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The ABC’s of Children’s Counseling: C is for Coping Skills

How do we make it through tough days when things seem to come at us from every direction and we start to feel overwhelmed and trapped? Do we bury our heads and admit defeat?

Do we find the strength to push forward, and if so, where does that energy come from?

As adults, we have had years to develop strategies for helping us through tough times. For some, we push negative thoughts out of our mind and turn to positive affirmations to help uplift us. For others, exercise, meditation, reading or deep breathing does the trick. Whether you label these strategies as “coping skills” or not does not change the fact that you are employing a set of skills that you have evolved over time to best serve your needs.

What is a Coping Skill?

Learning the language of therapy can seem overwhelming sometimes so let’s take a minute to break down what we mean when we say coping skills. Simply put, a coping skill is a technique that an individual has learned to use as a tool to help them regulate their emotions and return to center. Depending on the emotion we are trying to regulate this may look like calming down or cheering up or wiping tears to the side as we move through the event that is triggering us. Have you ever forgotten to set an alarm and woke up in a panic, have you had a fight with a friend, or experienced a loss? Think about what techniques you have used to help you move through the triggering event and come out on the other side. The fact is you have probably been using some form of coping skills and not even recognized them for what they are.

Why Kids Need Coping Skills

As our children grow, it is important for us to teach them the benefits of coping skills and the best ways to employ them when feeling triggered. When working with children, one of the first tasks I like to tackle is almost always affect identification and emotion regulation. First, I want your child to become comfortable with the language of emotions so that he or she has the vocabulary to accurately describe what they are feeling. Often, we see meltdowns when children are not feeling heard or understood, so this initial step is critical for our kids to learn for both our sanity and theirs.

Second, emotion regulation is where our ever-important coping skills come into play. Here your child will be asked to pick a set of skills that he or she feels most comfortable using. Your child will be asked to think about which emotions might require a coping skill and which coping skills they might like to use for each emotional response. I will also ask the children to frame their coping skills by level, creating a hierarchy where the child can assess which skills will work for a low-level emotional response and which skills are our heavy hitters that we can turn to when we are feeling outside of our window of tolerance. By involving our children in these steps, we are giving them the gift of choice and an opportunity for control over their emotions and you will likely find that they are more than happy to make these choices.

Finally to our parents, we will ask that you become aware of which coping skills your children are using and to help them employ their skills as they navigate through the rough waters of emotional response and regulation. It’s important to remember your counselor will likely only get to see your child for one hour each week so it is critical that we have your help in promoting the use and practice of their coping skills.

What Are Some Examples of Coping Skills for Kids?

A quick search on Pinterest will show you that the options for coping skills are endless. I have some favorites that I will include, however when considering a coping skill, try to think about approaches that support the therapeutic modality CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. To break this down, we are looking for skills that will help our little ones change their thoughts (cognitive) and actions (behavioral) to help support a more balanced emotional response. Here are a few coping skills that you and your child can try to help on those particularly tough days.

Eye-Spy is a mindfulness exercise that redirects the child’s thoughts (cognitive) away from the triggering event. I like to pick a color in the room and ask the child to find five things that are that color. This exercise gives the child’s mind something else to focus on instead of whatever is bothering them.

Deep Breathing is an amazing coping skill that many of us under value. However, the reality is that when in a stressful situation we are more likely to reduce our breathing, therefore reducing the amount of oxygen our body receives, which can cause physiological symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, dizziness, blurred vision and pain in the shoulders, back and chest. There are several different approaches, however I tend to follow the 4x4x4 method. Simply encourage your child to take a deep breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and release for 4 seconds. Research shows that when completed for as little as one minute you can start to see a decrease in stress and anxiety. Just like with exercise, try to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. If you want to jazz up this coping skill, simply grab a pinwheel, bubbles, or a candle (adult supervision please 😊) and make breathing fun!

Take a Break is a behavioral coping skill that encourages the child to assess their level of stress and ask for a break if they are feeling outside of their window of tolerance. It is important to set healthy boundaries around breaks both in school and at home, however, giving your child the space to remove themselves from a stressful situation while employing other coping skills to help them calm down is a great option. The amount of time and space given will really depend on the comfort of the parents, the age of the child, and their environment, however it has been my personal experience that offering a break can help turn a potential meltdown into a saved afternoon. Parents, I encourage you to consider what your boundaries would be before offering a break as a coping skill so that you are going in prepared.

No matter which coping skills you choose, make sure they can be fun and sustainable for your child. Coping skills are not meant to be a punishment or to feel like work, instead we should empower our children to take control of their emotions with their coping skills and to feel comfortable letting us know when they are feeling outside of their window of tolerance so that we know when to step in and lend a hand.

B'well therapist Amber Gray works with children & parents to help the entire family system learn how to create and sustain healthy ways of functioning.

She currently has weekend availability and accepts CareFirst Insurance. You can contact and read more about Amber here.

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