6 Ways to Teach Your Kids Healthy Coping Strategies
Just like us, kids experience a wide array of emotions.
They feel the excitement of an upcoming family trip, the disappointment of a failed spelling test, and the loneliness of being left out at recess. Kids can experience daily stressors like these, and also chronic stress brought on by crisis or disaster (aka a worldwide pandemic).
Depending on the emotional intelligence toolbox we’ve given them, our children will respond to stress and change in healthy or unhealthy ways.
Why do my kids need to develop effective coping skills now?
Research has shown that effective coping skills predict a child’s well-being, now and in the future. If proficient, these skills can act as a catalyst and protection for kids’ emotional and social development. Children who know how to cope with stress and change have a healthier quality of life and a happy lifestyle.
But it works the other way, too.
Children who don’t know how to cope and who respond to stress in unproductive ways experience opposite outcomes. Emotional and social development is stunted, relationships suffer, and even mental and physical outcomes like anxiety, depression, and disease are more likely.
Where do my kids learn effective coping skills?
Depending on your own emotional intelligence, you may or may not like this answer: you! Children learn through experience and observation, and whatever behaviors are most strongly reinforced will likely stay with them. Most of the coping strategies your children will draw upon for the rest of their lives will be learned from watching and interacting with you.
So for your sake and theirs, take a second to think about the way you cope.
What messages are you sending to your kids? If necessary, work on cleaning up your own act before coaching your child.
How do I know if my or my children’s coping strategies are healthy or unhealthy?
There can be a lot of confusion around this question, as sometimes coping strategies we think are helpful are really unproductive. The ultimate goal of a coping strategy is not simply survival. Instead, it should enable us to process our emotions and deal with stress in a resilient way.
Think overcome, not survive.
If your coping strategy acts solely as a distraction from your problem or emotions, it’s not productive. For example, if you go for a run every time you feel upset and never address the issue, your coping strategy isn’t effective. But if running is a form of meditation for you, during which you process your emotions or build up the courage to eventually do so, it is an effective coping strategy.
Productive coping strategies can consist of healthy distraction (never permanent, but meant to give you space and time to process), seeking another’s advice or support, spiritual outreach (prayer, meditation), or thinking about the issue to come up with a solution. Unproductive strategies consist of ignoring the issue, suppressing emotions, blaming yourself or others, isolating, worrying, or avoiding reality by wishful thinking.
Are your coping strategies productive? What about your kids’ coping strategies?
How do I encourage healthy coping strategies?
Here are six ways you can help your child learn healthy, effective coping methods.
1. Ditch the Drama
When your child cries hysterically over a broken toy or sulks for days because they were not invited to a birthday party, you may be tempted to jump into the drama.
The best thing you can do, though, is stay out of it.
Learn how to validate your child’s emotions without validating any unhealthy coping skills that may come along with those emotions: screaming, sulking, or bullying. When we feel pain or stress that we don’t quite know how to handle, we tend to enter into our own drama and invite others to join us. You may see your child amplify or suppress their emotions to get your attention. Gently let them know that you recognize their emotion and invite them to deal with their feelings in a healthy way.
2. Let Them Play
Studies have shown a strong correlation between play and coping ability. When children play, they strengthen cognitive skills such as divergent thinking and imagination.
Coping is the real-life application of these skills.
When routine responses are unavailable in a moment of increased stress, children rely on cognitive skills to think of solutions to their problem. In one particular study, “children with high imagination in their play reported using a greater number of coping strategies in stressful situations for years later.”
Not only does play encourage cognitive development, it also acts as a means of emotional processing for children.
Play is a safe way to understand and work through particularly traumatic events. For example, if your child pretends they are a doctor helping sick patients, they are likely processing the pandemic through play. Give your little ones the time and space to play and trust that they are simultaneously developing cognitive and emotional abilities that will help them cope.
3. Lose the Entitlement
Your children will be unable to cope if they have an entitled attitude. If you ever hear them say, “This isn’t fair,” or “I don’t deserve this,” you can probably empathize with the underlying feeling of disappointment and confusion.
A stressful event or a sudden change can be difficult to understand, but hanging onto entitlement will keep you stuck.
Teach your children that they aren’t entitled to smooth sailing all the time. Bad things do happen in life, and often to good people. When they understand that principle, they won’t be surprised when difficult things happen, and they’ll be more confident in their ability to handle challenges and stress.
4. Don’t Enable
When have you protected your child from a consequence? If she forgot to bring her book to school, did you deliver it to her? If he didn’t finish folding the laundry, did you do it for him?
There are many times when we protect our children from consequences because we don’t want them to feel pain or because we’re concerned with efficiency.
While this may provide your child (and you) temporary relief, they won’t know how to cope with the uncomfortable when you attempt to take away consequences.
Allow your children to experience the outcomes of their behaviors. This will give them the opportunity to learn how to cope and will also send the message that they are capable of dealing with discomfort. If there’s no pain to feel and no problem to solve, how will your children learn how to cope?
5. Listen and Validate
The ultimate goal of a coping strategy is to help you regulate and process your emotions and behaviors in response to a stressful event. When emotions are recognized and validated, appropriate action can be taken. Your child will eventually learn how to process their emotions on their own—but for now, they rely on you.
Ask your child questions about what they feel and think. Validate their emotions.
Let them know that you recognize how they are feeling and that you have felt these emotions, too. Give your child your full attention. Doing this sets the stage for healthy coping strategies, because instead of ignoring emotions, your children feel capable of recognizing and processing them.
6. Encourage Self-Confidence
Every child has a belief system about their own ability to cope with challenges. Researchers have referred to this belief system as “coping self-efficacy.” Your child’s coping self-efficacy depends on how capable they believe themselves to be in the face of challenge. Can they handle the stress? Can they adapt to the changing circumstances?
The more self-confidence your child has, the more likely they are to approach a challenge, rather than ignore or avoid it.
Self-confident kids will perceive themselves as capable, stress as temporary, and challenges as conquerable. Compliment, praise, and encourage your children. And when you feel tempted to rescue them from a challenge, instead give them the support and tools they need to handle it on their own.
Coping practices are learned and adopted in early life. How your kids cope with a failed spelling test today will be very similar to how they cope with a lost job in the future. By parenting them in an emotionally intelligent way, you can teach them effective coping strategies that will ultimately encourage them to be confident and hopeful in the face of challenge.
Fiorelli, Julie A., and Sandra W. Russ. “Pretend Play, Coping, and Subjective Well-Being in Children: A Follow-Up Study.” PsycEXTRA Dataset, 2011, doi:10.1037/e700772011-001.
Gulliford, Heather, et al. “Teaching Coping Skills in the Context of Positive Parenting Within a Preschool Setting.” Australian Psychologist, vol. 50, no. 3, 2015, pp. 219–231., doi:10.1111/ap.12121.
Lennings, Heidi I. Brummert, and Kay Bussey. “The Mediating Role of Coping Self-Efficacy Beliefs on the Relationship between Parental Conflict and Child Psychological Adjustment.” Social Development, vol. 26, no. 4, 2017, pp. 753–766., doi:10.1111/sode.12241.
Rodriguez, Manuel Francisco Morales, et al. “Prevalence of Strategies for Coping with Daily Stress in Children.” Psicothema, vol. 28, no. 4, 2016, pp. 370–376.