Helping kids cope with their feelings
Many parents come to see me because their adolescent son or daughter has behavior problems at home or in school. Some of them are failing classes, others are physically aggressive or use illegal substances. Often, at the root of these problems is an inability to cope with negative feelings. Adolescents who don’t know how to handle disappointment, anger, or sadness try to make these feelings go away by avoiding difficult situations, acting out, or numbing the feelings altogether.
Parents are in a difficult position. They don’t want their children to experience pain and disappointment. Instead, they want them to be happy and enjoy a carefree childhood. However, life isn’t without difficulties. In their attempts to provide a safe, happy childhood, parents can inadvertently shelter their children too much, leaving them unprepared to deal with frustration or rejection.
This typically becomes apparent when children reach adolescence. It is a particularly critical and vulnerable time. Parents are less able to protect their children, while at the same time, social demands increase and life becomes more complicated. In order to effectively manage these increased emotional demands, it is important that people begin learning necessary skills at a young age. They need to know how to calm themselves, how to talk about their problems, and how to ask for help. With these skills it will be much easier for them to deal with frustration and other uncomfortable feelings when they reach those difficult adolescent years.
These skills are not something we are born with, nor are they something we automatically develop as we grow up. For the most part, social skills, communication skills, and coping skills are learned behaviors. As with any learned skill, children need role models, instruction, and practice to develop these skills. In order to learn how to cope with failure, for example, parents need to allow their children to fail, and become used to the resulting feelings and process of returning to normal. By practicing this, children learn these uncomfortable, negative feelings are temporary and tolerable. That doesn’t mean parents should subject their children to dangerous situations or emotionally damaging experiences. But it does mean having age-appropriate expectations, and withholding help when it is reasonable to do so. It also means providing consistent, appropriate boundaries and allowing children to experience frustration when parents need to say “no.”
In the process, it is likely that children will become angry with their parents, especially when new rules or limitations are introduced. Even though this might be painful for parents, being angry is a normal reaction and won’t hurt the child. On the contrary, it is a valuable opportunity to teach healthy coping skills. So instead of giving in, a parent could provide instruction to help the child learn alternative ways to calm down. For example, the parent could calmly say, ”I’m sorry you are so upset. Maybe it would make you feel better to listen to music or play with your Play-Doh.” This can be challenging for many parents. It seems easier to give in to a toddler’s demand for a candy bar than to have her throw a temper tantrum in the store. However, the situation becomes increasingly difficult for the parent to manage as the toddler grows into an adolescent. The candy bar turns into a cell phone or designer clothes, and the temper tantrum of a 3-year-old turns into the anger and self-destructive behavior of a teenager.
Learning effective coping skills early on has significant long-term benefits. People who do this are generally happier, have greater self-esteem, and are more emotionally resilient throughout their lives. Understandably, not every parent knows how to implement these strategies. Parents can seek information from books or the Internet, or enlist the support of a friend or a counselor. There are several mental health providers in Moab who can assist parents with this issue. The schools and the Moab Free Clinic have an updated list of all the counselors in Moab who offer services to children, adolescents, and their families. In addition, you can contact me for more information.
- Antje Rath
- January 2013