Developing Resilience: Keeping The Adolescent Focused Returning To School

By Fred Dyer, Ph.D., CACD

young people in school
The holidays are over, and some adolescents and their families were able to eat well, unwrap their Christmas presents, try on their new clothes, listen to their I-tunes (and I am happy for them). However, there are those adolescents and their families who were not able to experience these joys. Regardless of how well the holidays went or did not, or whether the adolescent got what he or she wanted for Christmas, it is time for them to return to school, time to resume their studies, time to attend classes, which, for some adolescents, makes no sense (remember, I said in their minds); a time to reenter the challenges and stressors of peers, as well as those peers who are emotionally and pro-socially congruent with them. A time to struggle with him- or herself, a time to resume asking, what’s it all about, Alfie? – (Dionne Warwick, 1960s).
Adolescence is about searching and asking questions, and all of this resumes after the holidays. The holidays offered a moratorium (time out). The challenge for those working with adolescents in school or community-based substance abuse treatment settings is helping them focus on school and their recovery from drugs and alcohol. In light of the aforementioned struggle, helping them to regain their excitement about being a part of school life or helping the senior to cherish their last six months of an important part of their lives, which they will never forget.
As I continue to work with adolescents, I believe it is important to provide them with tools, strategies, and skill-sets that they can use, not only in the here and now, but also later in life. It is necessary to remember that adolescence is a journey, and for some it can be a struggle. Adolescents sometimes feel that they are not listened to (I know I felt that way when I was an adolescent). The thinking in the adolescent mind is, “If you won’t listen, then you don’t care about my feelings”. In tough times, the question is, “How can we help adolescents have an appropriate ventilation of affect?” The following four steps are useful in helping adolescents deal with their feelings when times are tough:
• Name them. Label what you are feeling. With this point they will require help in identifying their feelings.
• Accept them. Remember, it is okay to feel this way.
• Express them. Let your feelings out in a safe, appropriate way. Here it is important for the adult to provide a safe place and for the adolescent to know that the adult is.
• Decide what you need to do to feel better. This is important. Here the adolescent needs to know that he or she has choices and will probably require assistance from adults to sort out healthy vs. unhealthy, or adaptive vs. maladaptive, choices. Before going any further, it is important to remember that a skill-set or a new behavior—even cognitive restructuring— means that the adolescent must have the opportunity to practice that new skill and the opportunity for practicing the new skills must be provided by those adults who are working with the adolescent, i.e., substance abuse counselors, school teachers, SAP workers, and coaches.
In helping adolescents in their journey of recovery, being successful in school, in overcoming adversity, overcoming the challenges of life, and in the development of goals, it is necessary for adults to help them cultivate resilience. I am suggesting that there are factors that contribute to resilience in adolescents that enable them to continue in school, to be successful in their recovery, and which they can utilize in life. Research provides the following factors, which contribute to the development of resilience in adolescents:
• Resourcefulness.
• Ability to attract and use adult support.
• Curiosity and intellectual mastery.
• Compassion but with detachment.
• Ability to conceptualize.
• Conviction of one’s right to survive.
• Ability to remember and invoke images of good and sustaining figures.
• Ability to be in touch with a variety of affects, not denying or suppressing major affects as they arrive.
• A goal to live for, a vision of the possibility and desirability of the restoration of a civilized moral order, and the need and the ability to help others.  One of the most endearing experiences that you and I can have as we continue our work with adolescents is to observe him or her having empathy for another, i.e., sharing their lunch, helping another pick up his or her books, helping another adolescent up after a fall on the ice.
• An affective repertoire.
• Altruism.
Remember, when contemplating the development of resiliency in adolescents, it will be accomplished through episodic, teachable practice moments under adult supervision. Lastly, in helping adolescents in their journey, preparation is an important factor when buffering at-risk situations, whether they are substance use or bullying. Using a sports anachronism, even in therapy, we can help adolescents develop heart, which is defined as the characteristic that causes a person to be firm in his or her beliefs and to have determination to accomplish his or her goals. The goal for all adolescents is to go as far as their dreams will take them or to dream beyond their dreams. Can’t you see the adolescents you are working with at their senior prom with the following words blasting from the d.j.’s CD, “You can dance; you can jive; having the time of your life. See that girl; watch that scene, digging the dancing queen” (Abba, 1977)?
References Provided Upon Request
Fred Dyer, PhD., CADC, is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, author and consultant who services juvenile justice/deten- tion/residential programs, child welfare/foster care agencies, child and adolescent residential facilities, mental health facilities and adolescent substance abuse prevention programs in the areas of implementation and utilization of evidence-based, gender-respon- sive, culturally competent, and developmentally and age appropri- ate practices. He can be reached at