By Dr. Michael Bradley

The current teen epidemics of stress, anxiety, depression and suicide become understandable given fifty-year data showing profound drops in critical adolescent attitudes such as optimism, perceived life-outcome-control and intrinsic values-based motivations (versus “he who dies with the most toys wins”). These are all prime ingredients of that near-magical teen protective force called resilience. Dr. Ken Ginsburg and The American Academy of Pediatrics identify seven factors (“The Seven C’s”) they found in adolescents who seem to navigate their crazy culture much more safely. The good news is that resilience is not some predetermined genetic trait, but something that can be fostered through skilled parenting. The bad news is that parents can’t lecture resilience into a child. In fact, the more we try to force kids into resilience, the less resilient they become. When it comes to parental power and control, less is indeed more in the game of resilience building.

To help parents sort out that paradox, here is a summary of the extensive resilience research in a quick-read format that lays out day-to-day tactics for resilience-focused parenting of teenagers to build these seven C’s.

  1. Competence: specific abilities/skills to handle situations effectively

Competence is only earned the hard way by getting into the game of life. It requires trying new things, enjoying the winning but tolerating the losing since losing teaches more. It is only acquired through actual experience. Over time, competence helps teens to trust their judgments, make better choices and face challenges without being paralyzed by fear of failure.

Competence-building jobs for parents:

  • Encourage any/all activities, structured or not. Baseball and debate teams are great; so are “useless” rock n’ roll bands and gay/straight alliance clubs.
  • Say lots about what they do well; say as little as possible about what they do poorly.
  • When pointing out a mistake, stay narrow focused. Don’t say “you always do this”; instead try “if you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?”
  • Don’t lecture with answers; do induce thinking with questions.
  • Let them make non-lethal mistakes. Don’t try to excessively protect them. Bad decisions made well (their own choices) are more strengthening than good decisions made poorly (compelled by parents). We all learn more by choosing and losing since autonomous loss builds ultimate success. Directed winning teaches kids to rely excessively upon parents, sometimes for life.

2. Confidence: Projecting competence into the future

Confidence-building jobs for parents:

  • Expect the best, not of achievement, but of personal qualities such as fairness, integrity, persistence, and kindness. Once these things are in place, achievement is hard to stop. Without them, achievement becomes meaningless.
  • Correct poor behavior with optimism: “I know you’re better than that…”
  • Don’t treat them as stupid. Do treat them as people learning to navigate the world. Frame mistakes as learning opportunities.
  • Praise them often but honestly about specific achievements (“wins”), and even more about good efforts that fail (“losses”).
  • Encourage them to push themselves, don’t push them: “What do you have to lose by trying?” “How will you feel later if you don’t try now?”
  • Avoid shame. Frame bad decisions as symptoms, not sins.
  • Never compare them to others (especially to sibs). Focus on growth towards, not mastery of, skills.

3. Connections: Lifelines of love

Connections-building jobs for parents:

  • Promote physical and emotional security within the home. Avoid fear-based parenting (hitting, yelling, ridiculing).
  • Model positive conflict: “I love you even though we strongly disagree…” vs. negative (avoiding/exploding).
  • Remind them that you are crazy in love with them especially in conflict, allowing them to express all of their emotions, especially the ones you don’t want to hear: “I understand that you hate me right now. I’m sorry for that, but I love you way too much to allow you to possibly hurt yourself…”
  • Separate the “business” of parenting from the “personal.” See their failures as decision errors, not personal attacks directed at you.
  • Use consequences (pre-informed outcomes of choices allowing kids to earn or fail to earn things) vs. punishments (after-the-fact take-aways). Whenever possible, put the power to determine their futures in their hands.
  • Respect their choices, especially the ones that make you crazy. Instead of, “How can you possibly like screamo (horrendous music)?” try ‘Tell me what you love about screamo.”

4. Character: What We Do When No One’s Looking

Character-building jobs for parents:

  • Show how your kid’s behavior affects other people in good and bad ways like ripples in the pond: “You have no idea how happy you made grandmom…”
  • Allow them to clarify their own values especially if you disagree. Instead of “How can you possibly support that candidate?” try “Tell me what you like about that candidate.”
  • Model the importance of caring for others and show what that does for you.
  • Demonstrate the importance of community. Emphasize how we are all connected for better and for worse, and how character makes that connection better: “I love helping out your coach. She’s an incredible lady who gives so much of her time. She really cares about you guys.”
  • Help them develop a sense of purpose and meaningfulness of life: “What is this all about, for you?” Give them questions, not answers, and never judge their responses.
  • Proactively stand up to hateful prejudice. Be very clear how you see that stuff.
  • Show how you think of others’ needs when making character decisions. Talk out loud to yourself in front of your kid: “I’d love to play golf today, but mom could really use a break.”
  • Share your own character experiences: “I once did a nice thing and no one knew about it but me. That felt great. It felt less great the more people found out” (the hero’s dilemma).

5. Contribution: Changing the world, one pebble at a time

Contribution-building jobs for parents:

  • Continually reference the “real world” (of people in need) vs. the “Disney world” in which most of us live.
  • Model generosity with your own time and money.
  • Show how we really change the world one pebble at a time: “That one person we fed today might disagree with you that small acts are pointless.”
  • Create opportunities for each child to contribute in some way. When faced with resistance, don’t forget the power of a well-placed bribe (e.g. payment for “volunteering” at the homeless shelter) to get that ball rolling. Initial extrinsic rewards can create life-long emotional payoffs for doing good things.

6. Coping Skills: The martial arts of resilience

Coping skills-building jobs for parents:

  • Help them learn the tool of perspective. Distinguish life’s frustrations from the horrors (e.g. social rejection vs. genocide).
  • Model positive coping strategies by narrating your own internal process: “This feels scary right now, but I know the sun will come up tomorrow. I can’t let my fear make my decisions…”
  • Allow for unstructured “wasted” time (without screens). Fantasy and play are great exercises for problem-solving.
  • Model the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
  • Model and narrate (vs. preach) the importance of wellness (exercise, nutrition, and adequate sleep): “I feel so much better when I…”

7. Control: Hope in action

Control-building for parents:

  • Comment upon how most things happen as a direct result of someone’s actions and choices.
  • Constantly point out their small successes to remind them that they can succeed. Kids experience much more failure than success, and that can beat them down into expecting failure.
  • Link their autonomy with responsibility: “What if every day you get all of your homework in, you earn an hour of driving time?”

Dr. Michael Bradley is a best-selling author, lecturer and practicing psychologist specializing in adolescence. His latest book is Crazy-Stressed: Saving Today’s Overwhelmed Teens with Love, Laughter and the Science of Resilience (Amacom, 2017)

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“Seven Cs” from Building Resilience in Children and Teens courtesy of The American Academy of Pediatrics

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