Helping Kids Cope

Disappointments and difficulties are a part of life. Economic circumstance, political upheaval, and family dynamics can create hardship and adverse life circumstances for children and their families. Sometimes children and families also experience truly traumatic events.

How do we – and our children – cope with both everyday difficulties and larger life trauma?  How can we help our children learn coping skills? Research examines resilience – the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties – in an effort to answer those questions.  

Over the last two decades numerous research studies have examined psychological resilience in children, looking to identify the special traits or skills that help children navigate difficult circumstances and overcome adversity.  Surprisingly, what they found is that it is not special traits or skills that help people who cope well with adversity. Instead, people who develop resilience call on the normal coping mechanisms available to us all.

What studies have found is that the key to helping kids learn how to cope turns out to be many of the same things that help kids grow up well: effective parenting, connections with competent and caring adults, self-regulation skills, a positive view of themselves, and the motivation to succeed.

Thus, everyone has the capacity for resilience.  Parents help support their children’s development – including developing their ability to cope – right from the beginning. Young children begin developing resilience as they learn from the responses of their caregivers.

Parents, with the support of other caring family members and community members, can help their children become more resilient through everyday interaction and role modeling. Parents who model resilience – demonstrating self-regulation in the face of disappointment or talking about how they “bounced back” from a setback – help children learn how to cope with disappointments in their own lives.  

Lizzy Francis offers a number of parenting strategies that support the development of resilience with these tips from Amy Morin, author of the book 10 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do:

“Supporting struggling children is important, but the best way parents can teach resilience is by modeling it. Acting cool-headed in the face of stress and acknowledging mistakes provides children with a rubric for failure. Failing, they learn, is not the end of the world. It’s just part of being alive.

Here are the specific suggestions that Morin gives parents looking to teach by doing….

  • Don’t Intervene All The Time
    “When your child is struggling — if, say, his blocks keep tipping over and he’s getting angry, don’t swoop in and do it for them,” says Morin. In other words, practice restraint. It’s easy to step in and help soothe your kid. But letting them struggle helps them learn that they can solve their own problems.
  • Own Up To Your Mistakes
    Parents, per Morin, should actively apologize to their children when they make mistakes, like if they snap at them, or are late to pick them up. “Pointing out what you did wrong — if you didn’t handle your anger very well, or said something that wasn’t very nice — explain what happened, without making an excuse. And then you explain how you will learn from the problem and fix it,” suggests Morin. This, she says, teaches kids that making a mistake is fine, as long as you apologize and learn from them.
  • Examine Their Feelings
    You want to acknowledge a child’s feelings and tell them that their feelings matter,” says Morin. “That makes a big difference in whether they perceive if their feelings are okay, that it’s okay to be scared and still do something anyway.” Letting your kid know that their feelings are legitimate — but that they don’t have to inform their behavior at all times, like, say, when a playground scuffle breaks out — is essential.
  • Audit Your Behavior
    Kids are always watching. Per Morin, it’s essential for parents to think about how they act in moments of daily stress and try to do better. “When you’re dealing with an annoying situation, like the long line at the grocery store, and you’re tired, and you’re hungry, how do you handle it? Are you complaining? Are you staring at your phone? Your kids are watching how you cope with your emotions,” says Morin.

In other words: by being a resilient adult, you teach your kids how to react to moments of stress.”

Parents can also help build resilience by taking care of themselves.  Self-care makes you better equipped to parent and better able to meet everyday challenges.

And good parenting has protective power for children in difficult circumstances.  As does strong, supportive connections with other adults – teachers, mentors, neighbors, and family friends.  For children and teens, relationships with other adults help foster a positive view of themselves and encourages motivation to succeed.

A resilient child has:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive view of themself and confidence in their strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

(https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience)

Luckily these are all skills that can be developed at any stage of life.  As parents, we can help our children learn these skills and behaviors. As community members, neighbors, scout leaders, and sports coaches, we can mentor and support the children in our community as they develop their own resilience.

For more tips on helping your children develop the ability to cope with adversity, join us at the 6th annual PSN Speaker event on Monday, May 20th.  Dr. Ann Masten will be presenting “Ordinary Magic”, a look at building resilience in children.

The event will be held at the Linn Benton Community College, Tripp Theatre, LBCC Albany Campus, 6500 Pacific Blvd. SW, Albany.  Doors open at 6:30. Free childcare is provided by reservation – call 541-917-4884 to reserve your spot.

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