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Coping Skills for Kids – Strategies That Work

Coping skills for kids are vital in helping them deal with life’s stress. However, having skill by itself is not a panacea. Coping skills are only effective under certain necessary conditions. Find out how parents can teach kids positive coping skills by providing this necessary condition and avoid pitfalls when helping a child or teen manage stress.

What Are Stress Coping Skills

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

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

Unmanaged stress can cause kids, especially teenagers, to become unmotivated to study or do anything.

Failure to cope positively contributes to an increased risk of academic failure, social behavioral issues​1​, interpersonal difficulties and depressive symptoms​2​.

Prolonged stress can also turn into a type of stress, called toxic stress, that can disrupt a child’s brain development​3​.

Learning healthy coping skills today is essential to a child’s development.

mom and boy are both negatively impacted by stress need coping skills - cope and seethe boys

Where Does Stress Come From

Neuroscientists Jeansok Kim and David Diamond have found that there are three components in stress formation​4​.

  1. Stress requires heightened arousal, such as increased heart rate and stress hormone levels,
  2. The experience must be perceived as aversive, and
  3. There is a lack of control to some degree.

Developing Healthy Coping: What’s missing from the picture

What is coping? Coping is how people mobilize, manage and direct their action under conditions of challenge, threat or loss. Effective coping involves development of emotional, attentional and behavioral regulation.

When parents teach kids healthy coping strategies, they tend to teach coping skills and mechanisms that they think the child should master to alleviate the child’s big feelings.

However, coping skill alone is not a “magic bullet” that can instantly restore emotional balance​5​.

Dealing with the lack of control, the third component in stress formation, is one aspect that is often absent from the coping skills picture​6​.

Studies have found that having the feeling of control over an aversive experience can mitigate how stressful it feels.

When children believe that they can influence stressful events, even if they don’t have actual control of the current event, they still perceive they are empowered.

They do not feel helpless or at the mercy of external forces.

This subjective perceived control affects how much stress the child feels, how likely they will apply coping strategies, and whether this experience will lead to psychological issues​4​.

Children with low perceived control do not believe they can change an undesirable outcome.

Therefore, even if a child has a bag full of tricks for positive coping with stress, they won’t try to use them if they don’t believe they can change anything.

When children feel helpless, they develop maladaptive responses such as opposition, escape, rumination or avoidance coping​7​.

girl covers face with hands with strong reactions we help kids cope with stress

How Perception of Control Forms in Childhood

Perceptions of control are not isolated judgements based only on a specific problem. Instead, they are shaped by a person’s life experiences.

Perceived control is one of the most powerful personal resources that can be called upon when kids deal with difficulties or stress. Humans have a fundamental psychological need to be effective when they interact with the environment​8​.

Children who have experienced repeated uncontrollable events in early life believe that they cannot influence the environment. They may feel incompetent or believe that events are uncontrollable.

These children are more susceptible to developing stress-induced anxiety​9​ or other psychological vulnerability.

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How To Help Kids Learn And Use Coping Skills

Step 1: Use Authoritative Parenting And Help Kids Develop Healthy Perceptions Of Control

To help your child develop healthy perceptions of control, parents need to allow them autonomy, when possible.

Researchers have consistently found that the development of control beliefs in children is enhanced if parents encourage independence.

These parents have the following characteristics:

  • Encourage child independence and autonomy​10​.
  • Less controlling or intrusive​11​.
  • Use suggestions rather than commands.
  • Responsive to their child’s needs​7​.
  • Warm and emotionally supportive​12​.

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

Step 2: Teach Adaptive Coping Skills

There are two types of coping skills: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping​13​.

Problem-focused coping skills

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

Problem-focused coping mechanism includes the following strategies

1. 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.
Example: Talk things over with the person involved in the conflict.

2. Planning
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.
Example: Plan to study harder for the next exam.

3. Seeking assistance and information
Seek assistance is asking social support for advice, information or help.
Example: Ask the soccer coach for more practice to improve the game at the upcoming match.

4. Screening out competing activities
Screening out competing activities is putting other projects aside to avoid being distracted to deal with the stress.
Example: Play less video game to make time for homework.

5. Restraint coping
Restraint coping is holding oneself back, and waiting until a suitable opportunity presents itself before acting.
Example: Refrain from arguing to cool the crowd down.

Emotion-focused coping skills

Emotion-focused coping skills refer to the attempt to manage or regulate difficult feelings created by the difficult situation. This type of coping skills develops during later childhood and early adolescence. Also known as secondary coping, emotion-focused coping is more effective for issues that are recognized as uncontrollable.

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

Adaptive coping mechanism includes the following strategies for kids:

1. Body mind exercises
When talking about the many ways to help kids reduce stress, body-mind exercises are what people usually refer to. These exercises aim to calm a child’s fight-or-flight nervous system through practices such as deep breathing exercises or meditating.
Examples: Physical activity such as taking deep breaths, hugging a stuffed animal, aerobic exercises. Mindfulness techniques such as meditating, progressive muscle relaxation, and using biofeedback.

2. Positive reinterpretation
Emotion-focused skills are more than just calming the nerves. Another great way to cope is reappraising the stressful situation in a positive light to manage distress emotions or turn it into positive stress called eustress. However, positive reinterpretation should not be confused with denial (more about this later).
Example: Look for the good in what is happening without denying its existence.

3. Acceptance
Accept the reality of a stressful situation and accept that there are no active solution at the moment.
Example: Accept that this has occurred and it can’t be changed.

4. Seeking emotional support
Seek social emotional assistance for moral support, sympathy and understanding.
Example: Talk to trusted friends to seek more support.

5. 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.
Example: Join a religious organization.

6. Use humor
Using a sense of humor to diffuse the negative emotions that accompany distress.
Example: Find something funny in the distress and look for something comical to say.

Step 3: Avoid Teaching Or Encouraging Maladaptive Coping

Not all coping techniques are adaptive. Many parents unknowingly encourage maladaptive coping strategies for kids in daily lives. Maladaptive coping techniques can impact kids’ mental health negatively​14​ .

Maladaptive coping skills

The following strategies are not healthy ways of coping with stress:

1. Escapism
Escapism is a form of emotion-focused coping that includes fantasizing, daydreaming or ruminating. It also involves drinking alcohol or using drugs, sleeping excessively, and avoiding people to escape from stress.
Example: Drink alcohol or take drugs in order to think about the distress less.

2. Denial
Denial is denying the reality of the event. This is the most common mistake parents make when trying to help children who are having a difficult time. When little kids are stressed or upset, parents who insist “It’s ok”, “It’s no big deal” or “It’s not that bad” are encouraging denial. They are denying the stress is real because it doesn’t look stressful in their eyes.
Example: Refuse to believe that it has happened.

3. Disengagement
Disengagement is giving up trying to achieve goals when the stressor interferes.
Example: It’s too hard. I’ll stop trying.

4. Self-blame
Blame oneself is a passive strategy that is directed inward instead of outward toward the problem at hand.
Example: Take the blame for what has happened by believing “It’s all my fault.”

Step 4: Model Coping Skills

One of the most important but often neglected way to teach kids coping skill is the parent’s modeling. Children learn coping by observing and watching us all the time. How we deal with stress can directly affect how our kids handle stress. Make sure you walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

girl is having a panic attacks on mom's shoulder what's coping like

Final Thoughts On Coping Skills For Kids

While it is crucial to teach children ways to handle stress, they are not miracle cures by any means. Coping skills for children only work if the child believes they are helpful in coping with the distress. When parents employ external control methods to deny children autonomy, kids lose their sense of control, and thus their ability to deal with stress adaptively. If your child has trouble learning coping strategies, you can seek help from mental health professionals.


References

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    Jones DE, Greenberg M, Crowley M. Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. Am J Public Health. Published online November 2015:2283-2290. doi:10.2105/ajph.2015.302630
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