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Teaching Children Coping Skills: Keeping a Lid on Kids Drama

Updated on July 10, 2011

Learning Coping Skills in Challenging Situations

Outside of some very serious forms of psychological trauma, most children are pretty much capable of finding the resources within themselves to cope with most of life’s everyday setbacks. Our children will become better at coping if we as parents focus on the learning aspects and processes associated with responding to challenging situations, and we don’t spend too much time focusing on the negative. Albert Ellis, a psychotherapist who treated many people who believed they had some pretty serious problems referred to the phenomena of viewing experiences in a mainly negative light as awfulizing. You may have noticed that in our culture this can be a quite common way of seeing things. The next time you are in a public place where lots of people are talking, take a moment to listen to some of the things they are talking about. How long does it take before you here someone saying something along the lines of how awful, that’s terrible, or can you believe how horrible that is ? We need to avoid making these types of statements with our children. When one of life’s challenges comes along we want them to believe they can manage and to have confidence in their coping skills, not to believe that their experiences are overwhelming and awful.

Three Parenting Styles: Reacting to a Child's Misfortune

As parents we need to learn to focus on events in a realistic manner. Being overly focused on the negative or overly concerned about how we or our child should or shouldn’t feel is not really very useful, especially when we see an event as awful, horrible, or terrible. Sometimes we have to leave these judgments behind and just be in the moment and allow our children to have their own experience. Let me use an example to further illustrate. Imagine a child who falls down and scrapes his knee. How should a parent react to this situation? Do they stand there talking to the child about how much it hurts? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do to model empathy? That is certainly what many books suggest.

Let’s look at this a little more. Imagine you’re the child who has fallen and scraped your knee. In this scenario, parent A is standing over you and he says to you Oh that really hurts doesn’t it? It’s really painful when you scrape your knee. That is not good, I know. Poor you...I know... that’s awful... let me give you a hug. How about I kiss it better ? Maybe as a parent you have done that yourself on occasion (or maybe you think that it is an absurd reaction). What matters most though is the underlying content of the parent’s message. In this instance, what the child likely hears from parent A is focus on your pain, notice how much it hurts, pay attention to how bad it is, notice how extra caring and attentive Dad is when you hurt yourself . Maybe that wasn’t parent A’s intention the result if this dynamic is that the parent reinforces the event being more painful than it probably needs to be.

On the opposite end of the parenting skills spectrum we have parent B. He might say you’re ok. Suck it up. It’s only a scrape. Stop your crying. You should be more careful anyway. Stop thinking about the pain. We aren’t raising wimps in our family . Oh my... you say... what a terrible parent! And what does the child hear? She would likely hear the message, pay attention to that scrape, notice how much you want to cry and how much pain you feel...but don’t let anyone see that, especially your parent who seems angry that you hurt yourself . The child is still being reminded to focus the pain when the parent says don’t think about the pain (even if that wasn’t the parent’s intention, they have still directed the child’s attention to pain), but in this instance the child is also being given the added message that they should try to deny their experience (which in most cases makes ignoring it even more difficult).

Now we will discuss an alternative to the approaches we have already seen. Imagine parent C, whose goal is to stay in the moment and try to refrain from reinforcing the pain or making judgments about how awful the scrape is. While this parent doesn’t try to fix the problem, they also don’t attempt to make their child ignore her experience. They just want to calmly attend to the child. Parent C might respond with, you scraped your knee I see . The child would likely respond with a statement about how much it hurts. The attentive parent C might then add can you notice if it’s getting more painful or less painful ? When the child responds that it seems to hurt less than it did at first (because that is almost always what happens when we scrape our knee), the attending parent can then reinforce the healing and coping process by saying, I see . It hurt a lot at first but you seem to be getting better. Let me know when your ready to go so we clean it up. What is the content of this interaction with parent C? The child thinks to herself, I scraped my knee, it hurt a lot but it is getting better. I am capable of recovering from this. My parent cares about me and will help me clean it up .

Parent A unintentionally reinforced the pain, reinforced that the accident was awful, and reinforced the child’s dependency on the parent to help reduce the pain (which, of course, we already know naturally decreases over a short period of time). The next time the child scrapes her knee and Daddy is not there, she might react with oh it hurts so much, this is terrible, I need my Daddy . In fact, who does the reaction of parent A benefit? Certainly not the child and not the parent (unless his unconscious agenda is to foster added dependence in his child). The harsh reaction of parent B could be slightly more helpful if the parent simply ignored the child and reinforced how strong she was after she got up, if this was in fact the real message parent B was trying to convey in the first place. As it stands, the next time the child of parent B got hurt it is likely she would try to deny the pain, pretend it’s no big deal and maybe risk infection by not even getting the wound cleaned and bandaged. Parent C, in contrast, simply experienced the moment with the child by being present and noticing the process. The attentive approach reinforces the child’s natural resiliency. The message to the child is you do your part and do your best to cope and recover and I will take care of my job and make sure we get the wound cleaned . The next time a similar event happens and the parent isn’t present, the child is more likely to be able to manage the situation as she has a better understanding of the process and is also likely to sure the wound gets cleaned. Parent C was able to let the child by lead and respecting her experience. He did not try to lead the child’s experience, sending her down the road of pain, pity, and dependence (parent A) or the road of scorn and denial (parent B).The older children get, the more they will need to learn that they can cope with some of life’s more painful moments using their own internal resources and parents should respect this process while still being present for their children.

Cut the Drama. Your kids are Need to Learn Coping Strategies

If you need further evidence that children don’t benefit from overly protective and indulgent parenting (albeit well-intentioned) in situations like the one described with parent A, think about how differently some children respond when they take a tumble and they don’t know anyone is watching them. I have seen children wince and pick themselves up and carry on like it was just a minor bump in the road. I have also seen the same child wince and pick themselves up and not start to cry until they were in the presence of an awfulizing , overly indulgent parent. I think we all know what I am referring to here. Some kids will only scream bloody murder if they know they have a receptive audience. Think about how certain children actually moderate their level of crying depending on which parent or caregiver is present. This of course begs the question: is the crying genuine or is it just part of a pattern that has been reinforced by the parent? I am not suggesting there aren’t times when children seriously hurt themselves and let loose a genuine cry of pain. I am referring to the everyday bumps and bruises that are a normal part of childhood. Is there really a need to over-dramatize these events?

Parents should be aware that the type of attention they give a child when he hurts himself often reinforces and can even intensify the response they get. Parents can unwittingly foster unnecessarily dramatic behavior patterns in their interactions with their children. Some children can even develop an unconscious desire to receive sympathy for harming themselves. Taken to the extreme, it is possible this type of attention seeking behavior can even lead to potential psychological disorders, such as Munchausen Syndrome , a mental illness in which individuals fake an injury or illness in order to receive sympathy and unnecessary medical attention. Do your children a favor. Attend to their misfortunes by showing realistic concern and attention but do your best to steer clear of fostering unnecessary dependence. Think of how many doctors and nurses treat wounds in a matter of fact yet supportive and concerned manner. As parents we can encourage and support our children to use their own internal resources to learn and develop appropriate self soothing and coping strategies. They will need these throughout their lives when dealing with the setbacks that are a normal part of growing up.


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