How to build resilience in teens, from a former school principal

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

As many of our teens approach exams at the conclusion of the most risky and obstacle laden year of their lives, their ability to call on some functional and practical resilience strategies might just be key to them performing at their best.

This year may even be a blessing in disguise.  After all, the best definition of resilience I've seen would be "the ability to thrive despite risk".  They've had some practice.

But there are some crucial traps that we fall into when it comes to fostering resilience – and the main one is that merely knowing what resilience is will make them resilient.

You can certainly know what resilience is - and this also applies to other quality such as empathy, responsibility or kindness – without making it a habit of our lives or our go-to way of operating.  Awareness just isn't enough.

Resilient is something we become more than it's something discover.  And there are some simple ways that parents can prepare their teenager for the academic challenge ahead.

So, here's four ways that you can help your child build and deploy resilience.

Focus on Self-Talk

Share the story of somebody who has overcome great odds to succeed.  It can be somebody you know or even somebody famous.  Ask what they think goes on in that person's mind when faced with difficulty and explore how useful that thinking is.  It's then possible to discuss what happens in our own minds and what words we choose to tell ourselves.  

Is our self-talk about defeatism and catastrophe?  Is it "Well, this sucks.  I hadn't planned for this question on the exam.  Now I'm really screwed"?

Or could we flip that self-talk into something intentionally positive and optimistic?  Instead, we'll choose to think "I've prepared for this.  It's not expected but I can handle it.  Take a deep breath.  You'll be alright".


Find a resilience hero

Too regularly these days our kids equate fame with success.  But the truth is that very few people succeed without perseverance and the hard work born of a resilient disposition.

Spark a dinner conversation out of the exploits of Jessica Watson, who solo circumnavigated the planet as a sixteen-year-old.  Can you imagine how she felt the first time she looked over her shoulder and realised she was completely alone?

Or watch a Road Runner cartoon and discuss the never-give-up attitude of the Coyote and how he persists in the face of painful tragedy without either giving up on his goal or using the same tactic twice.

There are resilient heroes everywhere for us to look up to, leaving your teenager removing their stare from overnight sensations and dumb luck.

Extend their support networks

We sometimes fall for the trap of thinking that resilient young people are incredibly self-reliant – not true.  

Kids who are resilient aren't silly enough to keep all of their support eggs in one basket.  What if they get hit by a bus?!  They tend to have plenty of human resources they can turn to when things are tough.

Connect your teen to people you know who are resourceful, subject matter experts or who are resilient types themselves.  And respect their connections with friends who have these qualities too.

Sometimes the best friend to have is the one who's done it the toughest in life.

Take your resilience on the road

Every teacher knows a student who would finish a football match with a broken ankle …. but who falls to pieces when asked to add fractions.

True resilience isn't context specific and resilient people don't just have the capacity to be resilient in their favourite places.  They can move their resilience.

Encourage your child to embrace new experiences – even uncomfortable ones in areas where they struggle, fail or feel a little foolish.  Resilience, you see, isn't something that we're handed after we've seen an inspiring speaker at school or made a poster about it.

Resilience is something you need to practice, making the task for parents and teachers – given we've agreed that it's all about thriving despite risk – is to access our kids to that risk.

Every opportunity for your child to overcome frustration, to battle in vain and to deal with the potential of royally screwing up is an opportunity to build their resilience. What are you doing for your child, right now, that s/he could be doing themselves?  Start with handing them that risk.

Adam Voigt is a former successful School Principal and system leader who is now the Founder & CEO of Real Schools.  Adam is also the author of 'Restoring Teaching', a groundbreaking book aimed at restoring esteem for the role of educators through establishing strong, productive and restorative cultures around Australia's schools. Visit