The need to nurture resilience in an increasingly stressful world

Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash

THE POLITE VOICE on the phone was unmistakable. “Jacqueline, please drop everything and come into my office now.” As my mind set off its “battle-ready” mode to review all possible crisis protocols, I thought, “Good grief, what could possibly have happened now?”

But the scene that greeted me in the principal’s office was a different kind of tempest my mind was gearing up for. There in the principal’s office stood a shivering 15-year-old boy. His worried mother sat at the end of the principal’s desk. She had received a call from the teacher to inform her that her son, Tommy (not his real name), had committed a series of misdemeanours and also failed to turn up for many training sessions. In between volleys of rage hurled at her son, she choked back her tears to reveal that she had often caught him cross-dressing at home. She did not know who to turn to for advice and was very grateful when the principal suggested that her son be referred for counselling.

During counselling, Tommy shared that he had frequently been teased for being “gay” and “ah gua”. Subsequently he avoided training as it meant having to get dressed in front of other boys in the toilet. As articulating his thoughts was a struggle for him, standing up to ridicule from peers became overwhelming. Eventually he began to doubt his sexuality. But with the help of counselling sessions, he began to expand his understanding of his identity as a teenager and understand that being gentle was not necessarily a hindrance. We worked on self-awareness and acceptance and he learnt to celebrate that he was not only gentle but a gentleman.

Teens today face many stresses like rejection from peers, family problems or traumatic unexpected events. What makes some teenagers more vulnerable than others for behavioural, emotional or psychological problems? Teens who fail to navigate successfully through life’s stressful events may develop maladaptive coping mechanisms such as joining gangs, fighting, sexually acting out, self-harm, falling into addictive habits like drug taking or computer gaming.

Research has shown that a child’s ability to moderate the effects of adversity or stressful events is a result of a complex balancing act between his environmental risk factors and protective factors. Examples of risk factors are poor academic achievement, parental discord, unavailable parents and poor social skills.

Consequently, examples of protective factors would be high academic achievement, family cohesiveness, availability of parents and good social skills. A child who has more protective factors to balance out risk factors in his environment is more resilient and has a better chance of growing up into a well-adjusted competent adult.

One of the major protective factors that promotes resiliency in teenagers is having a close bond with an “inspirational other” or a concerned caring adult in the life of the teenager. This could be a coach, a youth worker, a teacher, counsellor, family member, etc. Often the presence of a caring adult gives teens a safe relationship to develop wisdom and practise skills like problem solving, thus building resiliency.

Tommy had worked hard to learn such skills. To show him how much he had achieved, I asked him if he remembered why we started on this journey together. He laughed as he replied, “Ms Heng, I have not forgotten. I used to think that I was born into the wrong sex, but now I know I am a man and I’m very happy being one.”

Jacqueline Heng is a family therapist serving as a Christian Ministry Staff to our Methodist Schools.