We aren’t born with the ability to cope with our emotions. We have to be taught. And many of us weren’t taught healthy strategies. Maybe we were yelled at or sent to our rooms. Maybe we were told to calm down and stop crying.
Either way, feelings weren’t discussed in a positive light—if ever. Maybe we watched our parents internalize their stress, shut down or lash out. And, as a result, we froze or freaked out when we started feeling stressed or anxious. We simply didn’t know what to do with these emotions.
Maybe we still don’t. Maybe we still struggle. Which is why it gets tricky when we need to help our own kids navigate their different emotions and various stressors.
Sometimes we forget that kids deal with real situations, just like us. They, too, deal with worries about failing and the health of their families. They, too, get frustrated with themselves. They, too, get anxious about different firsts—starting a new school year, meeting new people, working on new projects and assignments. They, too, go blank during important moments (like presentations or exams). They, too, have disagreements with friends. Sometimes they, too, worry about “adult” problems like money.
And it’s vital that we teach them the coping skills to navigate these situations and challenges well.
In the Coping Skills for Kids Workbook: Over 75 Coping Strategies to Help Kids Deal with Stress, Anxiety and Anger, Janine Halloran, a mental health counselor and mom to two elementary-school kids, features creative, practical suggestions. Halloran runs the valuable website CopingSkillsForKids.com. Below are seven suggestions to try with your kids (and maybe even to adopt yourself!).
Practice deep breathing with a pinwheel. Deep breathing is important because it helps to relax our bodies. It boosts the oxygen supply to our brains and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes calmness. It basically communicates: There’s nothing to worry about here. We don’t need to fight or flee. We are safe.
For this activity, you can buy a pinwheel or have your child make their own. Halloran suggests teaching your child to breathe in through their nose and expand their belly, and breathe out to turn the pinwh.
Practice deep breathing with bubbles (or prompts). Do the same as above, except with bubbles, which is another great way to slow down (and soothe yourself). Halloran notes that for some kids prompts are especially helpful for teaching deep breathing. She suggests trying these ideas: “Breathe in like you’re smelling a flower; breathe out like you’re blowing birthday candles”; “Breathe in and out like Darth Vader”; “Pretend your belly is like a balloon. Breathe in and make the balloon bigger, then breathe out and make the balloon shrink.”
Engage in positive self-talk. How we talk to ourselves affects everything: It creates our lens for the world. So if we’re engaging in negative self-talk, we’re going to have a negative outlook on life, and on our abilities to cope with life.
Help your kids rethink their thinking. Help them understand that negative thoughts aren’t the truth, and they have the power to change them to something supportive. Halloran shares these examples: Change “This is awful” to “Let me focus on the things that I can control and the things that are going well.” Change “I’m not good at this” to “I’m just learning how to do this.” You can talk to your child about the thoughts they have, and brainstorm together about revising these thoughts to more encouraging, compassionate messages.
List your favorite things. It’s helpful for your kids to turn to their favorite activities when they’re stressed out, and having a list means they have options at the ready. (It’s hard to think when we’re stressed.) Halloran suggests creating a list for things you love to do: at home, at school, outside, inside, by yourself and with others.
Use movement. Participating in physical activities is especially important when your child starts getting restless, antsy or irritable. Halloran shares these examples: jumping rope, doing jumping jacks, taking a walk, running in place, swimming, stretching, skipping, dancing, and taking a class (e.g., martial arts, gymnastics, rock climbing).
Create a feelings book. Healthy coping starts with being able to accurately identify our feelings. It starts with connecting and listening to ourselves. Halloran suggests kids jot down one feeling on a separate page of their book. She includes these feelings as examples: happy, frustrated, worried, sad, mad, scared. Ask your child to think of something that has made them feel that feeling—and write about or draw what happened.
Track your stress. This helps your child gain a deeper understanding of what stresses them out and pinpoint any patterns to their stress (e.g., gets stressed on Sundays). The key is to answer these questions on a piece of paper: “What stressed me out? What happened before? When did it happen? Where was I? What happened after?”
When we talk about feelings with our kids (in a compassionate, non-judgmental way), we empower them. When we teach them different skills and strategies to cope, we equip them with valuable tools to navigate real challenges—tools they’ll take into adolescence and adulthood.
We teach them to honor themselves. And that is a priceless lesson.