Helping Teens Become Resilient Adults

It seems that some teens and young adults bounce back from challenges more easily, or if they need more time, that they still return to a pretty good spot in life rather than becoming defeated. Resiliency—the ability to bounce back, or to weather difficult times and remain positive—is a concept many people, and some researchers, have studied in hopes of using what they learn to help young people with ADHD adopt resilient mindsets.

“Resilience gets a lot of attention in psychology, and for good reason,” says ADHD Millennial blogger Neil Petersen. “How we react when things don’t go our way is the difference between moving forward and making a bad situation worse.”

But can a teen or young adult be taught how to become resilient or improve resiliency as a life skill? Could it be an inborn trait that can’t be developed? Researchers are attempting to answer that question while ADHD professionals are looking for ways to help develop resilience in their clients and patients.

What is resiliency?

“Resilience is our capacity to bounce back from adversity,” says Mark Bertin, MD, a developmental pediatrician. Resilience develops from contributing factors such as strong relationships, a positive mindset, a sense of our own strengths, experiences of success, and concrete skills. These factors combined together can help teens and young adults develop solutions to their difficulties and know that we have the ability to take on a problem or recover from a failure. Resilience is not an inborn trait, he says, but a skill that grows out of experience.

A young person who is resilient displays the ability to:

  • deal effectively with stress and pressure.
  • cope with everyday challenges.
  • bounce back from disappointments, adversity and trauma.
  • develop clear and realistic goals, along with realistic approaches to solve problems.
  • relate comfortably to other people and treat them with respect.

“Resilience provides part of the explanation as to why some teenagers with ADHD are ‘victims’ of their condition while others overcome overwhelming obstacles,” says Sam Goldstein, PhD, a former chair of CHADD’s professional advisory board. “As a parent, there is much you can do—through support, empathy, and nurturance—to help your teen develop resilience.”

Research on resiliency in teens and young adults

Researchers Melissa R. Dvorsky, MS, and Joshua M. Langberg, PhD, combed through scientific literature on resiliency and ADHD. From the published research, they noted the best support for a young person’s resilience comes from a combination of social and parental support when dealing with the difficulties presented by ADHD.

“Positive parenting is one of the most important resources for helping youth overcome adversity,” they write. “Specific to youth with ADHD, it seems likely that positive parenting and family cohesion foster a sense of attachment and commitment to parental values, which helps youth avoid risky situations and behavior.”

In other words, when a teen has an environment that is accepting of an ADHD diagnosis and parents who use positive parenting skills, the teen is better able to develop the skills that make her more resilient.

“Individuals with a positive self-concept are hopeful about their future, believe in their ability to impact their situation, are confident in their abilities to overcome obstacles, and make use of resources in their lives,” Ms. Dvorsky and Dr. Langberg write. “Further, individuals with a realistic, positive sense of self are more likely to adopt active coping strategies.”

Building resilience as a skill for your teen or young adult

If developing a resilient mindset is a skill a young people with ADHD need, how can you as a parent or mentor help your teen or young adult develop this skill?

A strong connection and healthy relationship between children and their parents important in developing resiliency. Parents who have a good understanding of ADHD and its treatment can better use positive parenting skills when working with their children. Parents can also help their children gain a better understanding of how symptoms affect them and learn to practice self-compassion—remaining realistic about events and abilities, leaving room for improvement and not doubting their abilities or self-worth—when things go wrong.

“Resilience builds from self-compassion,” says Dr. Bertin. “Resilient ADHD management requires being patient with missteps, gathering yourself, and starting forward again.”

Growing from a resilient teen to a capable young adult

“The skills to handle problems rely on executive function,” Dr. Bertin says. “The confidence to overcome difficulties stems from a positive attitude and past success, both of which can be affected by ADHD.”

As teens transition to young adulthood, having them gradually take on more responsibility for themselves, as members of the family, and for their ADHD treatment is a good way to help them practice the skills needed for resilience. Offering guidance and support to your teen when things get bumpy, but not taking on or putting in place solutions yourself, prepares her to meet challenges in young adulthood. Giving your teen the space and time to draw on past experiences of success and work through solutions allows her to see herself as resilient when faced with a challenge or disappointment.

“The important thing is that resilience is a skill that can be learned,” says Mr. Petersen, who has been a young adult affected by ADHD. “What does matter is that we can make a conscious effort to work on being able to keep our heads up when life throws us curveballs, which ultimately means softening some of the impact of our ADHD symptoms.”

More on building resiliency in teens and young adults:

Join the discussion: In what ways do you help your teen or young adult develop resiliency when challenged?