Grand Futures: The biology of youth resilience

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Imagine: It’s a quiet night, you are settling in for the evening, and then crash! A loud noise from the kitchen startles you. You bolt upright. Your heart begins racing. You think about grabbing a tennis racket as a weapon before investigating the noise.

This psychological response comes from your sympathetic nervous system. Your senses put your brain — and your body — on high alert to protect yourself from a possible threat. When you find the noise was caused by your mischievous cat experimenting with gravity, you begin to calm down. Your breathing slows. The return to rest is managed by your parasympathetic nervous system. Both of these systems are parts of your body’s unconscious autonomic nervous system.

There is a saying in this field: Everything psychological is biological.

During childhood and adolescence, the nervous system that keeps you on your toes and calms you down is still developing. A young person is still learning how to navigate the world safely. Is that cranky teacher someone to run away from? How dangerous is it to ignore the list of chores from your parents?

Adolescence is a critical time for social, mental and emotional growth. For many young people, trauma, conflict at home and genetic predisposition disrupt the growth process. The ability to live, learn and connect with others despite hardship is resilience.

It is not the absence of challenge that forms resilience, but rather the existence of support or a sense of safety during challenge. Too much challenge without support could be overwhelming, triggering that sympathetic nervous system. Too little challenge could lead to under-stimulation, sadness or being in a zombie-like state. Either of these extremes is a form of dysregulation. Prolonged dysregulation can lead to problem behaviors like self-harm, social withdrawal, aggression and substance abuse.

Healthy regulation exists between these two extremes. This “window of tolerance” is a state in which one feels calm, alert, connected and able to solve problems. So how does a trusted adult help a young person achieve healthy regulation?

First, make sure you are in your own “window of tolerance.” Then, let them borrow your nervous system. Yes, it sounds strange. Mirror neurons are cells in our body programmed to mimic actions and relate to emotions of others. Have you ever yawned after seeing someone else yawn? Those are your mirror neurons working.

You can help an adolescent regulate by using a low and slow tone of voice and calm deep breaths. Acknowledge their hard work, validate their struggles and normalize any negative feelings they have. You can also offer positive feedback and notice their strengths.

Though healthy emotional regulation is often overlooked as a biological process, young people are constantly borrowing cues from adults around them — parents, teachers, coaches and mentors. Their ability to tolerate distress starts with you. Are you passing on skills of resilience?

To learn more about helping a young person in crisis, sign up for Youth Mental Health First Aid training from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 9. Email to learn more.

To share your feedback, learn more or get involved, email Sarah Valentino, Grand Futures Community Education Coordinator at

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