I can easily say that the overwhelming majority of my practice (with adults and with children) is focused on helping others to cope with distressing situations. Perhaps it’s helping a child to cope with their parents’ divorce or the overbearing teacher at school. Maybe it’s helping a spouse to manage overwhelming feelings of being betrayed by their partner, or the loss associated with caring for an aging parent.
No matter how you slice it, life dishes us out some really nasty curves in our road that can be really difficult to navigate. The bottom line is, if you don’t know how to effectively manage these twists and turns, you can end up coping in ineffective or destructive ways. These might be as minor as lashing out at a loved one when you’re stressed at work, or as severe as substance abuse and dependence.
Part of the reason I am so passionate about “coping skills” is because these skills, if learned early, can allow our children to handle distressing situations effectively. This increases their confidence in their ability to do so, which makes it more likely that they will be able to cope with dressing situations as adults (when those twists and turns get increasingly difficult). It also lessens the chance that they will select ineffective or destructive coping skills as adults.
Coping skills, however, are not something that is overtly taught in school….
It is rare that our kids will have someone sit with them and explain the in’s and out’s of how to deal with stressful situations. Sometimes they covertly receive the message that they should “get over it,” whatever “it’ is… sometimes they have a friend or well-meaning teacher/mentor offer to listen while they talk about what’s bothering them… but rarely do we hear of people sitting with our children and teaching them how to meet these needs on their own (or advocate for themselves if they can’t cope independently).
THAT’S OUR JOB! So, let’s talk about how to do that –
1. Help them name the feeling: Helping your children to increase their emotional vocabulary will help them identify what type of “twist” or “turn” they’re trying to manage. Remember that those skills that work for someone when they are angry might not work when they are sad. If you teach your child to identify the problem, and how they are feeling as a result, you help them start to differentiate their needs in different situations, and (ideally) to communicate those needs when appropriate.
2. Help them identify what might help them feel “better”: This is where the “skills” part of “coping skills” comes in. And my favorite part about coping skills is that the possibilities are ENDLESS. Maybe it’s drawing, taking a walk, taking some deep breaths, or soaking in the bathtub. Perhaps it’s playing a musical instrument (or listening to music), talking to a friend/family member, or journaling. Although their skill-set will change as they get older, your job is to teach your children that EFFECTIVE coping skills are those behaviors that (1) MAKE THEM FEEL BETTER and (2) DO NOT NEGATIVELY IMPACT THEMSELVES OR SOMEONE ELSE. That second part is the tricky piece – your child may feel that screaming at others when they are angry is the best way to make themselves feel better. They may be right, but the person they are screaming at may not feel so great at the end of that. Our job is to help our children learn to distinguish healthy and effective coping skills from unhealthy and destructive ones. Teaching them to do this, I find, IS THE MOST ESSENTIAL PIECE TO HELPING OUR CHILDREN DEVELOP INTO ADULTS THAT CAN DO THE SAME.
3. Help them recognize when they need to use them: The younger we are, the more difficulty we have with self-awareness and emotional regulation. It’s a skill set that just gets better with age, and our youngest of kids particularly struggle with this (think about why tantrums occur). One of the best things you can do for your child is to help them start to learn when to use a coping skill. You, as their parent (who knows them best) will be able to see when their anger or sadness is brewing, and can intervene earlier than they can. Start by helping them to label the feeling, and prompt them to pick one of their skills. Depending on their age, they may need you to walk them through it. Remember that they are experiencing REALLY big emotions, but a much smaller capacity to deal with them than our own – if you approach them with the intent to teach or help, it makes dealing with those big emotions as a parent a little easier too.
4. Remind your kids that emotions are temporary: Consider the loss of a pet for a kid. This is something that can be, potentially, extremely devastating. It’s going to be hard for them to understand that there will be a time that they will no longer feel so saddened by that loss. EVERY emotion is temporary. Some come back frequently, especially in the face of loss, but at some point – biochemically – your brain can only dump out so much of the chemical that makes you feel that way. Reminding them that the twists and turns of life are temporary, as are our reactions to them, gives them the confidence and faith that they will feel better. Teaching them coping skills increases their feelings of self-efficacy and independence in making those negative experiences have less of a sting. Even when the situation itself cannot change (as in an example such as a loss), they will not always feel the way that they do immediately following the event, and they have a direct impact on what the days to come can and will look like.
5. Remind them to be mindful, not to suppress: We often think of anger, sadness, jealousy, or other “negative” emotions as those that should not be discussed. They should be either suppressed/forgotten (the emotional version of “walk it off” for a twisted ankle), or are bothersome to others to hear and therefore should not be discussed. So, here’s the thing with that – negative emotions are universal human experiences. Although we experience emotions to varying degrees, and as a result of widely varying triggers, WE ALL get sad/angry, jealous, etc. One of the best things you can do is to teach your child that their experience of those emotions is NORMAL and that they are NORMAL for having them. Rather than giving them the narrative that there is something wrong with them, let them know that those emotions should be identified, experienced, AND COPED WITH – and as previously mentioned, will pass.
6. Practice what you preach: We may always hope that our children thrive in areas that we have struggled in as their parents. But the bottom line is, we are their example. Consider what message you send your children about negative emotional experiences when you are having them. It’s okay to tell your kids that you’re feeling kind of disappointed that you had a bad day at work, and that you are feeling better by doing X, Y, and Z. You are allowed to apologize to your kids when you struggle to cope effectively with their behavior, and manage it in ways in which you are not proud. Doing these things does not paint you in a weak light or challenge your parental authority – it shows our kids that we adults are HUMAN like they are, and are responsible for managing our feelings accordingly. This can give them confidence, also, that they will eventually be able to do the same.
I am encouraged by what I see in our society when it comes to these messages above being communicated to our kids. We, as adults, are really starting to do a better job at managing our own feelings, and teaching our children to do the same. But this is a long road ahead of us, and is a universal need that we must ensure we teach our children to meet. If you take anything from this, I hope that you know that you are CAPABLE of teaching your children these skills, and that by doing so, you set them up for a LIFETIME of essential skills that they will use every day of their lives.