Our children experience complex layers of stress in their lives, creating a need for understanding those layers and having effective tools with which to effectively manage them.
“Stress management” is a common phrase in the language of adults but we often fail to realize the significant impact stress has on our children who are much less facile in their ability to recognize it, let alone seek out skills with which to manage it.
Having a longstanding interest in how stress and anxiety affect the behavior and learning of children, the events of Columbine and 9/11 brought the issue to the forefront for me. Those big events are obvious stressors initially, but often then go ‘underground’. Whatever remains as a result is often no longer connected with the original source. Other layers of stress for children are the seemingly little “crises” that can feed anxiety everyday. These range from feeling “snubbed” by friends, getting an unexpected bad grade, losing a competition, sensitivity to large groups—the varieties of these normal experiences that feel like a crisis are endless. While we, the adults, view these experiences as simply normal events that occur in growing up, they can seem monumental and often insurmountable to the child who is in the midst of trying to deal with them.
Coping skills, or coping styles, are probably combinations of personality and learned behavior. The question I sought an answer to was “How can we actually teach our children skills and strategies as tools to cope more effectively?” If we can do that, wouldn’t we likely increase their school performance and social interactions?
Martin Seligman, author of The Optimistic Child, has worked extensively in developing coping strategies for children at risk for depression. Interestingly, his strategies are simply effective coping skills for anyone—child or adult.
Seligman describes his strategies, which serve to create resilience, as a means for developing optimism in children. By definition, optimism implies “anticipating the best possible outcome,” which sounds a bit limiting in terms of a strategy. However, Seligman’s strategies incorporate a necessary objectivity in order to manage the little and big crises that occur. For instance, the first step outlined discusses “thought catching”. “Thought catching” is stopping to notice the first thought or statement the little voice in our minds says to us when something negative happens. That first thought determines the next series of actions or thoughts that occur which, in turn, determine the outcome. Are those next thoughts and actions helpful and productive to the child? Do they serve to move the child forward in coping effectively or not?
A simple example. A few years ago, I began hearing about a middle school student who had begun to fall behind with homework suddenly and rapidly. By the time I spoke with her, she was planning on leaving school (to be home-schooled) and was so overwhelmed she could not help but cry every time I tried to speak with her. Her first thoughts when realizing her situation were “I am stupid,” “I won’t ever be able to be a student in a real school,” and so on. Those first thoughts mired her into a place of not being able to see any next steps toward a solution—only trying to find a step that would provide relief. We worked together by first stating realistically, yes, she was behind in all of her classes. However, it was work she was able to do. We just had to figure out a way to break the whole amount into manageable parts. What also came to light was the very important fact that this type of response was her automatic coping style. She would get behind, feel overwhelmed, panic and try to avoid rather than resolve the problem. I didn’t pretend she was in an easy situation. But once the plan was in place and she was getting out of the hole she was in, we talked about the pattern. I enthusiastically told her how great it was she was learning about all of this now and not years later. The following fall she came up to me and proudly told me she started the year thinking about her “pattern” and that she had managed to break it by utilizing the strategies she had learned. Her confidence was palpable.
Effective coping skills help create resiliency in children and are the very foundation on which our children’s development, both academically and socially, rests. It is our responsibility in this complex time where layers of stress and anxiety exist to do our part at school and home to ensure that this 4th R of ‘academics’, resiliency, is securely in place.