Join us for YTH Live Global! Learn More

ETR Logo ETR Logo ReCAPP logo

etr presents YTH LIVE Global 2021: October 4-6: Virtual. Register now at

Topics In Brief

All Topics In Brief

Building Resiliency Through Culture

This Topic in Brief includes the following sections:


Strengthening resiliency in young people is a relatively new approach in youth development. Theoretically, building resiliency is like building immunity to protect the body from disease. The stronger the resiliency, the more protection the young person has against certain risk factors.

This approach requires a philosophical commitment that "young people are resources to be developed, not problems to be solved." (Resnick, 2000) Some experts are exploring ways to make teenagers more resilient by building on protective or nurturing factors in their environments, families, and personalities. Researchers believe that helping teens develop resiliency is a positive approach that educators can use — even with teens living in high risk environments — to help them live healthier lives.


  • Resiliency refers to the ability to withstand (and succeed despite) harmful environmental influences such as poverty, fractured family relationships or negative peer pressure. Resiliency is related to experiences, assets, resources, and other factors that make it possible for youth to resist involvement in health-jeopardizing behaviors. (Resnick, 2000)

  • Risk Factors are those aspects of a teen's life that are connected to behaviors (e.g. early sex, substance abuse, violence) that threaten his/her health and well-being. ("Protecting Teens: Beyond Race, Income and Family Structure," p.5)

  • Protective Factors are nurturing aspects of a youth's life that can help reduce the risk of him/her from engaging in problem behaviors. Examples of protective factors are positive parent and family relationships and good school performance.

  • Risk Factors and Protective Factors can be mirror images of each other. For example, low self-esteem is a risk factor while high self-esteem is a protective factor. ("Protecting Teens: Beyond Race, Income and Family Structure," p.5-6) More importantly, some protective factors, such as self-esteem, can be promoted by educators and other influential adults involved in the lives of young people.

  • Cultural Factors, as used here, refer to features of cultures which tend to support and protect individuals. For example, large families with strong connections are emphasized in some cultures while high academic achievement is valued in other cultures. Every culture has strengths which can help youth build resiliency.


An Overview of the Issues

For many years now, researchers have been trying to identify the factors that influence whether or not teenagers engage in health-risk behavior. Most of these factors, which are in place before any behavior occurs, are related to the teens' community, family, peers, romantic or sexual partners, and the teens themselves (e.g. Demographics, personality, beliefs, attitudes, and skills). Yet, while many of these factors are associated with youth behavior, no one factor (such as income level or ethnicity) can predict behavior by itself.

According to the report, "Protecting Teens: Beyond Race, Income and Family Structure" (2000), "While some adolescent health-risk behaviors appear to be disproportionately prevalent among Black and Hispanic youth, lower income adolescents, and youth living in single-parent families, other behaviors, such as substance use, are higher among upper income White youth."

In addition to race/ethnicity, income and/or family structure, there seems to be several other factors that are strongly associated with increasing or reducing risks to teens, including school performance, friends, and family relationships. It is less important if an adolescent comes from a single or dual parent family than what happens within the family, regardless of its structure. In other words, the quality of the family dynamics and attachment (e.g. parental support, family connectedness, sufficient parent supervision and monitoring) is what influences a child's behavior.

Studies on protective factors and resiliency suggest that some factors have greater potential for reducing unhealthy behaviors (Resnick, 2000). These include:

  • a strong sense of connectedness to parents, family, and school;

  • association with community institutions;

  • relationships with adults outside the family;

  • the development of academic and social competence; and

  • involvement in activities that create networks of friends.

By working to build on the positive rather than concentrating on "fixing" the negative, the resiliency approach is especially relevant for ethnic and racial minorities. "It identifies strengths, resources, and assets rather than problems and is welcomed by people of color precisely because of its emphasis on hope and potential" (Resnick, 2000).


What Educators Can Do

The potential for building resiliency in youth means that educators can identify where and how to intervene in the lives of youth to help them develop in healthier ways. According to Resnick (2000), "the role of adults in this context [of building resiliency] is to expand capacities and open doors of possibility."

According to the report, "Protecting Teens: Beyond Race, Income and Family Structure" (2000), school performance was a factor that applied across gender, most ethnic groups and health risk behaviors. "Youth who have problems with schoolwork are more likely than others to experience or be involved with every health risk studied. This is evident, with very little exception, across the groups studied. School failure is a public health problem." (p. 36)

The Add Health survey data showed that being at academic risk was "nearly universally associated with every health risk behavior" studied. The researchers concluded that "health and education are closely intertwined and that school failure needs to be viewed as a health as well as an education crisis." (p. 37)

Additionally, adults working in youth-serving agencies should note that, according to the "Protecting Teens" report, "there may also be health consequences to substantial amounts of unstructured leisure time." Therefore, developing supervised programs and activities which attract youth away from "just hanging out" during unstructured leisure time may provide important health benefits to teens.

The challenge for educators is to look for opportunities to help teens develop or boost their protective factors. This may include:

  • Communicating to youth that each individual matters (e.g. each young person is important, has something to contribute, and has strengths and abilities);

  • Looking for programs that specifically address the needs of different racial/ethnic and cultural groups, and are culturally sensitive; (Manlove, 2000)

  • Modeling how to build on cultural strengths by demonstrating pride in your own culture and/or cultural strengths and encouraging youth to do similarly;

  • Educating students about cultural disparities by making them aware of hidden prejudices they or others have;

  • Teaching advocacy skills (Advocacy Skills under ReCAPP's Skills for Youth);

  • Teaching critical thinking skills (see the Educator Skill Use of Critical Thinking Skills to Analyze Health Disparities); and

  • Collaborating with other agencies for highlighting and sharing culturally affirming practices.

The "Protecting Teens" report also found that, not surprisingly, children are advantaged when parents pay attention to — and are involved in — their education. Educators should therefore look for opportunities to involve and educate parents to the importance of nurturing close family relationships to the benefit of their children. Supportive and protective relationships help reduce the impact of risk on teenagers and their development.

For more information on parent-teen communication, refer to ReCAPP's April 2000 issue which focused on that topic. Relevant sections include:


More Information/Resources

Organizations and web sites with additional information on building resiliency include:

  • Advocates for Youth
    1025 Vermont Avenue, NW, Suite 200
    Washington, DC 20005
    (202) 347-5700

  • National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
    1776 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite 200
    Washington, DC 20036
    (202) 478-8500
  • Search Institute
    700 South Third Street, Suite 210
    Minneapolis, MN 55415

  • Center for Adolescent Health
    University of Minnesota
    200 Oak Street SE, Suite 260
    Minneapolis, MN 55455-2002

  • American Youth Policy Forum
    1836 Jefferson Place, NW
    Washington, DC 20036
    (202) 775-9731

  • Institute for Educational Leadership
    1001 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 310
    Washington, DC 20036
    (202) 822-8405

  • Child Trends
    4301 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 100
    Washington, DC 20008
    (202) 362-5580

  • Youth Leadership Institute
    870 Market Street, Suite 708
    San Francisco, CA 94102
    (415) 397-2256

  • National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organizations (COSSMHO)
    1501 Sixteenth Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20036
    (202) 387-5000

  • National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
    1111 19th Street, NW, Suite 1000
    Washington, DC 20036
    Phone: (202) 785-1670
    FAX: (202) 776-1792

  • National Black Women's Health Project (NBWHP)
    600 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Suite 310
    Washington, DC 20003
    (202) 543-9311

  • Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, Inc.
    440 First Street, NW, Suite 430
    Washington, DC 20001
    Phone: (202) 371-0277
    FAX: (202) 371-0460

  • National Indian Education Association
    700 N. Fairfax Street, Ste 210
    Alexandria, VA 22314
    (703) 838-2870

  • National Native American AIDS Prevention Center (NNAAPC)
    436-14th Street, Suite 1020
    Oakland, CA 94126
    (510) 444-2051

  • Asian and Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health
    310 8th Street, Suite 100
    Oakland, CA 94607
    (510) 268-8988

  • National Asian Women's Health Organization (NAWHO)
    250 Montgomery Street, Suite 1500
    San Francisco, CA 94104
    (415) 989-9747

Books, articles and reports on this topic include:

  • Resiliency in Schools: Making It Happen for Students and Educators
    Nan Henderson and Mike Milstein
    Corwin Press
    Thousand Oaks, CA (April, 1996)

  • Protecting Teens: Beyond Race, Income and Family Structure
    Blum, R.W., Beuhring, T., Rinehart, P.M. (2000).
    For copies, contact: Add Health
    c/o Center for Adolescent Health
    University of Minnesota
    200 Oak Street SE, Suite 260
    Minneapolis, MN 55455-2002

  • Protective Factors, Resiliency, and Healthy Youth Development
    Michael D. Resnick, Ph.D.
    Adolescent Medicine: State of the Art Reviews — Vol. II, No. 1, February, 2000
    Philadelphia, Hanley & Belfus, Inc.

  • Emerging Answers . . . Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy
    Douglas Kirby, Ph.D.
    The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, May 2001
    Washington, D.C. 20009

  • Understanding Resilient Outcomes: Adolescent Lives Across Time and Generations
    Stuart T. Hauser
    Journal of Research on Adolescence, 9 (1), 1-24, 1999
    Requests for reprints should be sent to:
    Stuart T. Hauser
    Judge Baker Children's Center
    Harvard Medical School
    3 Blackfan Circle
    Boston, MA 02115

  • Interpersonal Context as an Influence on Sexual Timetables of Youths: Gender and Ethnic Effects
    S. Shirley Feldman, Rebecca A. Turner, and Katy Araujo
    Journal of Research on Adolescence, 9(1), 25-52, 1999
    Requests for reprints should be sent to:
    Shirley Feldman
    Program in Human Biology, Building 80
    Stanford University
    Stanford, CA 94305-2160

  • Start Early, Stay Late . . Linking Youth Development and Teen Pregnancy Prevention
    A report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
    2100 M Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20037

  • Resilience Research . . A Foundation for Youth Development
    Bonnie Benard
    Journal: New Designs for Youth Development
    Summer 1996

  • Beyond Prevention: Linking Teenage Pregnancy to Youth Development
    Karen Johnson Pittman
    International Youth Foundation
    7014 Westmoreland Avenue
    Takoma Park, Maryland 20912
    (301) 270-6250

  • Some Things Do Make a Difference for Youth: A Compendium of Youth Programs and Practices. 1997
    Published by the American Youth Policy Forum/Institute for Educational Leadership
    Available for $10 from the American Youth Policy Forum
    1001 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 719
    Washington, DC 20036

  • Great Transitions: Preparing Adolescents for a New Century. 1996.
    Available from the Carnegie Corporation of New York
    P.O. Box 753
    Waldorf, MD 20604
    Abridged version and executive summary are free. Full report costs $10

  • Reducing the Risk: Connections That Make a Difference in the Lives of Youth. 1997.
    Robert Blum and Peggy Rinehart
    Available from Add Health c/o Burness Communications
    7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 1401
    Bethesda, MD 20814

  • Reconnecting Youth and Community: A Youth Development Approach. 1996.
    Available from the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth
    P.O. Box 13505
    Silver Spring, MD 20911-3505

  • Understanding Youth Development: Promoting Positive Pathways of Growth. 1997.
    Available from the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth
    P.O. Box 13505
    Silver Spring, MD 20911-3505

  • Trends in Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Use Among Teens
    Terry E. Manlove Jr. (2000)
    Child Trends Research Brief
    4301 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 100
    Washington, DC 20008
    (202) 362-5580