Helping youth make meaning from adversity

Teens face adversity in their day-to-day lives. Learn what’s considered adversity and one conversation starter for you to employ with teens who may be experiencing adversity.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines adversity as "a state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune." The National Survey of Children's Health conducted a survey on adverse childhood experiences and found that almost one-third of U.S. youth ages 12-17 have experienced two or more types of childhood adversity that can affect their physical and mental health as adults. On this data, Christina Bethell, director of the National Maternal and Child Health Data Resource Center, part of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, said, "If more prevention, trauma-healing and resiliency training programs aren’t provided for children who have experienced trauma, many of the nation’s children are likely to suffer chronic disease and mental illness."

The Center for Disease Control has also recognized the importance of monitoring the link between childhood adversity and adult chronic disease, mental illness and encounters with violence with their Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

The study mentioned above measured childhood adversity and trauma with 10 qualifiers: abuse (physical, sexual, verbal), neglect (physical, emotional), parents who experience addiction, parent's diagnosed with mental health disorders, witnessing a parent experience abuse, experiencing abandonment or divorce, and having a family member in jail. We like to think these kinds of experiences do not happen for the youth on our lives, but it is important to recognize them as a possible reality and help youth develop skills to be resilient in the face of great challenges.

Michigan 4-H works to create opportunities and safe spaces for Michigan youth to develop life skills such as self-responsibility, stress management, empathy and conflict resolution to help build this resilience. Nationally, 4-Hers are nearly twice as likely to make healthier choices and nearly four times more likely to contribute to their communities when compared to youth who do not participate in 4-H.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study qualifiers of adversity didn't include some of the day-to-day adversity teens can experience. Being rejected by a peer group or a romantic interest or experiencing failure, such as not making a team or receiving a low grade, are also examples of adversity youth can face. One of the approaches of Michigan 4-H leadership and civic engagement programming is to help youth understand they have agency when it comes to adversity. They can choose how to proceed. They have power to move forward.

Please note this tool is not appropriate if you suspect a child is facing adversity like abuse or neglect. In this case, go to Reporting Abuse and Neglect for more information on filing a report with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

If you know a young person who is experiencing adversity like rejection or failure, and are looking for a tool to start an empowering conversation, consider telling them the carrots, eggs and coffee parable. The general overview of this parable is that when placed in boiling water (e.g., adversity), carrots, eggs and ground coffee beans all react in different ways. Though they start out strong, when faced with boiling water carrots become soft and weak. On the other hand, eggs start out fragile with a shell to protect liquid insides. When faced with boiling water, egg insides become hardened. When faced with boiling water, ground coffee beans do not change. Instead, they change the water to coffee. This parable helps frame the idea youth can choose the way they interact with and move forward when faced with adversity. The full parable, “Carrot, Egg or Coffee: Which Are You?,” was published by the Huffington Post in 2011.

To learn about other ways to build youth resiliency and get your teens involved in their communities, visit the Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H Youth Development sites. These programs help to prepare youth as positive and engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas. To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, civic engagement, citizenship and global/cultural programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.”

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