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Key Takeaways:

  • Coping skills equip children to manage stressful situations by improving their conflict-resolution skills and making them more resilient.
  • There are three types of coping mechanisms: emotion-based, behavior-based, and cognitive-based. Developing skills for all three makes for a well-rounded strategy.
  • Parents can reinforce healthy coping mechanisms by giving their children a safe space to express themselves, providing opportunities to experiment with different strategies, and being involved.

Like adults, children encounter stress in school and among their peers. Unlike adults, children may not be well-equipped to manage challenging circumstances—this is where developing the appropriate coping skills for kids comes in handy.

As a parent or caregiver, it’s imperative to equip your child with the ability to regulate their emotions and understand why they feel the way they do. This guide will provide tips for helping kids develop coping skills for moments when they can’t depend on others.

What are Coping Skills?

Coping skills refer to the methods an individual uses to deal with stressful situations. These skills range from simple breathing exercises to self-talk and physical activity.

Different people have different coping skills. What may offer long-term relief to one person may not have the same effect on someone else. Thus, it’s important to identify what coping mechanisms work best according to a person’s specific traits.

The Importance of Teaching Coping Skills to Children

While everyone has different ways of coping with stress, relying on positive methods is essential to improving how a child feels physically and psychologically.

If a child copes with stress unproductively, such as through self-destructive behaviors, they may become avoidant and focus on immediate relief instead of addressing the root cause of the issue. In addition, it can become difficult to unlearn harmful habits.

Helping your child develop problem-centric mental health coping mechanisms can improve their conflict resolution skills and make them more resilient. Children who develop resilience early on can gracefully acknowledge their mistakes, learn from the situation, and bounce back. They will also learn to manage negative emotions and prevent outbursts or meltdowns.

Emotion-Based Coping Skills for Kids

Emotion-based coping skills focus on helping children manage what they feel in a given moment. For instance, they may seek ways to soothe themselves or calm down when they are feeling angry, lonely, or sad.

Emotional coping strategies typically involve mindfulness exercises, which include the following.

Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing reduces stress by promoting a calming environment, inducing relaxation, and increasing comfort [*]. When introducing your child to deep breathing strategies, use visual aids like posters and short videos.

Identifying Feelings and Emotions

Becoming aware of their emotions helps children acknowledge and manage them. However, young children may struggle with identifying complex emotions like disappointment or jealousy.

Using a feelings and emotions chart can help children understand what physical and physiological responses constitute anger, sadness, anxiety, and fear, among others.

When children learn to identify their feelings and emotions, they can develop the appropriate coping mechanisms for specific needs like anxiety and depression.

Positive Self-Talk

Children may develop negative self-talk when they become aware of how others perceive them, when they experience their first failures, and when they don’t meet the expectations of others. Teaching children to speak kindly toward themselves can train their patience and make them more empathetic toward others.

Use our self-talk triangle to introduce the concept of positive self-talk and how it can improve your child’s self-image.

Physical Relaxation Techniques

Regular physical activities are effective stress relievers and mood-boosters. Start at home with simple activities like progressive muscle relaxation, which helps slow breathing and heart rate.

Then, branch out into other physical activities, like exercise, sports, and games. Remember to follow your child’s interests—they’ll be more likely to commit to an activity they enjoy.

Behavior-Based Coping Skills for Kids

Children who become accustomed to negative coping mechanisms may require significant behavioral changes. These behavioral changes make it easier to tackle problems head-on, eliminating the source of the stress. Here are a few methods to try.

Structured Playtime

Structured playtime involves following rules or instructions to achieve a specific goal. Toy assembly, board games, or team sports are examples of structured play that foster a child’s creative thinking and problem-solving.

Engaging a child in structured play exercises their logic and encourages them to adjust their behavior to meet a pre-established goal.

Journaling

Older children can set goals for the behaviors they want to achieve through journaling. According to research journaling benefits mental well-being and enables children to learn more about themselves [*].

Through journaling, children can relieve pent-up emotions, increase their capacity for self-reflection, and learn to navigate challenging situations independently.

Cognitive-Based Coping Skills for Kids

Cognitive-based coping skills refer to how a child interprets a stressful situation. Developing these skills can help a child manage stress and anxiety. Here’s what you can do.

Cognitive Restructuring

Through cognitive restructuring, children can recognize and identify negative thought patterns, challenging irrational thoughts to achieve more balanced perspectives.

One way to practice cognitive restructuring is to reframe thoughts positively. For example, if your child expresses, “I’m not good at this. I failed,” you can suggest something more productive, like “I can do better next time.”

Roleplaying

Roleplaying is a powerful tool for teaching cognitive coping strategies to children, as they can practice their responses to specific scenarios in a a safe environment. You might select common scenarios, like disagreeing with a friend, feeling nervous for a performance, or playing a sport for the first time.

Set the stage and act out the scenario, guiding your child away from negative thoughts and reframing them into more positive ones.

Tips for Parents When Teaching Coping Skills to Kids

Eventually, children should practice these coping mechanisms on their own. However, younger children will need their parents to guide them. Here are a few tips for teaching your child how to cope with stressful situations.

  • Reassure your child it’s normal to feel bad. Children should know that it’s unrealistic to feel happy all the time. Let them know they can feel sad, frustrated, angry, and scared, so long as they learn not to stay stuck in their negative emotions.
  • Normalize talking about your child’s feelings. The safer a child feels in their environment, the more likely they are to express themselves to people they trust—namely, their family members. Listen actively and empathetically.
  • Identify what coping strategies work best for your child. It’s essential to provide children with opportunities to discover what coping strategies work best for them, and even more important to reinforce these strategies. As your child experiments with these strategies, ask what worked for them.
  • Cope together. As a parent, how comfortable your child feels expressing themselves to you is paramount. By being involved in their healing process and practicing coping mechanisms together, you can grow and learn side-by-side.

The Bottom Line

Finding coping mechanisms that work for one child may not work for another, so it’s imperative to spend time experimenting with different strategies.

Mastering the art of coping takes time. Supplement your child’s healing journey with our coping skills worksheets.

Sources:

  1. Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, et al. “How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2018.
  2. Sohal M, Singh P, Bhupinder Singh Dhillon, Harbir Singh Gill. “Efficacy of journaling in the management of mental illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Family Medicine and Community Health, 2022.