hard to be their best selves,” says Dr. Rome. “Kids will live up or live down to our expectations.”

If you focus on the A’s your teen brings home, you’ll see more A’s; if you focus on the C’s, the C’s may come up to B’s, but the A’s may go down also. Emphasizing the positive and catching them doing something right tends to work best.

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Praise hard work rather than results. “Tell your teen, ‘I saw how hard you worked for those grades — what a great way to organize yourself to get that done!’” she advises.

When you must criticize, target a behavior — that’s easier to change than an attitude.

“Some kids who are labeled ‘lazy’ may not be putting out effort for fear of disappointing you,” says Dr. Rome. “That label only makes them feel worse about themselves — and angry for not being seen for who they are.”

Tell your child you know they care about doing well, and you want to better understand what’s making them uncomfortable about trying harder. She suggests saying:

  • “Is it something I’ve said or done? I’ll try to make it right.”
  • “Are you under too much pressure? I’m here to support you.”
  • “Have you lost confidence in yourself for some reason? Let’s figure out a way to help you rebuild that.”

“If you listen well, your kids will learn to talk to you,” says Dr. Rome. “If you let them win when they present a valid argument, you will earn the privilege of continuing to hear their thoughts.”

3. Suggest healthy outlets for emotions

When teens get upset, the nervous system that triggers the fight-or-flight response takes over.

Yoga, meditation and deep breathing can help teens activate the other nervous system, which shuts down the stress response,” she says. “They can also help teens gain mastery and focus.”

Visualizing a “happy place” of their choosing can help teens relax anywhere — even on the road or in the middle of class. So can visualizing a square, and breathing in along two sides of it, then breathing out along the other two sides of it.

Other healthy outlets for dealing with emotions include:

  • Tackling “nature deficit disorder” and going for a walk.
  • Listening to music or reading a novel.
  • Creating something — writing poetry, making pottery, playing music.
  • Tapping into spirituality through prayer and meditation.
  • Connecting with good friends.

Teenage girls also have a secret weapon: the hormone oxytocin. “Oxytocin gives women a physiologic drive to connect; it makes us want to have coffee and talk,” explains Dr. Rome. (Connecting on phones, tablets or other electronics may amplify a teen’s low mood, however.)

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If a relationship is troubling your teen, saying, “just get past it” or “don’t make such a big deal out of it,” doesn’t work. “Feelings are not the enemy,” she notes.

It helps to ask yourself how you’ll feel about a difficult situation tomorrow, or next week, or next year.

Parents can show teens how to reboot a relationship that’s important.

“You can role-model how to apologize first, without explanations or excuses, in all your relationships,” says Dr. Rome. “You can say, ‘I’m sorry — I don’t know what I have done to make you angry. Is there anything I can do to make things right?’”

4. Encourage your teen to contribute

Trying to make the world a better place feels good. “It’s hard to keep feeling bad about yourself when you’re helping other people,” says Dr. Rome.

“Contributing to the world builds competence, confidence, connection and character,” she says. “It teaches teens that their decisions and actions can make a difference in their circumstances — that they have control over their destinies.”

So set high expectations for yourself and your teen. Help them make healthy choices. Allow them to see themselves as learners, not failures.

“You and your kids matter; we’re all in this together,” says Dr. Rome. “Value your teen, and set loving limits. Provide a safe harbor, and guide them when their safety or morals are at risk.”

You’ll find your teen becoming resilient: sleeping well, eating well, smiling, laughing and flourishing.

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