Teaching Resiliency Skills for Teens and Young Adults

 ADHD Weekly 2017-10-26

Why is it that some young people affected by ADHD seem to be more successful than others, even though the symptoms of the disorder have caused them difficulties in school or socially? Researchers are looking at the concept of resilience and how young people affected by ADHD can develop resiliency as a way of both coping and succeeding with ADHD.

“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 young person be taught how to become resilient or improve resilience as a skill? Or is it 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 who has been an Ask the Expert guest. He says 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 us develop solutions to our 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.

According to Sam Goldstein, PhD, a former chair of the CHADD Professional Advisory Board, 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,” Dr. Goldstein says. “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, reviewed the scientific literature on resiliency and ADHD. They found 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. Those positive parenting skills may include:

  • Creating a safe and supervised environment
  • Providing positive learning experiences
  • Promoting problem-solving skills
  • Discipline that uses ground rules that are clear and age-appropriate with logical consequences rather than punitive actions
  • Having realistic expectations for their child, accounting for how ADHD has affected her

“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 person affected by ADHD needs, how can you as a parent or mentor help your young person develop this skill?

Parents can help their young people develop resilience while coping with ADHD symptoms. Research shows that a strong connection and healthy relationship between children and their parents is an important part of helping young people develop resilience. 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 child become more understanding of how symptoms affect them and 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,” Dr. Bertin says. “Resilient ADHD management requires being patient with missteps, gathering yourself, and starting forward again.”

To help a young person build resilience as a skill:

Know that it takes time to learn a new skill or resolve a problem, and for young people affected by ADHD, it can sometimes take a longer time than you expect. Dr. Goldstein calls it a “learning to swim mindset,” because when a child learns to swim, parents don’t challenge the child to try harder or assume there is a lack of motivation. Instead, they offer support and recognize the small steps that lead toward achievement. The same is true in other areas of life—young people affected by ADHD need support and empathy, along with extra time to build skills. A new swimmer can’t swim the length of a pool all at once but with instruction and practice can become an accomplished athlete over time.

Determine which behaviors come from not knowing how to do something or poorly applying the skills the child has, and which behaviors are willful disobedience. A child struggling with skills mastery needs help and time; a child who is choosing to be disobedient needs appropriate correction. Punishing a struggling child instead of offering support creates frustration and eventually the child gives up because she doesn’t believe she can please the parent.

Recognize when your young teen is frustrated or feeling overwhelmed and meet her there. Help her to understand the size of the problem and to think of possible, realistic solutions to the problem. Encourage her to apologize and attempt to fix any mistakes she has made and to create plans to help prevent the mistake from happening again. If she has failed at something important that she worked hard on, encourage her to examine what happened and to find a way to try again, without allowing the failure to damage her self-concept as a capable person.

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 is himself 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.”

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