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Coping Skills for Kids – What’s Missing From The Picture

Coping skills for kids are vital in helping them deal with life’s stress. However, coping strategies are not a panacea. They are only effective under certain conditions. Find out how parents can help kids get this necessary condition in order to deal with stress adaptably.

What Are Stress Coping Skills For Kids

Stress coping skills for kids are a set of actions or strategies that children can apply to maintain their physical and mental health in stress-inducing situations. 

Today, children and adolescents face a multitude of stress, including conflicts with their parents, relationship problems with friends, school performance issues, and peer pressure. 

Unmanaged stress can cause them to become unmotivated to study or do anything. Failure to cope positively contributes to an increased risk of academic failure, social behavioral issues, interpersonal difficulties and depression​1​. Prolonged stress can also turn into toxic stress that can disrupt a child’s brain development​2​.

Good coping skills are essential to a child’s healthy development.

mom and boy are both stressed need coping skills

What Is Stress

Neuroscientists Jeansok Kim and David Diamond have found that there are three components in stress formation​3​.

  1. Stress requires heightened arousal,
  2. The experience must be perceived as aversive, and
  3. There is a lack of control to some degree.

Developing Coping Skills: What’s missing from the picture

When parents teach their children coping strategies, they tend to focus on the skills and mechanisms that they think the child should master. 

However, coping strategies are not “magic bullets” that can instantly solve problems and restore emotional balance​4​.

Dealing with the lack of control, the third component of stress, is one aspect that is often absent from the coping skills development picture​5​.

Studies have found that having the perception of control over an aversive experience can mitigate how stressful the experience feels. This perceived control affects how much stress one experiences, how likely one is to apply coping strategies, and whether this encounter will lead to psychological issues​3​.

Children with low perceived control do not believe they can change an undesirable outcome. Therefore, having a bag full of stress-coping tricks is futile because they won’t even try to use them.

How Perceptions of Control Forms in Childhood

Perceptions of control are not isolated judgements based only on the problem in hand. Instead, they are colored by an individual’s history of life experiences. Children who have experienced uncontrollable events in early life may believe that they have no control over the environment. These children are more susceptible to developing psychological vulnerability or stress-induced anxiety​6​.

To help children develop healthy perceptions of control parents need to allow them to take control of their lives, whenever possible.

Researchers have consistently found that the development of control beliefs in children is enhanced if their parents encourage independence. These parents have the following characteristics:

  • Encourage child independence and autonomy​7​.
  • Less controlling or intrusive​8​.
  • Use suggestions rather than commands.
  • Responsive to their child’s needs​9​.
  • Warm and emotionally supportive​10​.

These are the exact same characteristics of parents who practice authoritative parenting style.

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Two Types Of Stress Coping Skills for Kids

With a strong sense of perceived control, teaching coping skills is the next step parents can take to empower their kids to deal with life’s stress.

There are two types of coping skills: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping​11​.

Problem-focused coping skills refer to action that has the goal of removing or circumventing the source of the stress. These coping skills emerge during early childhood starting in preschool. Also known as primary coping, problem-focused coping is more effective for issues that are perceived as changeable.

Emotion-focused coping skills refer to the attempt to manage or regulate the negative emotions created by the stressful situation. These coping skills develop during later childhood and early adolescence. Also known as secondary coping, emotion-focused coping is more effective for issues that are recognized as uncontrollable.

Problem-focused Coping

This coping mechanism includes the following strategies:

Active problem-solving
Active problem solving is taking active steps to try to remove or circumvent the stressor or to alleviate its effects. The goal is to resolve the problem that created the stress if the child knows how to proceed.

Planning is contemplating how to cope with a stressor. It involves coming up with action strategies, steps to take and ways to best handle the problem.

Seeking assistance
Seek assistance is asking social support for advice, information or help.

Screening out competing activities
Screening out competing activities is putting other projects aside to avoid being distracted to deal with the stress.

Restraint coping
Restraint coping is holding oneself back, and waiting until a suitable opportunity presents itself before acting.

Problem-focused coping examples:

  • Talk things over with the person involved in the conflict (active problem solving)
  • Plan to study harder for the next exam (planning)
  • Ask the soccer coach for more practice to improve the game at the upcoming match (seeking assistance)
  • Play less video games to make time for homework (screening out competing activities)
  • Refrain from arguing to cool the crowd down (restraint coping)

Adaptive Emotion-Focused Coping

Emotion-focused coping is predominant when people see the stressor as something that must be endured.

Adaptive coping mechanism includes the following strategies:

Positive reinterpretation

Reappraise the stressful situation in a positive light to manage distress emotions.

Accept the reality of a stressful situation and accept that there are no active coping strategies at the moment.

Seeking emotional support
Seek social emotional assistance for moral support, sympathy and understanding.

Seeking meaning
Seeking meaning is the attempt to discover a new faith or a new meaning of life. This involves praying as well as trying to change or grow as a consequence of the stressful experience.

Use humor
Using a sense of humor to diffuse the negative emotions that accompany distress.

Adaptive emotion-focused coping examples:

  • Look for the good in what is happening (positive reinterpretation)
  • Accept that this has occurred and it can’t be changed (acceptance)
  • Talk to trusted friends to seek emotional support (seek emotional support)
  • Join a religious organization (
  • Find something funny in the distress and look for something comical to say (use humor)

Maladaptive Emotion-focused Coping

Not all emotion-focused coping strategies are adaptive. Some strategies are maladaptive and have a negative impact on mental health​12​.

Maladaptive coping strategies generally result in poor mental health. The more emotional distress and the more severe the problem, the more likely one would use maladaptive coping.

Maladaptive coping mechanism includes the following strategies:

Escapism is a form of emotion-focused coping that includes fantasizing or daydreaming. It also involves drinking alcohol or using drugs, sleeping excessively, and avoiding people.

Denial is denying the reality of the event.

Disengagement is giving up trying to achieve goals when the stressor interferes.

Blame oneself is a passive strategy that is directed inward instead of outward toward the problem at hand.

Maladaptive emotion-focused coping examples:

  • Drink alcohol or take drugs in order to think about the distress less (escapism)
  • Refuse to believe that it has happened (denial)
  • Give up trying to achieve goals when the stressor interferes (disengagement)
  • Take the blame for what has happened (self-blame)

Final Thoughts On Coping Skills For Kids

While it is crucial to teach our children ways to handle stress, they are not miracle cures by any means. Coping skills for kids only work if the child thinks they are helpful in coping with the distress. When parents employ external control methods like rewards, punishment, and threats, children lose their sense of control, and thus their ability to deal with stress adaptively.


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