Resilience: An Antidote to Oppression in Adolescence

Resilience: An Antidote to Oppression in Adolescence

The Annie E. Casey Foundation and its partners recently supported a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine entitled The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth.

Defining “adolescents” as people ages 10 to 25 (which make up 25% of the U.S. population), the report notes that this is a period of significant brain development, when it can adapt and become more specialized as it responds to factors of its environment, such as supportive relationships with adults and access to resources. Similarly, harmful experiences during this time – factors including poverty, racism, bias, and discrimination – adversely affect the brain and body during a critical development period. 

During adolescence, the connections between brain regions become stronger and more efficient. If connections aren’t used due to environmental stresses and lack of the opportunities youth face when they face negative factors, they simply don’t form, leaving disadvantaged adolescents at great risk of reduced psychological development. This may mean less “privileged” youth lack the social, emotional, and cognitive skills necessary for adulthood.

Here are a few examples of how differences in opportunity affect life outcomes:

In educational achievement—as measured by reading and math proficiency, high school graduation rates, and college completion—White and higher-income youth consistently experience better outcomes than low-income and minority youth.

  • Poor children develop more chronic conditions as they age compared to their better-off counterparts. Poor health in adolescence also harms educational attainment, because sicker children miss more days of school and ultimately attain fewer years of schooling.
  • Black youth ages 10 to 24 have mortality rates roughly 50 percent higher than White and Latinx youth, driven mainly by differences in rates of death by homicide.
  • LGBT adolescents and young adults have significantly worse health outcomes than heterosexual and cis-gender youth, including higher rates of mental health problems and suicide.

These disparities aren’t irreversible, according to the report. When underlying conditions are changed, adolescents respond and show resilience that can help them overcome inequities. In its conclusions, the Academies provided recommendations to prompt more systemic change, and encourages educators, healthcare providers, and child welfare and justice systems to tackle disparities in opportunity for all youth. Some include (To see the presentation including a complete list of recommendations, click here):

  1. Incorporate the teaching of nonacademic skills such as decision-making, adaptability, and life skills into the education system.
  2. Improve access to comprehensive health services, including mental health services, for adolescents as they navigate an ever-changing health system.
  3. Align child welfare services, primarily focused on young children, with the challenges adolescents face, particularly youth aging out of foster care.
  4. Ensure youth involved in the juvenile justices system are provided legal representation and procedural fairness; train corrections staff in family engagement, and cultural differences (race, ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation/gender expression) to avoid continued trauma.

Chrysalis After-School has always focused on adolescent girls because this is the time to close the “opportunity gap” – and now science has proven that the adaptability of an adolescent brain can offer recovery and resilience that completely redirects the trajectory of young lives. Let’s help stakeholders and policymakers, as well as parents and professionals, understand that change for the good of a youth can still happen.