Tips for Avoiding Common Coping Skill Traps

What does it mean to experience mental wellness? Does it mean feeling “good” all the time about one’s decisions and experiences? Does it mean not experiencing emotions that may feel overwhelming and at times hurtful? No!


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What does it mean to experience mental wellness? Does it mean feeling “good” all the time about one’s decisions and experiences? Does it mean not experiencing emotions that may feel overwhelming and at times hurtful? No! The true meaning of mental wellness is to experience strong, and at times uncomfortable, emotions and being able to acknowledge, accept and deal with them in a healthy way. 

In this blog post, we are thrilled to collaborate with Dr. Janine Domingues, Senior Director of Professional Training, School and Community Programs; Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute to address how supporting children’s coping skills is a key element of mental wellness. 

Coping skills are two words that get mentioned often when talking about mental health. They often refer to ways of thinking or engaging in behavior that help us get through difficult moments or prevent uncomfortable feelings from getting worse.  We know there is good evidence behind specific coping skills that can help your child manage intense emotions, including: 

  • Paced belly breathing (deep breathing)

  • Progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and releasing muscle groups)

  • Using the five senses to self soothe 

  • Challenging unhelpful thinking 

When your child is in distress, it makes sense to want coping skills to be the “fix it” to uncomfortable emotions and behavior. Here are three common coping skill traps that we as parents can fall into:

Trap 1: The goal of coping skills is to make uncomfortable emotions go away.  The truth is the goal for any coping skill is to help you and your child to feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable.  I often tell parents I work with that we want kids to experience a range of emotions, including the ones that are uncomfortable.  Coping skills help to tolerate or turn down the intensity of uncomfortable feelings.  If the goal is to use coping skills as a way of problem-solving the emotion away, it can send the message that uncomfortable emotions are “bad” and that they shouldn’t be felt. Coping skills not only help us to manage stressful moments but these skills also help us to accept all emotions, including the uncomfortable ones. 

Trap 2: Coping skills should always work.  The truth is even tried and true coping skills don’t work all the time and for everyone. So when your child is still in distress while using a coping skill(s), it may be that that particular coping skill is not the best one for them at this particular time.  It’s also true that one solution or skill does not fit all. If we operate under the assumption that coping skills should always “work” our response can sound blaming to our child when they continue to express distress. This can lead a child to give up on trying coping skills all together or make a child feel like a failure.  Like anything we’re learning, coping skills take practice and patience. I often remind parents that it can take time to find the coping skills that work most effectively for your child, and the skill that works right now may change as they grow and develop. 

Trap 3: Coping skills are all that is needed when it comes to mental wellness. The truth is coping skills are just one part of what contributes to mental wellness. To focus solely on learning and using coping skills can sometimes place the burden on the child alone to do something and that can feel daunting. While coping skills are certainly helpful, we also know from trauma and attachment research that connectedness, community, and strong relationships are major predictors of resilience and coping with stress. What does that mean? Your relationship with your child is key.  Having you as a model for how to deal with stressful situations and most importantly having you there to sit with their emotions is just as helpful as encouraging them to use their own coping skills. 

Here are some tips for avoiding those traps and helping your child cope with stress:

Tip 1: Sit with the emotions. As a mom and psychologist, I can totally understand the urge to want to problem solve and make the uncomfortable emotions go away for your child. It’s natural to feel this way as our job as a parent is to protect our children. However, what we know to be most valuable for our  children is to sit with the emotions first before doing anything about them. Take time to validate how your child feels. This means making the space to listen to how they feel, reflect what they have expressed, and genuinely connect on understanding.  Taking this pause to validate helps your child learn that how they feel is okay and that they don’t need to push or get rid of feelings.  This first step also helps to build tolerance for a full range of emotions while knowing that they are supported and connected with you. 

Tip 2: Praise the effort. Because learning and using coping skills takes practice and patience, praising your child’s effort in using coping skills, rather than focusing on whether they “worked” or not, encourages them to keep trying.  This also helps to communicate that coping skills don’t always feel like they work all the time and that’s okay!  I often tell the kids I work with “you can’t fail at coping skills.”  Praising effort allows for time to practice, provides space to try again, and encourages creativity for new strategies that may help.

Tip 3: Model self-compassion. Parenting is challenging! Meet yourself with the same kindness and compassion you would with a close friend. Rather than being self-critical, offer yourself words of encouragement and know “you are doing it!” This is so important because your child picks up on your vibes and can see how you take care of yourself and cope with your stress.  Modeling your own practice of coping skills in addition to self-compassion when it doesn’t always turn out the way you anticipated, is key to helping your child with their own coping.    

Interested in learning more about coping skills and supporting your child through difficult moments? Watch one of our latest assemblies with pediatrician and author, Dr. Kelly Fradin.