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The importance of teaching coping skills to our children

Do your children know how to navigate their own emotional wellbeing?

As a parent we want to make sure everything is ok in our children’s eyes. When they fall down and scrape their knee, we come running with a band-aid however, this can filter into rescuing our children in other ways like a disagreement with a friend or teaching our children the value of “no”. Instead of removing the stress or trigger why not teach them how to build their own positive coping skills.

Teaching coping skills to our children

Stress can affect anyone, even children. We often see young toddlers go through separation anxiety because their parents have to leave them and go to work. As the child grows older, they are overcome by the need to fit in among their friends and this can result in stress.

However, stress can be positive too. Good stress happens when the child is able to confront and manage a situation. For example, if a child is riding a bicycle down a hill with one hand on the handle bars and sees a pothole, they will feel the stress and instinctively put the other hand on the handlebars.

They will guide themselves around the pothole and continue cycling. The brain will record this event and the next time they are faced with such an event; the positive memory will help them deal with it.

Parents are often overcome by the need to remove the stressor in the way of the children. However, instead of removing the stressor, you can teach them how to build positive coping skills as well as how to let the stress out.

Teaching your child coping skills is important because they are able to face their fears, calm themselves down or even devise ways to cheer them up. Kids who do not know how to handle their feelings are more likely to resolve in unhealthy coping skills e.g., food and alcohol over time.

Additionally, kids may use avoidance tactics in response to problems they cannot solve. Kids who learn healthy coping skills early are at a greater advantage as they experience stability in all aspects of their lives.

There are two types of coping strategies; emotional and problem focused coping skills. It is important that a parent teaches these to their children.

 Emotional focused coping skills 

These will help the child deal with situations they cannot change like the death of a pet. By handling their emotions, they feel less stressed. Although this approach does not help solve the issue directly, the child is able to deal with their emotions rather than the circumstances around them. The child gains perseverance and learns how to tolerate stress.

A few tips that you can teach the child include:

Labelling feelings. Teach your child the words they need to describe how they feel. You can refer to books that show faces for each feeling and when they are struggling, ask them to describe or refer to the book to show you how they feel. 

Prompt your child to express how they feel by asking questions. You can say, “You look sad today. Would you like to talk about it? The goal is to let your children know that it is okay to express themselves and their feelings are valid.

Breathing exercises. Teach your child how to take slow deep breaths before they describe how they feel. This will help them relax their mind and bodies and allow more composure as they express themselves. Encourage the child to breathe in through the nose and breath out through the mouth like they are trying to blow out a candle. Let them repeat this a couple of times for them to calm down.

Exercise. Participating in an exercise is a great way to get a nervous kid to calm down as well as boost their mood. Aerobic exercises like biking or running are some ways that can help regulate how the child feels.  By encouraging your child to turn to physical; activities when they are struggling with an emotional situation, they will develop healthy ways to cope with the challenges they may face.

Journaling is also a good way to sort through and come to terms with difficult situations. Sometimes when things go wrong, we are overwhelmed by complicated and sometimes conflicting feelings. Trying to sort them in the mind can be exhausting. 

Writing down how they feel is the first step towards working things out. Journaling also provides some relief and clarity. 

Reading a book can serve as a temporary escape for children who enjoy stories. This will make them calm, rejuvenated and ready to tackle the problem. Books are enjoyable and can be a source of entertainment.

Play a game.  Your child can get overwhelmed and constantly thinking about the bad situation they found themselves in. In such cases, you will need to engage them in something that gets their minds off the problem. Play a game together. Games help channel the chain of thoughts and they will focus on other things.

Use mood boosters. As a way to bond and pass time with your child, create a list of all activities they love engaging in.  These activities can include dancing, singing, watching cartoons.

Every time they feel sad, show them the list and allow them to decide what activities they want to do to uplift their mood. Alternatively, create a ‘calm down’ kit by filling a shoebox that engages your child’s senses e.g., stress ball to squeeze, pictures that make them smile. Allow your child to decide the contents of the box and when they get angry, encourage them to get their ‘calm down’ kit.

Problem focused coping skills

These coping skills centre around the source of stress. As a result, the first step is to identify the source of stress. This may sound simple but how many times have you come home feeling stressed? Were you able to identify the exact problem? Most probably not because figuring out the source of the stress isn’t always straightforward.

Other times it can be because something needs to change in the environment of your child. Other times they may be bullied at school and the situation needs to be addressed by speaking to the teacher.

Sometimes asking your child if certain situations will make them feel better may help them recognize their options. Problem focussed coping skills help reduce the source of the stress. They include;

Asking for help. When your child is struggling with something, ask them who they feel would help them. This approach helps the child realize that there are a lot of people who can assist. This difficult task can be homework or a house chore.

Encourage your child to name at least two people who can help them. Children who understand that it is okay to ask for help grow up feeling empowered.

Engage in problem solving.  There is always more than one way to solve a problem. It is common for children to feel stuck and unable to recognize their options. It can be what to wear, how to do a certain house chore and so on. 

Whatever it is, sit down with them and solve it together. Identify all the options and write them down. After that, allow your child to choose the solution that they want to try. As time goes by, your child will learn how to solve problems on their own.

Practice restraint. Teach your child that sometimes, holding back and waiting for the right time to respond to a situation is also ideal. When your child gets into an argument with a friend at school, it is okay to step back and wait for everything to go back to normal before acting. 

In the meantime, your child can practice the coping skills that you have been teaching them. This will ensure that they face the issue when they are calm and relaxed and hence, they will not hurt their friends or themselves in the process of solving a problem.

List the pros and cons. Sometimes kids struggle to make a decision e.g., what instrument to play. You can guide their decision asking by helping them come up with a list of pros and cons for each option and then review the list together. Seeing the items written down on paper may help them make an informed decision.

Each time your child is encountered with a difficult or challenging decision to make, encourage them to create a pros and cons list. It will help them weigh their options every time before making key decisions.

Ultimately, your child should be able to independently use coping skills. This will help them deal with unpleasant situations in a healthy manner when no one is there to guide them. Allow your child to feel bad as they do not need to feel happy all the time.

 Although these feelings can be part of a healing process, it is important that they do not stay stuck in a bad mood. If they are unable to function, encourage them to use the coping skills. Every time your child uses these skills, encourage and praise them for that.

 Thus, will help reinforce the importance of coping skills. Should your child make a mistake such as lashing out in anger, use that as a teaching opportunity? However, watch out for escapism as a coping skill that can become unhealthy if overused. Limit the amount of time your child spends on electronics because this too can be used as a means to escape from problems instead of solving them.

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