Parenting Teens for Positive Risks and Resiliency

With the passing of Independence Day, summer finally seems full-on. That means changes of all kinds, including parenting.

When it comes to raising kids, most of us likely have one eye trained on them and the other on potential hazards that may lie in their path. In other words, trying to mitigate risk. At least the enduring understanding of what risk represents.

A newer and increasingly popular definition of risk refers to healthy, or positive, risk-taking.

And the kids know it.

Indeed, focus groups associated with the Teens Today research program—sponsored by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance—found that when we asked adults about youth risk behaviors, they almost uniformly pointed to well-known, negative risk-taking behaviors, such as impaired or distracted driving, underage drinking, and other drug use.

For their part, youth instinctively speak about stretching their comfort zone, taking new classes or activities, trying out for the school play or baseball team, or reaching out to make new friends.

They may be on to something.

Teen Risks: Good News

The good news is that because children, especially preteens and teens, are hardwired to take risks, it may be easier to steer them toward positive iterations of risk that bring with them incredible opportunities for personal, intellectual, and social growth. More good news can be found in the fact that the data reveals young people who take positive risks in their lives are significantly less likely to engage in behaviors that pose danger.

Also, these youth describe themselves as responsible, confident, successful, and optimistic. They also report that they often feel happy and are prone to considering potential negative outcomes of what may be thought of as traditional risk behaviors. Finally, positive-risk seekers are less likely than their peers to report frequently feeling bored or depressed. And that is not insignificant given the extraordinary rates of suicide among youth.

The quantity of positive-risk activities appears not to be a reliable predictor of reward. It is the challenge in the behaviors themselves (i.e., those that pose the possibility of failure) that makes the difference.

Resiliency, Risk, and Mental Health

Raising resilient kids is all the rage as resiliency is correlated with overall mental health.

In their book Growing Up Resilient, authors Tatyana Barankin and Nazilla Khanlou counsel, “People who are resilient can effectively cope with, or adapt to, stress and challenging life situations. They learn from the experience of being able to effectively manage in one situation, making them better able to cope with stresses and challenges in future situations” (Barankin and Khanlou, 2007).

Resiliency theorist Bonnie Benard says, “We are all born with innate resiliency, with the capacity to develop the traits commonly found in resilient survivors: social competence (responsiveness, cultural flexibility, empathy, caring, communication skills, and a sense of humor); problem-solving (planning, help-seeking, critical and creative thinking); autonomy (sense of identityself-efficacy, self-awareness, task-mastery, and adaptive distancing from negative messages and conditions); and a sense of purpose and belief in a bright future (goal direction, educational aspirations, optimism, faith, and spiritual connectedness)” (Benard, 2018).

So, what can parents and other caregivers do? Remember that nurture trumps nature.

Michael Unger explains that good schools and loving families “immunize children against adversity by giving them manageable amounts of stress and the supports they need to learn how to cope effectively and in ways that are adaptive ….” (Unger, 2012). Cameron Gray, a former camp counselor and current student at Whittier College in California, refers to that process as “failing forward.”

8 Tips for Failing Forward

We can add to Gray’s wisdom with some provided by Lizzy Francis for parents. She says parents of resilient kids do the following eight things (Francis, 2023):

  1. Let kids struggle.
  2. Let kids experience rejection.
  3. Don’t condone a victim mentality.
  4. Do more than tell them to “buck up” when struggles occur.
  5. Help kids learn how to label their feelings and emotions.
  6. Give kids the tools to self-soothe.
  7. Admit their mistakes. And then fix them.
  8. Always connect their kids’ self-worth to their level of effort.

Other ways that we can promote resiliency in the lives of kids include:

  • Modeling inclusive social behavior.
  • Identifying and discussing emotional reactions to issues or events.
  • Supporting group activity and/or athletic participation.
  • Involving young people in community-service project(s).
  • Supporting a wide sampling of interests, activities, and age-appropriate behaviors.
  • Encouraging separation from parents and age-appropriate independence in decision-making

Those relationships are undeniably linked to a reduction of self-harm and to suicide prevention. And knowing what to look for is critical.

Signs of Suicide

Signs of suicidal ideation include these.

  • Comments about feeling trapped, hopeless, or like a burden to others.
  • Isolating oneself from friends and family.
  • Extreme mood swings.
  • Sleeping more or less than usual.
  • Recent purchase of a gun or weapon.
  • Increased use of drugs and alcohol.
  • Planning a suicide or mentioning details about a suicide plan.

What can you do if you believe someone is considering suicide?

Ask. Raising the issue of suicide does not plant seeds that lead to self-harm. Encourage them to speak to a mental health professional. Remain aware of plans or methods for suicide. And maintain a presence with the person and look for backup if you need some or if you need a break.

Maria Tartakovsky has shared insight from psychotherapist Lynn Lyons, whose specialty is helping anxious families: “We have become a culture of trying to make sure our kids are comfortable. We as parents are trying to stay one step ahead of everything our kids are going to run into. The problem? Life doesn’t work that way.” (Tartakovsky, 2016).

Lyons offers the following suggestions for raising resilient kids:

  • Don’t accommodate every need.
  • Avoid eliminating all risks.
  • Teach them to problem-solve.
  • Teach kids concrete skills.
  • Avoid “why” questions.
  • Don’t provide all the answers.
  • Avoid talking in catastrophic terms.
  • Let your kids make mistakes.
  • Help them manage their emotions.
  • Model resiliency.

Resilience helps kids navigate the bumps and bridges of adolescence all the while preparing them to face the challenges of adulthood.

Reward through risk: a new way to think about resiliency.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Barankin, C. and N. Khanlou. (2007). Growing up resilient: ways to build resilience in children and youth. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2007.

Benard, B. (2021). The foundations of the resiliency framework. Resiliency in Action.… (3 July 2023).

CARE. (2022). Center for Adolescent Research and Education. (3 July 2023).

Flores, A. (2021). Pandemic burnout: the toll of COVID-19 on health care workers and children. Physicians for Human Rights. May 21, 2021.… (3 July 2023).

Francis, L. (2023). Resilient kids come from parents who do these 8 things. Fatherly. Updated June 15, 2023. Originally published November 26, 2018. (3 July 2023).

Rafanelli, A. (2021). Growing up in a pandemic: how Covid is affecting children’s development. Direct Relief. January 19, 2021.… (3 July 2023).

Rosenbaum, T. (2021). COVID-19 and the rise of teenage suicide. Baylor College of Medicine. November 17, 2021.… (3 July 2023).

SADD. (2023). Students against destructive decisions. (3 July 2023).

SOS Illinois. (2021). Teen mental health: a vulnerable stage of life. SOS Children’s Villages Illinois.… (3 July 2023).

Tartakovsky, M. (2016). 10 tips for raising resilient kids. PsychCentral. May 17, 2016. (3 July 2023).

Ungar, M. (2012). Camps help make children resilient. Camping Magazine. September 2012.… (3 July 2023).

Leave a Comment