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Identifying unexpected strengths in adolescents

By Johanna Slivinske


Think for a moment, back to when you were a teenager. What were you like? What did you enjoy doing? In what did you excel? The positive activities in which we partake in adolescence shape our adult lives. In my case, playing the clarinet in band and competing in extemporaneous speaking on the speech team molded me the most, and became my personal strengths.

360px-Chambre_adolescentMusic and the creative arts continue to influence my writing and speaking, and many of these facets of my professional life can be traced back to strengths developed and built upon in my youth. Another strength was the fact that I had a loving, kind, and caring family. This provided me with a solid foundation for life, and in a sense, these protective factors in my life made me resilient. However, strengths can also be found in unexpected venues, perhaps peering through the cracks of hardship.

  1.   Adolescents might find strengths through their failures in discovering that they are able to get back up after falling. When teens fail, and continue to try despite the failure, they show a level of resilience, diligence, and perseverance.
  2.   The communities of adolescents, even if less than perfect, can be a source of strength. Creating dialogues about community leaders may benefit teens that need role models in their lives. It can help them figure out whom they aspire to be similar to in character and in positive personal qualities. A community leader can be anyone who functions as a responsible person in the community, or anyone else who cares about the well-being of the community as a whole.
  3.   Acting out behaviors may be viewed through a strengths lens if those behaviors are a response to traumatic experiences such as community violence or sexual assault. The nonproductive response of acting out behaviors during adolescence may be reframed therapeutically as a survival mechanism or a stepping-stone leading toward a more productive path of healing and growth.
  4.   Instead of viewing quirks, eccentricities, or diagnoses as negative qualities, these may sometimes be perceived as qualities that foster the creation of unique perspectives and promote divergent ways of understanding the world.
  5.   When everyday necessities are lacking from adolescents’ lives, they may learn to be resourceful. Resourcefulness may entail surviving under extremely stressful circumstances or learning how to “make due” with limited resources. Teens may have learned how to cook for themselves, or they may have asked friends to share clothing with them. These are examples of using the strength of resourcefulness under difficult circumstances.


When working with adolescents and their families, it is essential to focus not only on their problems, but also on their strengths. This may sometimes present as a challenge, but if you search intensely, with an open mind, strengths may be identified and built upon as a solid foundation for life. This contributes to the fostering of resilience in adolescents and their families.

Hidden or obscured strengths, when perceived in a positive manner, may serve as methods of coping or means of survival during times of stress. Even when strengths are obvious to professionals, adolescent clients may not be aware of their own strengths, and may benefit from therapists’ ability to identify, recognize, and name them. Through working with adolescents, it’s possible to identify strengths and help them learn more about themselves and what makes them unique, so that they can grow to become productive members of their communities.

Johanna Slivinske is co-author of Therapeutic Storytelling for Adolescents and Young Adults (2014). She currently works at PsyCare and also teaches in the Department of Social Work at Youngstown State University, where she is also affiliated faculty for the Department of Women’s Studies.

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Image credit: Chambre de jeune français. Photo by NdeFrayssinet. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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