Like adults, youth also struggle with stress. Too many commitments, conflict in their families and problems with peers are all stressors that can overwhelm them. Resilience is the ability of a person to recover quickly from life’s difficulties and influences the way we deal with stress.
We all can develop resilience, and we can help the youth in our lives develop it as well. Luckily, building resilience is a learning process, not just a trait we are born with, and involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned over time. The key to helping youth manage stress and building resilience is teaching them to problem-solve, plan and know when to say yes and no to certain activities and commitments.
One of the most effective ways to encourage positive mental health in youth is by modeling the kinds of behaviors, thoughts, and actions we want them to practice. Stress can be contagious – the ways that you cope with stress can impact how they cope with it. Make yourself a good example and teach them the importance of making time to eat properly, exercise and rest.
Teach them to understand their own bodies and the physiology of stress. While it’s normal for a child’s stomach to feel jumpy on the first day of school, leaving class because their stomach hurts or waking up repeatedly with a headache is a sign there’s too much going on. It’s important to encourage them to listen to what their bodies are saying. For instance, sit in the car with the youth, press the gas and brake, and listen to the engine revving – explain that “our body just revs and revs until it wears out and says ‘enough’!”
Help them identify ways that they have successfully handled hardships in the past – then help them understand that these past challenges help them build the strength and resilience to handle future challenges. Help them learn to trust themselves to solve problems and make appropriate decisions. Teach them to see the humor in life, and the ability to laugh at one’s self from time to time.
Support them in learning how to make friends, including the skill of empathy, or feeling another’s pain. Encourage them to be a friend in order to get friends. Help them build a network of social support by encouraging them to identify other supportive people in their lives – at school, at home or in the community. Some find comfort in connecting with a higher power, whether through organized religion or privately.
Sticking to a routine can be comforting to youth, especially younger children who crave structure in their lives. Encourage and guide them in developing a routine that works for them, particularly for youth who struggle with certain transitions – like getting up and ready for school in the morning or going to bed.
While it is important to stick to routines, endlessly worrying can be counter-productive. Teach them how to focus on something besides what’s worrying them. Be aware of what you are exposed to that can be distressing – whether it be the news, Internet or overheard conversations – and make sure they take a break from those things if it becomes too much. This also means making sure they have enough “downtime” to relax and aren’t overscheduled.
Teach youth how to set reasonable, achievable goals and then to move toward them one step at a time. Moving toward those goals – even if it’s a tiny step – and receiving praise for doing so will help them focus on what they have already accomplished rather than on what hasn’t been accomplished, and can help build the resilience they need to move forward in the face of challenges.
Youth who may feel helpless can be empowered by helping others. Engage them in age-appropriate volunteer work, or ask for assistance yourself with some task that they can master. Brainstorm with youth about ways they can help others at school.
There is always hope! Even when a youth is facing very painful events, help them look at the situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Although they may be too young to consider the long-term outlook on their own, help them see that there is a future beyond the current situation and that the future can be good. An optimistic and positive outlook enables youth to see the good things in life and keep going even in the hardest times.
For youth, a lot of stress comes from the fear of making mistakes. Remind them that they’re not supposed to know how to do everything, or do everything right. While making good decisions is an important skill to learn, the skill that might be even more important is learning how to recover from a bad decision – help them understand that screwing up is part of the process. Work with them to figure out next steps after a bad decision or mistake – how to fix it, make amends, learn the lesson and move on.
Tough times are often the times when youth learn the most about themselves. Help them see the silver lining – how whatever they are facing can teach them “what they are made of” and are an opportunity for growth.
Change can often be scary for youth. Help them see that change is a part of life and new goals can replace goals that have become unattainable. Schools can help by pointing out how students have changed as they moved up in grade levels and discuss how that change has had an impact on the students.