Learn about the importance of, and how to build, resilience in rangatahi.

Sooner or later everyone will have to face difficulties during their life.[i] Being able to cope with, and even benefit from, these times is important for development. The ability to do this is often called ‘resilience’. But what do we mean by ‘resilience,’ and how can we support rangatahi to develop it?

What is resilience?

Resilience is a popular term[ii] for a quality that has been studied for decades, and its definition has changed over that time. In fact, there are multiple definitions. However, ‘the essence of resilience is a positive, adaptive response in the face of significant adversity.”[iii] It’s often referred to as the ability to ‘bounce back’ from a difficult situation.

It includes being able to cope with stressful situations and still develop well. It has a lot in common with positive youth development (see Positive youth development: Another way of looking at teens).

While we might hear people talk about resilience as if it were something that a person either has or doesn’t have, in fact resilience is a shared process between the person and their environment.[iv] It’s a ‘quality of both individuals and their environments’.[v] Individual resilience depends on the ability of the systems around a young person to meet their needs, including family, schools, community.[vi]

Ingredients of resilience — the 7 Cs

Seven components have been identified that are seen as the key ingredients of resilience:

  1. Competence — knowing that you can handle situations well, and comes about through a young person’s actual experiences, especially during their early years, and the skills they develop along the way.
  2. Confidence — belief in one’s abilities is based on competence in real situations. Adults have a role in supporting rangatahi to discover their ‘islands of competence’ and encourage them to develop.
  3. Connection — connection to family and the wider community helps young people have a strong sense of security. As well as building their confidence and competence, these positive connections with adults provide someone for rangatahi to turn to when they face difficulties.
  4. Character — having character means rangatahi have a strong sense of right and wrong, enabling them to make wise choices and showing care towards others.
  5. Contribution — through making their own personal contribution, young people gain a sense of purpose and motivation.
  6. Coping — when young people have a range of positive coping strategies, they are less likely to develop unsafe or concerning behaviours when faced with stress. Coping strategies might include knowing who and when to ask for help, or having regular exercise to reduce their stress.
  7. Control — rangatahi who realise that they can control the outcomes of their actions are more likely to have confidence in their ability to bounce back from difficulties.

These ingredients are all related to each other, and are interwoven into what has sometimes been described as a web.[viii]

Both individuals and groups, such as whānau and communities, may have strengths in some of these areas, while other aspects may need more development. Parents and other adults can consider how they are supporting and encouraging rangatahi to develop and strengthen their 7 Cs. They may even want to assess how well they’re doing with their own 7 Cs of resilience.

Important things to know about resilience

Resilience is not a fixed trait — it’s not a case of once you have it, it’s yours for life. Rangatahi (and adults too) may demonstrate resilience in one situation, but not in others.[ix]

Being resilient doesn’t mean showing some kind of staunch independence. ‘The healthiest adults remain interdependent on family, friends and community.’[x] This interdependence means that while rangatahi will reach out to others at times when they need support, they will also be offering support to others in their whānau and community.

Resilience is common, not an extraordinary quality. It’s been described as ‘ordinary magic’. [xi]

Simply adapting to a stressful or traumatic situation is not the same as resilience. Some behaviours might enable a person to cope in the short term, but create difficulty later in life — for example, a child who has been physically abused who withdraws from people.[xii] This may help them cope and survive in the short term, but if it continues, it is likely to get in the way of their ongoing positive development.

Resilient people are still affected by, and may feel strongly about, difficult or stressful situations. It’s natural and healthy to experience strong emotions in response to life events such as the death of a loved one, serious illness, or the end of a relationship. But the skills and supports that contribute to resilience enable rangatahi to come through periods of difficulty in a positive way. However, this doesn’t mean that all the steps along the way will be positive.

Growing resilience

There are many ways that resilience can develop, and the process will differ for different people.[xiii] However, there are things that many studies have found do help resilience to develop.

Relationships really matter

Strong and positive relationships with parents or other adults in the whānau, teachers and other adults in the community support rangatahi to develop in positive ways and protect them from a range of poor outcomes.[xiv] The more connected rangatahi are to individual adults or social institutions such as schools, the better adjusted they are.[xv]

Relationships have been described as the roots of resilience.[xvi] While peer relationships become more important during adolescence (see Adolescent parents and their relationships with parents and peers [LINK]), when it comes to developing resilience it’s clear that adult relationships and support are incredibly important. It’s a mistake to think that teens just need their friends.

Many, many studies show the importance of young people being connected to competent and caring adults in their whānau and community.[xvii] Parents have an important role to play. When they provide consistent, warm and loving support, clear boundaries, and respect for the growing independence of their rangatahi,[xviii] they are supporting their growing resilience.

Those who are working with rangatahi can foster resilience by encouraging healthy whānau and community environments, thereby supporting the naturally available protective systems around individual rangatahi to work well.[xix]

Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, rangatahi may not have parents actively involved in their lives or able to provide the type of support they need. For these young people, it’s particularly important that they have other important adults in their lives who provide this support.[xx]

While some think that what helps people deal with tragedy are some amazing inner qualities of the individual, research has found that ‘the reliable presence of at least one supportive relationship’ is what really makes the difference.[xxi] The more young people have been exposed to adversity, the more reliant they are on resources and supports around them to foster their resilience and wellbeing.[xxii]

Skill building

Relationships with adults and others are important for many reasons. One of these is the opportunity for rangatahi to increasingly build the skills they need, both now and for their futures. These skills include having cognitive flexibility and being able to set goals, solve problems and resist impulsive behaviour. These skills fall under the umbrella term of ‘executive function and self-regulation skills’.[xxiii]

Faith and cultural traditions

Rangatahi who feel connected to their faith or cultural traditions are likely to be better placed to deal with life’s challenges effectively.[xxiv] Research indicates that for indigenous people, having a positive view of their own culture, or ethnic identity, is linked with many positive outcomes, including greater resilience.[xxv] This is also the case for young people from immigrant families.

New Zealand researchers have studied the importance of cultural connection. For Māori, for example, greater access to and involvement with Māori cultural traditions is protective against many poor outcomes.[xxvi] Language is one way that young people can engage with their culture. This has many benefits, including being linked with greater mental wellbeing in the case of Pacific peoples.[xxvii]

For some rangatahi who are parents, belonging to a faith-based community has also provided an important source of social support.[xxviii]

The impact of the early years

Ideally, a young person’s early years will have included opportunities to support their development of resilience. They will have a stronger foundation for resilience to continue to develop through adolescence if they have had:

  • some exposure to manageable stressors (not being protected from all stress)
  • protection from major stressors where possible, and when unavoidable
  • close, loving, emotionally supportive relationships, particularly with whānau.

Where this isn’t the case, resilience is still possible, but such rangatahi may need more support (see Adolescent parents who experienced early adversity) [LINK].


Barber, B. K., & Schluterman, J. M. (2008). Connectedness in the lives of children and adolescents: a call for greater conceptual clarity. Journal of Adolescent Health, 43(3), 209–216.

Beers, L. A. S., & Hollo, R. E. (2009). Approaching the adolescent-headed family: A review of teen parenting. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, 39(2), 216–233.

Bowers, E. P., Johnson, S. K., Buckingham, M. H., Gasca, S., Warren, D. J., Lerner, J. V., & Lerner, R. M. (2014). Important non-parental adults and positive youth development across mid-to late-adolescence: The moderating effect of parenting profiles. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(6), 897–918.

Foster, C. E., Horwitz, A., Thomas, A., Opperman, K., Gipson, P., Burnside, A., . . . King, C. A. (2017). Connectedness to family, school, peers, and community in socially vulnerable adolescents. Children and Youth Services Review, 81, 321–331.

Ginsburg, K. R., & Jablow, M. M. (2011). Building resilience in children and teens: Giving kids roots and wings (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Houkamau, C. A., & Sibley, C. G. (2011). Māori cultural efficacy and subjective wellbeing: A psychological model and research agenda. Social Indicators Research, 103(3), 379–398.

Luthar, S. S., & Brown, P. J. (2007). Maximizing resilience through diverse levels of inquiry: Prevailing paradigms, possibilities, and priorities for the future. Development and Psychopathology, 19(03), 931–955.

Lyons, D. M., Parker, K. J., Katz, M., & Schatzberg, A. F. (2009). Developmental cascades linking stress inoculation, arousal regulation, and resilience. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 3, 32.

Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56(3), 227–238.

Masten, A. S. (2014). Ordinary magic: Resilience in development. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Muriwai, E., Houkamau, C. A., & Sibley, C. G. (2015). Culture as cure? The protective function of Māori cultural efficacy on psychological distress. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 44(2), 14–23.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015). Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience: Working paper 13. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/The-Science-of-Resilience.pdf(external link)

Schultze-Lutter, F., Schimmelmann, B., & Schmidt, S. (2016). Resilience, risk, mental health and well-being: Associations and conceptual differences. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 25, 459–466.

Sieving, R. E., McRee, A.-L., McMorris, B. J., Shlafer, R. J., Gower, A. L., Kapa, H. M., . . . Resnick, M. D. (2017). Youth-adult connectedness: A key protective factor for adolescent health. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 52(3), S275–S278.

Southwick, S. M., Bonanno, G. A., Masten, A. S., Panter-Brick, C., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: Interdisciplinary perspectives. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5.

Taua‘I, E., Richards, R., & Kokaua, J. (2018). Is Pacific language ability protective of prevalence of mental disorders among Pacific peoples in New Zealand? Pacific Health Dialog, 21(1), 10–16.

Ungar, M. (2008). Resilience across cultures. The British Journal of Social Work, 38(2), 218–235.

Ungar, M., Ghazinour, M., & Richter, J. (2013). Annual research review: What is resilience within the social ecology of human development? Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 54(4), 348–366.

This article is based on work conducted jointly by The Collaborative Trust for Research and Training in Youth Health and Development(external link) and Brainwave Trust Aotearoa(external link).
End Notes

[i] Lyons, Parker, Katz, & Schatzberg, 2009
[ii] Schultze-Lutter, Schimmelmann, & Schmidt, 2016
[iii] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2015, p. 1
[iv] Schultze-Lutter et al., 2016
[v] Ungar, Ghazinour, & Richter, 2013, p. 361
[vi] Ungar, 2008
[vii] Ginsburg & Jablow, 2011
[viii] Ginsburg & Jablow, 2011
[ix] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2015
[x] Ginsburg & Jablow, 2011, p. 131
[xi] Masten, 2014, p. 7
[xii] Wyman, 2003, cited by Ungar et al., 2013
[xiii] Masten, 2014
[xiv] Sieving et al., 2017
[xv] Foster et al., 2017
[xvi] Luthar & Brown, 2007
[xvii] Masten, 2001
[xviii] Barber & Schluterman, 2008
[xix] Southwick, Bonanno, Masten, Panter-Brick, & Yehuda, 2014
[xx] Bowers et al., 2014
[xxi] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2015, p. 7
[xxii] Ungar et al., 2013
[xxiii] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2015
[xxiv] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2015
[xxv] Houkamau & Sibley, 2011
[xxvi] Muriwai, Houkamau, & Sibley, 2015
[xxvii] Taua‘I, Richards, & Kokaua, 2018
[xxviii] Beers & Hollo, 2009