Fostering Resilience in Adolescents

There is growing social worry over out-of-control adolescents who engage in risky behaviours. Many people seeking help from the mental health system have faced various challenges, including poverty, unstable parenting, residential care, foster care, or school expulsion. They live in systems that are resource-poor and lack supporting capability.

Significantly, these teenagers struggle to participate in therapeutic activities because they fear stigmatisation. There is a developmental difficulty in this situation: the health-seeking component of the psyche is externally oriented. It seeks self-efficacy and autonomy, but the possibility of treatment may strengthen unconscious worries of being made a 'psycho'.

What do we mean by Resilience?

Resilience refers to patterns of positive adaptation during or after significant adversity or risk. The criterion necessitates two judgements: first, that the exposure to risk or adversity was severe enough to endanger healthy development, and second, that the subject subsequently met age-related developmental tasks. There has been an emphasis within this paradigm on characterising resilient outcomes as individual factors (e.g., practical problem-solving abilities, emotional self-regulation, good parenting) or processes (e.g., attachment patterns, family and community relationships).

A renewed emphasis on resilient systems has been one of the most significant advances in resilience science during the last decade. Risks, protective variables, and resources are considered to mediate resilience at numerous levels, spanning from molecular neurobiology to the social, cultural, and political.

Analyses of resistance to trauma and stress give one example. One of the most constant study findings is that supporting informal and formal social networks and intimate emotional interactions promotes resilience. According to neurobiological studies, this type of emotional support can alleviate uncertainty and stress by influencing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) and sympathetic nerve systems, which regulate cortisol levels. This improves coping by influencing brain regulatory systems that govern arousal and behavioural and cognitive responses to stress.

According to Masten and colleagues, systems operate at multiple levels and include robust motivational systems such as the mastery system as well as relational systems at the family, community, and societal levels, and the greatest threat to children's resilience may be adversities that damage or undermine these basic human protective systems.

Agency in Resilience

Of course, cultures impact resilience concepts, as Ungar's multicountry resilience project investigates. In many cultures, explanatory psychological theories of discomfort are uncommon, and causality is more likely to be assigned to external social or structural causes. According to Ungar, resilience entails individuals' ability to obtain health-sustaining resources (including opportunities to experience feelings of well-being) and the ability of the individual's family, community, and culture to provide the necessary resources and experiences in a culturally meaningful manner.

Mobilizing Social Networks to Foster Coping and Resilience

The Social Convey model provides another valuable understanding of how social relationships create resilience. Social convoys are the many ties in children's and adolescents' lives that permit the interchange of emotional support, self-affirmation, and direct help. Significantly, the model extends the idea of attachment connections to other close relationships and recognises that adult-child interactions are characterised by mutual support and social exchange.

In adult-child interactions, children and teens may provide and receive nurturance and support, a significant motivator in relationship development and maintenance. The strengths-based model proposes an engaged young person involved in reciprocal support connections. This may be especially important for teenagers who are striking a balance between autonomy and relatedness in relationships.

Implications for Policy and Practice

The approaches described above emphasise the need to foster young people's agentive, help-seeking, and mastery-oriented abilities as they negotiate the assistance they require from those around them. If these models are to be successfully implemented, practitioners will encounter several problems. Adolescents' capacities for mobilising adaptive support networks, negotiating access to resources for healthy growth and development, and engaging in social convoys characterised by reciprocal supportive connections must be developed by practitioners.

They must also encourage resilience when adolescent support networks are broken, unsupportive, or inaccessible, as is frequently the case with families of 'hard to reach' teenagers. Finally, they must move away from concentrating on internal psychological processes and clinician/patient-defined interventions and integrate themselves into the adolescent's overall resilience system.

In practice, this entails establishing procedures that assist young people in determining their own needs, priorities, and best interests, as well as mobilising their social networks and communities to assist them in meeting those requirements.

Mobilizing Resilience: An Illustrative Example

A participatory action research (PAR) social integration study with nine girls (aged 12-18 years) is described here, half of whom had received official caution from the police and had also been referred to an intensive support service for young people in crisis. A handful was in foster or residential care, and several had been kicked out.

The other participants were community peers who had no official interaction with the police and were not in distress. Participants in the facilitator group comprised a psychotherapist, a creative artist, and two peer researchers from the same community. The principal investigator was the author, a psychologist.

Over the course of 24 weeks, the intervention project evolved into three phases. It took the form of weekly creative arts workshops in which police, youth justice, and social integration experiences were discussed. We expected the girls to take the lead in planning and decision-making −

  • they would select an art medium to work in;

  • they would select, design, and implement a social action project that addressed their primary concerns; and

  • they would manage the project's budget throughout, the girls connected with the outside world in ways that they choose, such as visiting other social projects and meeting politicians, community leaders, and other significant players to ask them about pressing issues.

Their final social project, a DVD explaining their concerns with the judicial and care systems and social integration, was given to Ireland's Ombudsman for Children, senior Garda Juvenile Diversion officers, local police, schools, and community organisations.


In summary, this project's experience has taught us that fostering resilience with 'hard to reach' adolescents entails providing them with a good or positive experience of power, control, decision-making ownership, and resource management in a way that stimulates their feelings of mastery (their mastery system). They develop a sense that they can influence their surroundings in relevant ways and actively mobilise people to assist them.

Many of our more traditional clinical practices may accidentally hinder these processes, which are vital in developing resilience under stressful circumstances. As academics and practitioners, we reached a turning point in this project when the young people informed the Irish Ombudsman for Children, "This was our project," Their feeling of ownership was publicly acknowledged and claimed.

Updated on: 09-May-2023


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