Resilience Is Not a Trait, It’s a Process

How can we best support adolescents’ need to explore and learn about themselves and the world around them?

By Marilyn López

4 mins


“What was the worst advice given to you by an adult as an adolescent?”

This was the icebreaker card I held in the palm of my hand during a welcome dinner attended by a mix of researchers, practitioners and funders. We were there to attend UCLA’s Center for the Developing Adolescent’s first annual symposium on adolescent brain development. As I sat there staring blankly at the card, my brain raced through memories of pivotal moments in my life. It was a good question, but a complicated one.

As a First-Generation Mexican American woman from a working-class family and the oldest of six, a lot of the well-meaning advice I received from adults was often rooted in survival strategies, a scarcity mindset, gender stereotypes and sexism, deep-seated trauma, their own definitions of success, and much more. The worst advice I could think of that impacted my family dynamics, childhood friendships, education and career trajectory was my high school counselor’s “recommendation” to graduate early during my junior year even though I wasn’t ready. There was never a question of whether I wanted to, what my goals were, or how I would get there, only that I needed to embrace this life transition now.

We know that young people are resilient. But resilience is not a trait, it’s a process. And I often wonder who I would be today if I had been given a lot more freedom and space to grow on my own terms, especially as a young woman of color. Imagine if adults guiding this next generation of leaders and change agents took the time to consider who young people are as individuals, what they want for themselves, and how they hope to contribute to the world. Our advice would not then be potentially harmful.

Thus, the symposium’s essential question resonated greatly not only on a personal level but as a former youth worker and now as a program officer in the adolescent learning space, and that is how can we best support adolescents’ need to explore and learn about themselves and the world around them?

What conditions or environments were in place for you that made it possible to explore, experiment, and learn as an adolescent?

The symposium consisted of a series of talks that advanced and expanded the conversation on exploratory learning during adolescence, with panel discussion questions like, “What is unique about learning during adolescence?,” “How do we support risk-taking?” and “Is failure good for exploration and learning?”

My top two takeaways from these panel sessions and small table discussions were first, that young people need safe and supportive environments where they can bring their whole selves and form strong, trust-based relationships, to nurture a strong sense of identity, belonging, and wellbeing. My colleague and fellow panelist, Molly Pencke, Bezos Scholars Program Manager, suggests creating brave spaces rather than safe spaces where young people can come as they are, find community, and challenge themselves and others to learn and grow. And second, when we talk about exploration and healthy risk-taking, we should begin by reframing failure as one’s first attempt at learning and, most importantly, consider who’s allowed to fail (or learn) versus not. Panelists Jamila Walida Simon, MS, New York State 4-H, and Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, Center for Parent and Teen Communication, reminded us – structural racism and systemic oppression prevents youth from failing, experimenting, and growing, especially those from historically marginalized communities.

When I look back at my adolescence, I think about the teachers, school clubs, and after school programs that shaped me; that saw me and made me feel like I mattered, gave me a sense of purpose, held me accountable to my own learning, grounded me in community, and had me thinking beyond my zip code. These are the kinds of people and programs worth investing in, but that not every young person has access to. For this reason, I am committed to making these enriching and transformative experiences accessible to all youth, particularly youth of color, and invite fellow grantmakers to reflect on and consider: What conditions or environments were in place for you that made it possible to explore, experiment, and learn as an adolescent? And, in your current role, what can you do to ensure that young people have equitable access to these opportunities and support systems today?

Marilyn López is an Associate Program Officer on the Grants team at Bezos Family Foundation. She is a Seattle University Master of Nonprofit Leadership program alum, a proud Texas Longhorn, and a product of out-of-school time programs such as Junior Achievement of Southeast Texas, Model UN, and Project GRAD Houston.