Instilling Healthy Coping Skills

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so it’s a great time to consider our stress and how we deal with it. “Coping” – or managing our emotions – is something we all do, whether we do it consciously or without thinking. Some ways we cope are healthy and build resilience, while other ways we cope with stress simply help us avoid the real problems or encourage destructive behavior.

Just like adults, children experience a vast array of feelings, ranging from happy, sad, bored, anxious, disappointed, embarrassed, and scared. While most of us experience many emotions every day, we are not necessarily taught how to deal with them. Teens need to learn skills to manage their emotions in a healthy way, especially because adolescence is a time where emotions and hormones are running high. If your teen doesn’t learn to face their fears, calm themselves down, and cheer themselves up, they will likely turn to destructive coping mechanisms, such as avoiding responsibility, overeating, withdrawing, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or other risky behaviors.

Research studies show that people with healthy coping skills are more likely to have steady jobs and an overall sense of well-being and are less likely to abuse substances, engage in criminal activity, or have mental health problems. With these great results, who wouldn’t want their teen to have good coping skills! Here is how to help your teen develop them:

Two Strategies for Coping

The question is not ‘will your teen ever face hardship’; the question is ‘how will your teen handle hardships when they come.’ There are two different strategies: emotion-focused and problem-focused coping skills.

Emotion-focused coping skills are the skills that help teens deal with their feelings better so they feel less stressed. These skills are necessary for situations when your teen can’t change the situation—like dealing with the loss of a pet or not making the basketball team.

Problem-focused coping skills involve taking action to change a situation. These skills might involve ending a friendship that’s unhealthy or telling a teacher about a bully. These skills can be helpful when a child has some control over the situation.

Your teen needs both types of coping skills and to learn when to use each. In determining which one to use, it can be helpful to ask your teen whether they think they need to change their situation or change how they feel about the situation. Here are some methods for each strategy:

Emotion-Focused Coping Skills

Your teen needs to know what to do to make themselves feel better. For example, your teen must be able to calm down when angry, cheer up when sad, or take a break when frustrated. Here are some emotion-focused coping skills you should teach your teen:

Label feelings. When your teen is struggling with a tough emotion, ask them to describe how they are feeling. Just being able to verbalize, “I’m mad,” or “I’m nervous,” can help take the sting out of uncomfortable emotions and give your teen some perspective.

Breathe. When we are stressed, our body naturally takes faster, shallower breaths. By consciously taking slow, deep breaths, we communicate to our body to calm down.

Exercise. It releases tension and energizes us. Encourage your teen to get moving when stressed. This can mean working out, bike riding around the neighborhood, jogging, taking the dog for a walk, or even shooting hoops in the driveway.

Get creative. Artwork or journaling can be an excellent stress reducer. For many people, the process of painting, doodling, taking photographs, writing, sculpting, or creating a collage can be calming.

Reading. A good book can be an excellent distraction. Sometimes we need just a little escape from our own situation to feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle the problem.

Meditation or Yoga. Mindfulness, which is an integral part of meditation and yoga, has been proven to relax people and improve moods.

Playing music. Music has been shown to speed healing, calm anxiety, and reduce depression. Listening to a favorite song can be a great stress reliever.

Laugh. Laughing is a good way to take a mental break from problems and relieve stress. Encourage your teen to watch a funny video on YouTube or tune into a hilarious TV show.

Problem-Focused Coping

Sometimes, our stress is a sign that we need to change something in our environment. Problem-focused coping skills are strategies that help reduce the source of stress. Here are some examples:

Ask for help. People who know that it’s okay to ask for help feel empowered. They realize that they don’t need to know everything on their own and that it’s okay to ask for support. Encourage your teen to reach out to people who can provide assistance when they face a hardship.

Engage in problem-solving. Problem solving can be as simple as sitting down together and brainstorming a list of possible solutions to the given situation. Ask your teen what they have tried before in similar situations, and what outcomes they experienced. Make a list of options together, and then let teens choose the one they’d like to try. Check back frequently to process how the solution is or isn’t working, and help modify as necessary. Over time, your teen will learn to feel confident about solving their own problems.

Create pros and cons. For every option your teen has, write down possible positives and negatives. Ask your teen to predict the likely consequences of each option. Sometimes, reviewing a list on paper can help your teen make a better-informed decision.

Final Thoughts…

When we work to help kids develop a full toolkit of positive coping skills, we give them alternatives that can help them turn problem situations into positive outcomes.

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