Stress, setbacks, disappointments and defeats are a natural part of life. A child who learns how to cope while young is a child who will gain strength and confidence as he matures. And a child who knows how to manage in the face of adversity is a child who can face life unafraid.
Positive coping strategies are any actions we take to manage and reduce stress in our lives, in a way that isn’t harmful or detrimental in the long term. One of the best things we can do for our kids is to equip them with an arsenal of such tactics that they can turn to when the going gets tough.
Here are five effective coping skills for some of the more common challenges our kids face…
1. When your child is anxious
As adults, we know only too well about stress. But sometimes we forget that our kids experience stress too. Be it everyday worries about doing well at school or getting along with friends, or more acute stress, such as when parents divorce or a loved one dies, with a good set of coping skills, a child is able to navigate her way through life’s inevitable anxieties and emerge with greater resilience on the other side.
A good place to start when she feels anxious is to teach her a few quick calming techniques, such as deep breathing or imagining a favourite place. Communicating feelings is also an effective stress-management tool but, if you’re having a hard time starting a verbal conversation, try writing instead. A special diary that’s just for the two of you can be invaluable when it comes to learning about your child’s fears and helping her articulate her emotions. In the longer term, it may be wise to simplify your schedule. Constantly being on the go puts a lot of pressure on everyone in the family and cutting down to one or two activities a week also has the benefit of making more time for play, which is an important stress release for children.
2. When your child is angry
Anger is actually a mask we wear to cover an emotion that makes us feel vulnerable. And children are no exception. However, if they do not learn how to release their anger appropriately, it can fester and explode in inappropriate ways or be internalised and damage their sense of self-worth. It is important, therefore, that you recognise and acknowledge your child’s feelings. By doing so, he doesn’t need to defend those feelings and is less likely to respond in anger.
On the other hand, if you discount his feelings, his anger will intensify as he fights to establish and validate his own sense of self. That said, it is important to establish clear standards for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. This means that, although you want to validate all your child is feeling, allowing those emotions does not translate into the acceptance of bad behaviour. Common rules of engagement should include no hitting, throwing, breaking objects or disrespect. By involving your child in establishing the consequences for his behaviour, you will find that he is more likely to respect the rules. And by limiting his aggressive behaviour, you are in a sense establishing a safety container for his feelings.
3. When your child is disappointed
As much as we would like to remove all upsets and letdowns from our kids’ lives, it is important to remember that we are their guides, not their saviours. You can’t be there to soothe her every time she feels left out or falls short at a task, so prepare your child to manage setbacks. The next time she comes home crying because the other kids wouldn’t let her play hand-tennis, you might say, “How did you feel when they wouldn’t let you join them?” Then ask how she might change the situation next time. Really get her brainstorming – the more possible solutions she can come up with, the better. And avoid discarding silly ideas or you’ll shut down her creative problem-solving. Instead, you might say to her, “Yes, that’s one option. What else could you do?” Preschoolers may need to be prompted with questions like, “Do you want to start your own game next time with some other friends?” And remember that your child watches you like a hawk, so it’s important to handle your own disappointments with grace.
4. When your child is frustrated
Frustration is inevitable in childhood, especially when a child struggles to master something new, such as tying his shoelaces or riding a bike. Depending on your child’s temperament, frustration might result in tears, silent seething and steaming, or blood-curdling shrieks and flying objects. The intensity of a child’s frustration is magnified by how insurmountable the barriers seem and how badly he wants to succeed. And until he does, his self-esteem is at stake. For a young child surrounded by adults who are competent in so many things, it is hard to believe that one day he, too, will master the same skills. “I’m no good at this” is only a short step away from “I’m no good at all” in a young child’s mind. You can help him hold onto his sense of self-worth by reminding him of his past successes – and the struggles that preceded them. Help him learn to notice the strengths that he can count on to eventually triumph – guts, determination, endurance, careful observation. Instead of recognising that failure is temporary, a child often concludes, “I’ll never succeed.” Take his dejection seriously, but help him look at his challenge differently: “Never,” you might reply, “is an awfully long time.”
5. When your child is sad
Don’t agree with your child that life is unfair and people are mean. Yes, life can be unfair. People can be mean. Sometimes things happen that are terribly sad. But jumping from a negative event to a generally negative attitude about life is a prescription for unhappiness and powerlessness. It’s crucial that we teach our children to separate their sense of themselves as worthwhile from other people’s unfair opinions and from negative events that are beyond their control. If nothing can be done about a negative situation, we need to teach our kids how to move on instead of feeling bad about themselves or getting stuck in resentment. And, as hard as it may be, don’t let yourself get down if your child is down. It may feel like you are being supportive but it’s not helpful for your child. Since no kid wants his parent to be sad, it adds the burden of your problem to the original problem – and it leaves the child with no tools for coping with problems in the future. It may not be possible to change a situation but it is always possible to learn something from it. Perhaps in encouraging your child, you’ll also encourage yourself.
Are you passionate about guiding people on their journey through life? You may be well-suited to a career in counselling. The South African College of Applied Psychology offers a range of courses in counselling, such as the BPsych degree, which is accredited by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) and leads to professional registration with the HPCSA as a Registered Counsellor. For more information, enquire now.