One of the most important things we parents can do for our kids is to help them learn to cope. Stress, setbacks, disappointments and defeats are a natural and even at times a frequent part of people’s lives. A child who learns how to cope while young is a child who will gain strength and confidence as he matures. A child who knows how to manage in the face of adversity is a child who can face life unafraid.
The ability to cope is not something we’re born with. Coping involves a set of emotional and practical skills our children learn through both observation and direct teaching. As parents, it’s up to us to celebrate the good times but also to do our best to prepare them for the not-so-good.
Every disappointment is an opportunity to teach our children that they are strong enough to handle it. Whether it’s not getting the test score they expected, suffering a defeat in a sports event, not getting invited to a party or being let down by a friend or relative, we can offer more than sympathy. We can also help our children learn skills for solving problems and for carrying on.
As with most things, modeling coping is the best way to teach it. When parents make room for sadness but also hold onto optimism; when they face their problems head-on; when they approach problems as a challenge to be solved; when they take responsibility if they had a share in what went wrong; children learn how to cope through their pores.
But sometimes it’s helpful to remind ourselves of some further ways we can discourage or encourage coping skills. Here’s a quick review.
- Don’t ignore a problem. We don’t want our kids to think that putting their heads in the sand will make problems go away. They usually don’t. In fact, problems that are avoided often only become worse over time. Do encourage kids to face their problems, big and small. Solving little problems is what gives kids the practice they need to solve the big ones that will inevitably come along later. It’s important that we teach our children how to identify and reach for the supports they need when life hands them a big one.
- Don’t step in too soon. If we always come to the rescue, our children won’t know how to rescue themselves. Do have confidence in your child. Children are by nature curious, creative and resilient. With our support, our children can learn to use their minds and hearts to manage challenging situations. We need to encourage them to think about a number of solutions and teach them how to look at the plusses and minuses of each one, and to make a wise choice of action. Yes, it’s always important to have our kids’ backs, especially if they are being bullied or hurt by others. But we also need to give them as much room as we can to experience their own strength.
- Don’t get stuck in one version of a problem. Often enough, the reason a problem can’t be solved is that people can’t think “outside of the box” or take someone else’s point of view. Do teach your children how to look at a problem from multiple perspectives. Knowing how to walk in someone else’s shoes and to have empathy for someone else’s viewpoint is an important life skill. Kids who understand that there is seldom only one way to look at things are able to give other people the benefit of the doubt. They have more tolerance of other people’s feelings and ideas. They can make space for more creative problem-solving.
- Don’t agree with your child that life is unfair, mean, or a vale of tears. Yes, life can be unfair. People can be mean. Sometimes things happen that are terribly sad. But jumping from a negative event to a generally negative attitude about life is a prescription for unhappiness and powerlessness. Do acknowledge unfairness. Recognize when someone has been mean. But it’s crucial that we teach our children to separate their sense of themselves as worthwhile from other people’s unfair opinions and from negative events that are beyond their control. If nothing can be done about a negative situation, we need to teach our kids how to move on instead of feeling bad about themselves or getting stuck in resentment.
- Don’t let yourself get depressed if your child is depressed. It may feel like you are being supportive but it’s not helpful for your child. Since no kid wants his parent to be sad, it adds the burden of your problem to the original problem. It leaves the child with no tools for coping with problems in the future. Do teach your child to engage with problems. That means talking out exactly what happened and why. It means working together to decide what they can change and what they can’t. It means figuring out where they may have inadvertently contributed to what happened. People who believe they can cope usually can. It may not be possible to change a situation but it is always possible to learn something from it. Perhaps in encouraging your child, you’ll also encourage yourself.
- Don’t accept tantrums, acting out and helplessness. No problem has ever been solved by shows of temper, acts of aggression or giving up. It only adds another layer to the problem. Now your child has to manage the feelings of the person who was the recipient of that anger or resignation as well as their own feelings of embarrassment for losing it. Do listen to and validate feelings. Sometimes people do need to vent. We need to let our children know it’s okay to express emotions as long as they don’t make someone else the target. We can then teach them how to get past their feelings to a more reasonable place.
One of the most important skills we can teach children is how to soothe themselves when upset. We can help them practice deep breathing, counting to 10 or taking a personal timeout when they need to. We can do them a major service by teaching them that feeling their feelings is important, but that it’s equally important to know how to calm down and come back to solving the problem.