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As adults, it’s tempting to romanticize how easy it was living life as a child. The thing is, kids deal with a lot — they just show it differently.
One of the most important lessons you can teach your children is how to cope with their feelings and emotions. Healthy habits started early can provide a solid foundation on which to build healthy habits as adults. After all, trials and tribulations tend to get more complex with time.
Here’s more about how you can help your kids cope with a variety of situations, why coping is such an important skill to develop, and some tips for how to get started.
Experts explain that kids deal with trauma in many different ways. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the way they cope depends on their age and understanding of the situation.
Some kids may develop anxiety or fear to the point of shutting down or completely disengaging. Others may act out or express how they’re feeling in other physical ways. And others may become overly alert or sensitive to their surroundings.
- Be a safe space. Let your kids cry or show their feelings without fear of judgement. Some children may want to draw pictures or talk about what happened to cope. Others may need some extra understanding around bedtime, such as using a night-light or sleeping in a caregiver’s room temporarily.
- Give choices. School-aged kids may respond well to having choices, such as picking out their own clothing or food at meal time. Giving kids choice helps them feel they have a sense of control when a traumatic event may have taken that feeling of control away.
- Put a name to it. Kids may need help identifying their emotions. Be sure to let them feel versus dismissing or trying to rush those feelings away (for example, saying something like “That was scary, but at least we survived…”).
- Encourage using words to express feelings. This may be through talking or even writing down their thoughts. Using language may help them make better sense of what happened and how they feel. Words can allow kids to organize their thinking and process the events and their emotions.
- Routine is key. Be sure to work on consistency with waking up, naps, and bedtimes. Same goes with meals and family rituals, like eating together or playing games. It may take time for your child to engage normally in daily activities, so be sure to contact your child’s doctor if your child struggles to get into a routine or shows a lack of interest in favorite activities a month or more after the traumatic event.
Most adults can pinpoint moments or situations where they have felt anxious or uneasy. For kids, it may be more difficult.
Anxiety in kids may present as symptoms, like a tummy ache or trouble sleeping. For others, it could be self-soothing habits, like nail-biting or thumb-sucking. Your child may feel anxious about school projects, friendships, family dynamics, or even social media.
Whatever the case, anxiety — even for kids — is a normal part of life. But you can still help!
- Cope as a family. It may be helpful to develop a family plan for dealing with stress. For example, the whole family could take a walk together or wind down with soft music and dimmed lights before bedtime.
- Try mindfulness techniques like deep breathing. The self-calming action of breathing deeply can help children center their thoughts and distract them from what’s causing the anxiety. It also lowers blood pressure almost immediately. Have your children breathe in to the count of four — 1, 2, 3, 4 — and breathe out in an equal count. Repeat as desired.
- Aid with discovery. If you notice your preschooler relaxes when they’re playing with blocks — encourage them to do so when they’re stressed. As your child grows, they may start to identify activities that help them calm down or otherwise deal with their emotions. Have them write these things down and develop a toolkit of sorts for when the going gets tough. If you encounter a situation where they seem stuck, help them return to these activities and coping skills.
- Brainstorm a list. Teens may already have some habits that help them calm down, they may just need help understanding that these habits can help them when they’re anxious. For example, some may benefit from regular physical activity, like taking a jog or playing basketball with a friend. For others, journaling or drawing may provide some relief. Try brainstorming a list of these calming activities with your teen, so they can consult the list when they’re feeling stressed.
Related: Helping anxious kids cope
The depression rate in kids tends to increase with age. While not many children ages 3 to 5 in the United States are diagnosed with depression, kids between ages 6 and 11 have nearly a
Coping skills are important here, but so is early diagnosis to get children the help and treatment they need to thrive. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for kids between the ages of
- Know the signs. Young children may show depression with body signs, like tummy aches, appetite changes, sleep changes, and separation anxiety. Teens may show depression by having extreme mood swings, lack of interest or apathy, problems in school, and low self-esteem. Since depression rates are highest among teens, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the signs so you can catch depression early before it progresses.
- Listen. No matter your child’s age, encourage them to talk about their feelings with you or another trusted adult. Be sure to truly listen and give weight to their issues. In other words, don’t trivialize what they’re feeling on the inside, no matter how silly it may seem to you.
- Model a healthy lifestyle. Also encourage a healthy routine of eating well, exercising regularly, and sleeping enough. For teens “enough” means 9 to 9 1/2 hours each night. Younger kids can benefit from following your lead with a healthy lifestyle. Older kids may need continual reminders to take care of themselves — but physical health and mental health are closely connected.
- Seek medical help. Again, coping skills are somewhat secondary after medical help. Diagnosis and treatment— with talk therapy and/or medications — is important because when depression is not treated, more intense episodes may occur in the future. Untreated depression also increases the risk of suicide for both children and teens.
Everyone gets mad from time to time. It can feel particularly intense when your 2-year-old is tantruming for the fifth time in a day. What’s important to understand is that anger may be masking another emotion. Kids may be irritated or angry if they’re depressed or anxious or feeling some other sort of way that is unpleasant.
Parenting expert Laura Markham, PhD, at the popular blog Aha! Parenting explains that kids “don’t have a fully developed frontal cortex to help them self-regulate, [so they’re] even more prone to lashing out when they’re angry.”
- Model good behavior and communication. Younger kids model their behaviors and coping skills after their caregivers. They also need some extra help assigning words to the very big feelings they have. Try to remain calm, get on their level, and say “I can see that you are very angry! Can you please tell me what’s wrong without shouting?”
- Use their favorite book or television characters. In the popular cartoon “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” Daniel sings an anger strategy song that goes: “When you’re feeling frustrated, take a step back and ask for help.”
- Make changes going forward. School-age kids may be able to make changes after something makes them angry. For example, if your child is mad that his little sister keeps knocking down his Lego creations — you might help him remember to get those items out of reach.
- Teach teens to focus on what they can control. Teens deal with many situations that may produce anger as a secondary emotion. Stress of schoolwork or peer relationships can cause irritability. Some teens may have unrealistic expectations of themselves. Encourage your teen to talk to you about what’s going on in their life and explain that you are a safe place to share. Coping skills may include things like working on self-acceptance and finding healthy activities that release feelings of anger, like progressive muscle relaxation or yoga.
What disappoints kids changes over the years, but the feelings are similar no matter the age.
For young kids, it may be extremely disappointing to have a playdate canceled. When they’re slightly older, major disappointment may come from not winning a baseball game or earning an A on a test. And older teens can deal with tremendous disappointment not getting into the college of their choice or perhaps not being asked to the homecoming dance.
- Focus on empathy with all age groups. The thing is, there are a lot of opportunities for disappointment in life. While it may be easy to tell your child they just need to get over it, ignoring the emotions won’t help them handle the many disappointments ahead.
- Help your kids recognize their own feelings. Disappointment may cause some children to have outbursts. For others, they may get sad or withdrawn. Your child may not understand why they feel how they feel — so it’s your job to help direct their understanding. You might say something like, “I see you’re feeling upset — that’s understandable. I know you were excited about [whatever it was]. Would you like to talk about it?”
- Teach delayed gratification. The world is very much go-go-go from one thing to the next. Kids don’t have much downtime or patience for when things don’t go smoothly. Having younger kids work on routine and goal setting may help them learn that good things take time, and setbacks are sometimes part of learning new things.
- Resist the urge to become “the fixer” for your child. Again, this applies to all age groups. It’s more empowering if you can teach your child or teen some strategies that may help with future disappointments. Consider offering different scenarios. Brainstorm potential disappointments and potential solutions. You may also talk about turning disappointments into opportunities.
Related: Teaching your child mindfulness
Why are coping skills so important? Well, coping skills are the tools that people use to get through tough situations. Some coping skills can help people avoid situations entirely. Others work to lessen the pain or emotions.
As you can imagine, there are healthy and unhealthy ways of coping. On the healthy end, there are two main types. Both can be helpful to kids as they navigate the many situations of life.
- Emotion-focused coping skills are things people do to regulate the negative emotions they have to different stressors. They may include things like journaling, meditation, positive thinking, reframing situations, talking, and therapy. In other words, emotion-focused coping skills home in on things a person can do to deal with emotions around a situation versus changing the situation at hand. This type of coping is usually the best choice when nothing can be done to control the situation at hand.
- Problem-focused coping skills are things people do to deal with a stressor head-on. They may include actions like brainstorming solutions to common problems (like studying more for a test) or addressing/confronting people or situations that create stress directly (like ending contact with a bully). This type of coping is usually the best choice when the situation at hand is under a person’s control.
Developing healthy coping skills has some major advantages for children.
At least one study shows that young kids — kindergarteners — who had strong social-emotional skills carried these skills to adulthood. The researchers concluded that developing healthy coping carries an “impact in multiple areas and therefore has potential for positively affecting individuals as well as community public health substantially.”
Avoidance coping is an example of unhealthy coping skills. With avoidance, people choose to ignore or otherwise not address the situation as it’s happening. Instead, they turn their attention elsewhere, sometimes through use of alcohol or drugs, isolation, or suppressing emotions.
Not only can avoidance be unhealthy if it results in unhealthy habits, but it can also create long-lasting psychological damage.
With kids, starting off life with avoidance coping may make it hard to switch to healthier models later on. Redirect your child when you see things like excess screen time, binge eating, or other forms of avoidance.
If you observe this, understand your child isn’t doing it on purpose but is trying the best they can to deal with how they’re feeling. Try redirecting them to healthier habits like deep breathing, eating a balanced diet, talking about feelings, or journaling.
In the end, the way your child learns to cope with life begins with you. That may seem like a lot of responsibility to shoulder. Deep breaths! You may find it helpful to examine your own ways of coping to see where you can help yourself and, therefore, help your child develop healthy lifelong habits.
There are certain situations you may encounter where personal coping skills may not be enough. Do not hesitate to contact your child’s pediatrician for help, especially if you are concerned about self-harm.
Most of all, don’t worry about being wrong or making the occasional misstep. Communicate that you care, let your child know that you’re always there, and keep moving forward together.