How To Teach Children Coping Skills

Life’s journey is a turbulent one, with major and minor vibrations that bolt us upright, force us to grab on tight, and steer steadily. In order to ensure that our precious children are capable of weathering life’s storms, we must give them the skills to navigate all situations; thus, our job is to teach our children coping skills.

Of course, some people are natural copers. With emotions under control, priorities organized, and solutions galore, they masterfully weave their way through life’s challenges with dexterity and grace. Many people, however, are not born copers. Still, by analyzing and breaking down the must-have “coper qualities,” we can train our children to be more resilient and capable.

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In this article, we focus on giving children expressive language skills. This is the very first step in teaching children how to cope, because it gives children the ability to recognize that they cannot manage and verbalize their difficulties.

Expressive language delays tend to crop up in real life in many different ways.

Children may not realize that they are frustrated. Did you ever encounter a grumpy child who explodes when asked about his school day? Later you find his lunch left in his briefcase and realize that hunger was the problem –though he couldn’t tell you. Did you ever spend an afternoon with a moody pre-schooler, only to realize right before bedtime that the child is burning up with fever? Did you ever have your teenager slam her bedroom door in response to an innocent question? Your child may not be in touch with the core reason for his discomfort.

These children may have emotional vocabulary delays, so they cannot simply pinpoint and verbalize their discomfort. While most people think in emotional terminology, these children do not and simple mood translation is foreign for them. Your four-year-old comes home from school and rips her brother’s arts and crafts. She would like to say, “Beware! I am mad!” but does not know how to say it. Your six-year-old explodes, “I hate the new baby!” She does not have enough words to say, “I am feeling neglected and deprived.”

They may not be able to put their finger on the problem, so they cannot express why they are upset – and more importantly, cannot problem solve. Your five-year-old would like to tell you that another boy called him names recess time, that his teacher yelled at him, and that his snack got lost. But instead, he just says, “Ma, I’m never going back to school. Just because… It’s the worst school in the universe…” Your ten-year-old insists that she is dumb. She does not have enough words to express how her substitute embarrassed her last week, so she is just telling you that she is dumb. Your teenager is irritable, because she cannot express her frustration over her friendships at school.

Sometimes, these children may misunderstand surrounding situations and distort facts. Most people categorize their thoughts, storing previous information in designated “files” and figuring out which “folder” to open to add new information to. However, children with language delays may confuse “folders” and misinterpret information, causing unnecessary alarm and frustration. This causes them to react in an extreme way and freezes problem solving skills. Your seven-year-old hears a storm is coming and he panics, because he associates storms with hurricanes…

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Comparable to a lost person who cannot be found by a rescue team until he figures out his location, these children cannot be taught to cope until they can accurately identify and express their problem. In a catchphrase, we want to give them a language GPS.

We start by teaching them an emotional vocabulary, so that they can categorize their feelings and then share them with you. On the most elementary level, this vocabulary has three key words; happy, sad, and frustrated. Of course, your child knows the meaning of these simple words. Still, you want him to link personal experiences with these labels. A great technique is to talk to your child at bedtime about his day’s experiences. In this calm time, ask your child, “What happened today that made you glad? What made you feel sad? What frustrated you?” If your child cannot think of examples, coach him. In addition, share these phrases with your child’s teacher, so that you all speak the same language. As your child matures, his vocabulary will grow to include sophisticated terminology, such as “confused,” “bored,” “excited,” “nervous,” or “disappointed.”

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You will find it much easier and more pleasant to extend yourself to your child once he packages his feelings so clearly. Still, your child needs to learn how to expand this one word and explain why he is feeling misunderstood, worried, or anxious. Once again, teach him phrases, such as, “I don’t know what to do,” to express confusion, “I’m scared, because,” to explain fear, “I can’t talk about that now,” to clarify overwhelming feelings, “I need a break,” to express emotional overload, and “I don’t know how to do that,” for frustration. When your child is in a problematic situation, remind him of his new vocabulary, and help him grasp for the right words to express his predicament.

Mom: Pat, how was your day at school?

Pat: DON’T ASK ME THAT QUESTION!!!

Mom: It sounds like you can’t talk about that right now.

Pat: I CAN’T TALK ABOUT THAT NOW!

Mom: Okay, maybe you’ll tell me about it later.

Along with building your child’s emotional vocabulary, teach him how to be more expressive by asking guided questions, such as, “It looks like you had a difficult time. Is there anything specific that bothered you?” “Can you figure out when this feeling started?” As you cue him on, active listen and show him that you are interested in his problems and are on his team.

Remember that children who have a difficult time explaining themselves will not become emotionally expressive overnight. Still, these skills are fairly basic and can be mastered over time.

In general, when talking with your child, realize that your child has the potential to become stuck by frustration at any point in the process. So, even if you were having a calm problem-solving conversation until now, if you sense red flags and read that your child is sending SOS signals – something is brewing, but he can’t get the words out – help him! And if he says he needs a break, believe him. Your child is saying that he cannot muster the control to discuss this in an appropriate way. So, instead of being offended, take his cue at face value. Avoid the touchy topic for the time being and come back to it at a later date.

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An interesting point to note is that teaching children how to express their emotions helps them speak more respectfully. All too often, the child whose comments are out of line and disrespectful is not seeking to undermine your authority, but rather to express his frustration in the only way he knows. When you empower your child with emotion-words, he does not have to yell… He can simply say, “I am disappointed, because…” When you coach your child to rephrase his words in a more appropriate way instead of jumping the gun at him, you avoid the meltdown shut-down stage and teach him far more.

Your child is engrossed in playing with Legos. You call him for supper. He grunts, “Not coming.” You have two choices of reactions.

You can yell and punish, declare an all-out disrespectful war, and deal with the inevitable meltdown.

Or: You can realize that your child needs time to change gears. Maybe he is inflexible. Maybe he would like to express his frustration, but needs emotional language coaching. So, you can react by opening a language bridge with a sentence, such as, “You sound frustrated that you were told to stop playing, especially in the middle of building a bridge. However, you have to speak in a more respectful way. Say something like, ‘Mommy, can I play a little longer?’”

Ultimately, your goal is to teach him a working emotional vocabulary.

(While this scenario should not be an everyday occurrence for the typical child, since he should comply or respectfully request a few more minutes, for the inflexible, language-delayed, or problem-solving impaired child, this is a useful tool that can help.)

When you boost your child’s language skills, you give him the first skill necessary for coping; you teach him how to recognize a problem and call for help.

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13 responses

  1. Very insightful article. Would love to hear more about teens. My 15-year old is always so moody and when we finally talked to her, using the same approach you describe above, she really opened up about all of the pressure she felt at school. Thanks for a great article, I am going to share it.

    1. I’m happy to hear that your daughter opened up to you. That must have been a big relief! Thanks for commenting.

  2. This is a wonderful article. We have always talked about our emotions here. I read that you should do so a long time ago. My kids used to go through the whole gamut when asking me how I feel. They are pretty good at asking me if I’m frustrated. And we used to look at the pictures in books and ask, “How do you think they feel right now?”, depending on what face the character may have been making. And even though we go through all of that, there are still times when even I don’t have the “emotional intelligence” or patience to actually calmly have a conversation about something that’s bothering me. But, all we can do is try!

    1. That’s cute how your children would ask you about your emotions! It may not always be easy, but as you wrote, All we can do is try!

  3. I too find it is very important to teach a child how to express himself properly by giving her the proper vocabulary to use to express his feelings.

  4. Great article! I’m totally going to try the emotion words. Thanks!

    1. Thanks April and I wish you loads of luck!

  5. Great information, in this post. I have to remind myself when my toddler has a meltdown it is because he doesn’t know how to communicate and he is venting his communication frustrations.

    1. It can really frustrate us but we must try to have patience and help our children express themselves properly.

  6. As a mom to a four-year-old, I really learned a lot from this article. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed my article!

  7. This is something so hard to teach kids. However i do agree that when a child learns these skills the communication is much smoother and productive.

    1. It may be hard but definitely rewarding!

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