Challenges can make teens stronger

For teenagers, life can be terribly difficult. In fact, most teens will experience significant challenges and setbacks at some point during their high school years.

Adversity in social relationships, challenges with identity development (figuring out who they are), and dealing with physical changes and desires are common issues teens face. Far too many of our teens also experience serious negative events related to alcohol and drugs, sex or sexual violence, assault, and more. As their parents, we want to shelter our kids from these adverse circumstances. It’s natural and normal to want to keep them safe. And in the case of the more serious adversities, we should do all we can to protect them.

In relation to the regular, run-of-the-mill challenges that our teenagers experience, however, the proverbial statement, ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ may have strong support. While a lot of research points to these negative and occasionally traumatic events leading to negative outcomes, we are also discovering how, in the right conditions, challenges such as these can lead to good outcomes in us and in our children.

Because adversity can, does, and most likely will strike our children, there are some things we should know about it, and some things we can actually do about it to help our kids be more resilient and bounce back from their setbacks.

What we should know about adversity

  • We’ll all face it, and it comes in many ways
  • It always hurts, sometimes more than other times
  • It can lead to negative outcomes if it is not managed well
  • If circumstances are right, it can actually lead to growth, development, and positive outcomes and benefits in the lives of those who are affected.

No one wants them, but facing challenges can have big benefits. Having limited exposure to adversity can actually toughen our teens (and us) up. It’s best if the adversity is not too big of course, and we need time for recovery in between these kinds of challenges. Zero exposure to adversity actually weakens us for when it does eventually hit. This leads to bad outcomes. Similarly, too much exposure will also hurt us. It’s a bit like exercise: we can’t get fit if we sit and do nothing. And if we do too much we will break down.

Of course, we don’t go looking for it. But when it finds our teens, we shouldn’t stop it from strengthening them.

How we can help our teens grow through adversity

Regardless of the severity of the setback or challenge our teenager may face, the following principles apply:

  • Just be there.  Yes, it sounds simple. But your presence is what matters most. Think about what you want from your most trusted friend when you hurt. Usually their presence and their arm around you is enough. You don’t need talking and advice. You just need to feel someone with you. So be there. Be attentive.
  • Listen with warmth and sensitivity. At times it can be tempting to give advice. It may be tempting to dismiss our teenager’s pain as trivial, or even mock them. It may be tempting to intervene and get angry. Don’t. Instead, just listen. How would you want your friend to respond to you? With advice? With a shrug? With rolled eyes? With anger? You’d probably prefer that they listen and then say, ‘I know’, or ‘that must feel awful’, or ‘no wonder you’ve been feeling lousy.’ When they see what you see, you feel better. So will your teen.
  • Ask how you can help. This is different from giving advice. Your teen is unlikely to want your advice – or take it. But if you ask how you can help you show confidence in your teens ability to determine the best course of action. It expresses support. And it shows that you expect that she will act.
  • Remain available and supportive. Most kids will pick themselves up, most of the time. They’ll dust themselves off and be ready to try again. They are more likely to do this when they know that we are there to support them, or catch them, if they need us later.

Adversity is a guarantee. Our teenagers will face it. Protecting them from adversity can weaken them. Letting them suffer through it can exhaust and deplete them. Allowing them to experience it with support and guidance will almost always strengthen them.


This article was written for Kidspot by Justin Coulson, Ph. D. Justin is a relationships and parenting expert, author and father of five children. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at

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