Cul­ti­vat­ing re­silience

Be­lief in the power of change helps teens man­age so­cial stress

The Dallas Morning News - - ARTS & LIFE - By JAN HOFF­MAN

Al­most 4 mil­lion Amer­i­can teenagers be­came high school fresh­men this year. Can they learn bet­ter ways to deal with all that stress and in­se­cu­rity?

New re­search sug­gests they can. Though aca­demic and so­cial pres­sures con­tinue to pile on in high school, teenagers can be taught cop­ing skills to skirt the pit­falls of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion.

David S. Yea­ger, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin and a lead­ing voice in the grow­ing ef­fort to help col­lege stu­dents stay in school, has been turn­ing his at­ten­tion to younger teenagers to help shore up their re­silience at an ear­lier age.

His lat­est study, pub­lished in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, found a sur­pris­ingly ef­fec­tive tech­nique. At the be­gin­ning of the school year, stu­dents par­tic­i­pated in a read­ing and writ­ing ex­er­cise in­tended to in­still a ba­sic, al­most ba­nal mes­sage to help them man­age ten­sion: Peo­ple can change.

The stu­dents who com­pleted the ex­er­cise sub­se­quently had lower lev­els of stress, re­ported more con­fi­dence in cop­ing and achieved slightly higher grades at year’s end, com­pared to a con­trol group. These re­sults were measured through the stu­dents’ self-re­port­ing in on­line diaries and through car­dio­vas­cu­lar and hor­mone mea­sure­ments.

The stud­ies are small. Some 60 stu­dents, re­cruited from the Rochester, N.Y., area, par­tic­i­pated in the first trial; the se­cond in­volved 205 ninth-graders from a high school in sub­ur­ban Austin. In 2017, re­searchers will try to re­pro­duce these re­sults on a larger scale, in some 25 high schools across the coun­try.

Adults played no sig­nif­i­cant part in the ex­er­cise, re­searchers said. Stu­dents es-

sen­tially taught them­selves this men­tal buf­fer, and when they were in­evitably rat­tled by so­cial stress, they had a re­as­sur­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tion ready to frame it.

John R. Weisz, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Har­vard who was not in­volved in the re­search, found the ap­proach ef­fi­cient and pow­er­ful. “If you’re an ado­les­cent and you ex­pe­ri­ence so­cial harm, it’s not fixed that you will al­ways be a tar­get. You can change,” he said. “And over time, oth­ers can change, too. They may mel­low and not be so cruel. That’s an in­ter­est­ing twist for kids to learn, and a good one.”

First, stu­dents read a short, en­gag­ing ar­ti­cle about brain sci­ence, de­scrib­ing how per­son­al­ity can change. Then they read anec­dotes writ­ten by se­niors about high school con­flicts, re­flect­ing how they were even­tu­ally able to shrug things off and move on. Fi­nally, the stu­dents were asked to write en­cour­ag­ing ad­vice to younger stu­dents.

Yea­ger and his col­leagues have tried this in­ter­ven­tion in five schools. In one study, 300 high school fresh­men used this same method; nine months later, the preva­lence of de­pres­sion was 40 per­cent less than in a con­trol group.

If the re­sults re­main ro­bust af­ter the 2017 tri­als, Yea­ger plans to re­lease the in­ter­ven­tion ma­te­rial for free through a Stan­ford Univer­sity project.

De­pres­sion in teens

The breadth and depth of ado­les­cent de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety is well es­tab­lished. A 2015 study found that nearly 11 per­cent of teenagers ex­pe­ri­ence de­pres­sion; other re­ports have even higher fig­ures. Be­tween sixth and 10th grade, the rate of de­pres­sion dou­bles for boys and nearly triples for girls. And stud­ies show that while a large per­cent­age of teenagers face high stress on a daily ba­sis, rates of cop­ing skills are weak.

Yea­ger’s in­ter­ven­tion sug­gests that if teenagers can hold on to a long view, they can sol­dier through im­me­di­ate mor­ti­fi­ca­tions at the cafe­te­ria lunch ta­ble. The take­away: You are not doomed to be ex­cluded for­ever. Nei­ther your per­son­al­ity nor that of your tor­men­tor’s is frozen.

The lat­est re­sults from Yea­ger’s study are drawn from two re­lated tri­als.

In the first, 60 stu­dents, ages 14 to 17, were as­sessed for base­line car­dio­vas­cu­lar ac­tiv­ity and lev­els of cor­ti­sol, a

stress hor­mone.

Then half the stu­dents re­ceived the fol­low­ing in­ter­ven­tion:

First, they read the sci­ence ar­ti­cle, which was chatty and in­for­ma­tive and pre­sented as new, in­sider in­for­ma­tion about how per­son­al­ity could evolve. Next, they read ac­counts by se­niors which, in ef­fect, proved the ar­ti­cle’s the­sis.

“When I was a fresh­man,” one wrote, “I felt left out when ev­ery­one got in­vited to a friend’s house and I didn’t. It’s like … they for­got about me. Or even worse, that they thought about me but didn’t think I was cool enough to get in­vited.”

But, the writer con­tin­ued, “No mat­ter how much it hurt, it wasn’t go­ing to last for­ever. … They might even re­al­ize how much pain they were caus­ing oth­ers and de­cide to change.”

The stu­dent made friends out­side of school, be­came in­volved in clubs and sports, and, in time, “things def­i­nitely im­proved.”

Af­ter read­ing the sci­ence ar­ti­cle and the older stu­dents’ nar­ra­tives, the stu­dents in the study were asked to re­flect on a time when they felt re­jected. Then they were given a writ­ing as­sign­ment: Look­ing back, what ad­vice about change would you pass on to younger stu­dents?

Fi­nally, both the in­ter­ven­tion group and the con­trol group were as­signed stress­ful tasks: Give a five-minute speech about what fac­tors make teenagers pop­u­lar. Then, count back­ward, aloud, from 996 — by sev­ens.

Proof of cop­ing

Af­ter­ward, stu­dents who re­ceived the in­ter­ven­tion showed half the car­dio­vas­cu­lar re­ac­tiv­ity of the con­trol group. Their lev­els of cor­ti­sol dropped by 10 per­cent; they were cop­ing. By con­trast, the cor­ti­sol lev­els in the con­trol group in­creased by 45 per­cent.

Yea­ger be­lieves it helps that the teenagers learned cop­ing skills in a lec­ture-free zone. “The more adults tell kids how to deal with their so­cial life, the less kids want to do it that way,” he said.

“We’re ask­ing kids to per­suade other kids,” he added. “That feels re­spect­ful to them, and mo­ti­vat­ing. It’s a chance to mat­ter. As these fresh­men re­flect on how they coped in mid­dle school, the ex­er­cise forces them to put things in per­spec­tive.”

The se­cond study com­pared 205 ninth-graders in one school, half of whom re­ceived the in­ter­ven­tion. All of them filled out a stan­dard­ized on­line di­ary for a week, not­ing each day’s stress­ful events.

On days recorded as stress­ful, the in­ter­ven­tion stu­dents showed a 10 per­cent de­crease in cor­ti­sol and said they could man­age the stresses. In con­trast, the con­trol group showed an 18 per­cent in­crease in cor­ti­sol on stress­ful days and said they “couldn’t han­dle” the stress.

At the end of the year, the in­ter­ven­tion stu­dents had grades that were slightly higher than the con­trol group’s.

Lau­rence Stein­berg, a pro­fes­sor of ado­les­cent psy­chol­ogy at Tem­ple Univer­sity, said there has been much dis­cus­sion about what schools can do to bol­ster stu­dents’ so­cial and emo­tional skills.

Re­search has shown, he said, that “if kids be­lieved in­tel­li­gence was fixed, they would be­lieve noth­ing could be done. But if you could change their be­lief to think that in­tel­li­gence was mal­leable and in­cre­men­tal, their aca­demic per­for­mance would im­prove.”

Yea­ger, he added, has been ap­ply­ing this idea to per­son­al­ity.

“This in­ter­ven­tion is not a self-es­teem en­hancer, which is a failed model,” Stein­berg said. “But it does boost kids’ self­con­fi­dence by chang­ing their be­lief in their own abil­ity to change.”

“If you’re an ado­les­cent and you ex­pe­ri­ence so­cial harm, it’s not fixed that you will al­ways be a tar­get. You can change. And over time, oth­ers can change, too. They may mel­low and not be so cruel. That’s an in­ter­est­ing twist for kids to learn, and a good one.” John R. Weisz, psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Har­vard

Jun Cen/The New York Times

Christo­pher Futcher/Getty Images

A 2015 study found that nearly 11 per­cent of teenagers ex­pe­ri­ence de­pres­sion; other re­ports have even higher fig­ures. Be­tween sixth and 10th grade, the rate of de­pres­sion dou­bles for boys and nearly triples for girls.

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