10 Ways to Build Resilience and Protect At-Risk Kids

Resilience is the ability to succeed in the face of significant adversity. Resilience has been found to be protective against adverse childhood experiences and risk behaviors. Youth who are at a high-risk of trafficking include youth who have been involved with the Department of Family and Protective Services, homeless youth, and youth who have been abused. Building resilience amongst all youth, especially high-risk populations, can be effective in lowering their risk of trafficking victimization. Below are several things you can do to help youth build resilience.

1. Teach Youth Stress Management

Stress is associated with many high-risk behaviors, such as substance abuse, suicide, depression, behavioral problems, and participating in high risk sexual behaviors. The ability to be reflective and relaxed is protective for youth, but these skills are often not overtly taught. To be able to deal with stress in a healthy manner, youth should be able to:

  • Recognize and name their various emotional states and the physiological states that accompany each emotion: There is often an escalation period for emotions such as anxiety and anger. Youth need the ability to recognize their own emotional signs, as well as depend on the adults around them to recognize them too. Adults should validate and recognize the youth’s emotional reactions, rather than dismiss them, by using language such as “I can see that you’re upset. Do you feel angry? What can I do to help you?”
  • Understand their own personal trigger situations: Encourage youth to make a list of the situations that typically make them upset, stressed, frustrated, or angry. By recognizing personal triggers, youth can gain power over them.
  • Plan coping responses to triggers: Listing triggers and then ways to cope with them can be very helpful in managing difficult emotions. Kids need to know how they can calm themselves down. A common stress management technique is deep breathing with slow belly breaths. You can show kids how to put their hands on their belly, or put a stuffed animal on their belly and watch it rise and fall as they breathe. Other calming techniques include listening to music, exercise (movement releases endorphins), drawing, stretching, singing, EFT tapping, visualization, talking or writing about it, counting, holding a soothing object, listing things you are thankful for, etc. Help your kids find the technique that works best for them!

2. Develop Significant Trust Relationships

Resilience is often associated with a “turning point” where the minor successfully completes or masters a task or skill and experiences a sense of accomplishment, bringing meaning and change to their lives. A key catalyst of the turning point includes a significant trust relationship with an adult. Build meaningful relationships with the youth in your life by genuinely showing interest in them as a person. Spend time together doing something that they enjoy. Listen objectively to youth and avoid judgmental reactions. Showing you care by listening, respecting and engaging with youth is the foundation to a strong relationship

3. Build Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is the confidence in one’s ability to overcome challenges. To build self-efficacy, give youth the opportunity to engage in enactive mastery experiences by providing increasingly challenging tasks with feedback along the way. As youth learn how to master a new task, they build their confidence that they can overcome challenges. Make sure tasks are related to youth’s interests and that feedback is constructive, focusing on the positive.

4. Conduct Self-affirmation

High self-worth and positive self-identity are protective against risk behaviors. To build a positive self-image, ask youth to elaborate on their values or positive characteristics. Then, confirm their positive characteristics and even add some they may have forgotten. Continue to focus on their positive attributes, especially in the face of negative choices.

5. Encourage Extra-curricular Involvement

Involvement in religious groups and pro-social extra-curricular activities is associated with high resilience, especially service and leadership activities. This may be due to the opportunity to learn new skills with increased social support and engagement in the community. Encourage your youth to join an activity that matches their interests!

6. Commit to Positive Parenting Practices

Be wary of enforcing strict rules without being involved with your kids (authoritarian parenting), or of being very involved without strict rules (indulgent parenting). Authoritative parenting is best, as children from authoritative families tend to score highest on resilience scales. Authoritative parenting is marked by high involvement with the children and consistent enforcement of reasonable rules. Communicate clear expectations with your kids and explain your reasoning behind your expectations. Framing expectations in a positive manner (ex: Instead of “don’t yell” use “please use an indoor voice”) and giving children choices helps them to feel like they have control over their situation, but be careful not to include a choice that you don’t actually want them to choose. Take time to celebrate and build on your child’s strengths and successes. Communicate about what they do well and what you like about their behavior. Consistently let them know that they are inherently good and that they are not defined by their poor choices. Try to keep negative behaviors from serving as their way to get attention or rewards. Instead, look for positive behavior to reward, no matter how small.

7. Ensure a Good Education

The opportunity to receive a good education with supportive teachers and a positive school environment is protective, especially for at-risk youth. Seek to foster high investment and commitment to education and place a high value on school and its ability to open new, exciting doors in the future.

8. Develop An Internal Locus of Control

An internal locus of control is defined by the belief that you have control over your life. Reattribution training helps youth reinterpret previous failures in terms of unstable attributions due to a temporary condition and previous successes in terms of stable attributions. Help your youth frame successes and losses in this way. For example, instead of blaming a poor exam score on youth’s intelligence, look for other things that could have caused this like a lack of sleep or poor study materials. Instead of attributing success due to an easy exam, focus on how their intelligence and persistence earned them a high score

9. Develop Personal Planning Skills

Planning coping responses to triggers is one good goal-setting skill, but encourage youth to also make goals about how they would like their life to be. Goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and focus on a behavior necessary to attain a goal are best. Break goals down into smaller steps and journal about the accomplishment of each step. Model and encourage goal setting and help youth monitor their progress, celebrating successes along the way.

10. Present the Opportunity to Explore Career Options

Many at-risk youth have simply not been exposed to the myriad of rewarding career choices that are available to them. Take note of their personal skills and interests to introduce them to a wide variety of career options. Bring youth to meet with someone already involved in a desired career. This can be a powerful mentorship opportunity that inspires a new life direction. For older youth, support their efforts to reach their goals by offering help on career and college readiness steps such as taking the ACT.

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