Giving Children a Strong Sense of Self Bolsters Resillience Later in Life


Is it possible to teach children skills that will reduce their risk of depression? Surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes. The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP), for instance, has demonstrated remarkable levels of success in promoting resilience and preventing depression in students age 10–14. The effectiveness of these programs offers some insight into the best ways to help our kids learn to cope.

How Do You Teach Resiliency?

One of the more effective therapies for depression is called “cognitive behavioral therapy,” in which the therapist and patient work together to identify distorted negative thought patterns and core beliefs that cause negative emotions. The therapist helps the patient challenge these thoughts and beliefs, and also helps him figure out how to make changes to his routine as needed, to incorporate activities that support his mood. It’s a very self-directed and proactive approach to managing depression. PRP teaches these cognitive-behavioral skills before kids become depressed, so they can learn to identify their patterns of self-talk and manage their moods effectively. PRP also includes a problem-solving component that teaches relaxation, decision making, assertiveness, and other coping skills. 

How Effective Is PRP?

The PRP system has been evaluated in more than 17 controlled trials with almost 2,500 children from different geographic, economic, and cultural backgrounds. In 2009, Martin Seligman, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania led a review of 19 studies over a 20 year period, including more than 2,000 students. According to the students’ self-assessments, the PRP increased optimism and reduced depressive symptoms effectively for up to a year. The kids who had worked with a PRP instructor also reported reduced feelings of hoplessness and lower incidence of clinical depression and anxiety. 

What Else is Working?

A similar program, the Positive Psychology Program (PPP), is also proving effective. The PPP helps students identify their signature character strengths, like kindness, courage, wisdom, or perseverance. Kids are then encouraged to incorporate their strengths into their daily lives, through a series of activities and journaling assignments. High school students who have taken the PPP report higher levels of engagement in school, and teachers (who were not told which students had attended the PPP) rated those students as more curious, more creative, and more interested in learning. Both parents and teachers both rated the PPP students overall as demonstrating more self-control, empathy, and cooperation. 

What are the Essential Components of Resilience? has looked over the available resilience training programs and identified these elements they all consider vital:


  • Physical health: sleep, nutrition, exercise and wellness
  • Social & emotional competencies: stress management, positive relationship to self, sense of control, hopefulness, goalsetting, social competence
  • Cognitive skills: Problem-solving, intellectual ability, information processing

Family, School, and Community Support

  • Supportive family: positive parenting style, high expectations
  • Mentorship: A teacher, counselor, coach or other mentor outside the family offers support
  • Community: Clubs, organizations, and religious communities

What Can Parents Learn From This?

Parents who want to help their kids develop resiliency can learn a lot from these approaches. Supporting your student’s physical health and involvement in the community and providing him with warmth and support as well as high expectations at home can contribute to his resiliency, for instance. Focusing on his key competencies and positive qualities and helping him find ways to express those could be helpful. Modeling the ability to question your own negative thoughts and core beliefs might be a key factor in safeguarding your teen against future depression. 

Depression may be avoidable if people are taught the skills they need to face their negative thoughts and build a strong sense of self. Teaching these skills to teenagers, in school or at home, is proving to be a very effective approach.