People deal with stress and anxiety in different ways. An adult may deal with stress at work negatively, like drinking too much alcohol, or positively, like exercising to relieve the stress, or talking about the problem with a spouse. Children also need to cope with stress and anxiety. Academic pressures, social pressure, bullying, problems at home, and unfortunately, abuse are all pressures that children may face daily. First, it is important to examine how children’s coping mechanisms for stress or anxiety differ from adults, and then as parents and caregivers, we will have a base to find the best healthy coping mechanisms for the children in our lives.
Fight or Flight
Most of us are aware of the “fight or flight” response to stimulus. The fight or flight response is chemical and primal, and it means that, when faced with stress or anxiety, our body revs up the adrenaline and we either face it (fight) or run away. Even if we do not physically run, avoiding the stress, or ignoring it, is a type of running away.
Children in particular are much more likely to run away from the thing that is causing them stress. Sometimes this can be helpful, like if a child removes himself from a dangerous situation, but sometimes it can be harmful, especially if the situation giving the child stress is ongoing, like abuse in the home or bullying in school. The child could begin to disassociate.
According to this source, “dissociation refers to the mental processes that create a lack of connection in the person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of self (Amir & Lev-Wiesel, 2007; Reber & Reber, 2001).” If a child consistently disassociates himself from the things that are causing stress, the child’s personal relationships and coping skills may be damaged in the long run.
Below are three areas in which coping mechanisms may be used to help the child deal with three primary triggers he’ll face in his daily life: Anxiety, stress and possibly depression.
Coping Mechanisms for Anxiety
Anxiety is a normal, even necessary, part of life. Anxiety can help us prepare for danger or motivate us to perform well on a test. It is when anxiety gets to be intense, uncontrollable, or constant that anxiety turns into a feeling that must be coped with.
According to this, children experience anxiety in three primary ways:
- Physically (rapid heartbeat, sweating, feeling very hot or cold)
- Mentally (worrisome thoughts like “I don’t think they like me” and “I am not smart enough for this test”)
- Behaviorally (avoiding social situations, like sporting events or parties, so as to not have to interact with others and potentially embarrass oneself)
Knowing how the body reacts can help children develop methods to cope with the feelings of anxiety. For example, think of a child walking into a crowded cafeteria. His heart starts beating rapidly as he scans the tables for a place to sit. If that child knows that a marker of anxiety is a rapid heartbeat, he can take deep breaths, attempt to control his breathing, count to 10, and try to calm down. At that point, it should be easier for him to deal with the anxiety he feels in that particular situation.
Regarding the mental element of anxiety – it is never easy to change one’s thinking. We can tell our kids that they are great 100 times a day but they may still feel awkward and unpopular at school. One coping mechanism to deal with the mental aspect of anxiety is to keep a negative thought log. If the child writes down when he has a negative thought related to anxiety when he has it, he can later go back and read the thought. Then, after the anxious situation as passed, the child can go back to the thought log, read what he was feeling at the time, and think about if the anxiety was truly warranted. In this way, the child trains himself to consider his anxious thoughts and the reasons behind them, and hopefully take away some of the negativity and pressure when faced with the same situation.
Changing one’s behavior can be as challenging as changing one’s thinking. It is almost impossible for an anxious child to simply “decide” to join a group of friends in the lunch room. However, small steps can be taken to training oneself to react differently in situations where anxiety plays a role. If we go back to the cafeteria, perhaps the child who walks in and is nervous can find a smaller group of people to join – making a concerted effort to not isolate himself. Or, perhaps if he knows the situation will bring on anxiety, he can make arrangements to meet a friend before he walks in so he has some support.
Stress Coping Mechanisms
Stress can be an overwhelming feeling; a feeling that is hard to cope with since the mere feeling of stress can cause additional stress. The key to coping with stress is to identify the stress triggers.
Identifying stress triggers starts with keeping a stress journal. The child can jot down when he feels stress and what brought on the feeling of stress. Perhaps he is told that he has a math test in a week and he starts to feel pressure. If he writes down that he is stressed, he can analyze where the stress is coming from: is there something he doesn’t understand in math? Does he have trouble taking tests? Once he breaks up the general stress feeling into smaller parts, those parts can be dealt with. For instance, he can get a math tutor or talk to the teacher about possible testing alternatives.
According to helpguide.org, dealing with stressful situations calls for the “Four A’s,” which are:
- Avoid the stressor (for things that can be avoided, like a bully)
- Alter the stressor (an example is hiring a tutor if your stress comes from academic issues)
- Adapt to the stressor (try to keep a positive attitude and change your expectations of certain situations)
- Accept the stressor (if your stress trigger is something that cannot be changed or avoided, accepting the stress as a part of life and then adapting to it will help minimize the stress)
Obviously, once the stressor is identified, one of the four strategies can be implemented.
Coping Mechanisms for Depression
Everyone gets depressed sometimes, but whether your child suffers from clinical depression or occasional depressive episodes, coping with depression is an important skill to have. Below are just three of the many ways to help cope with depression.
Keep Yourself Physically Healthy
If you’ve heard the saying “at least you have your health,” you understand how important physical health is to overall health and happiness. It is hard to overcome depression if your body is not healthy. Encouraging your child to eat right, get enough sleep and stay physically active (which by itself is a good way to deal with depression) will provide a base of health from which to deal with the depression he may feel.
Often, someone suffering from depression can become mired in his depressive feelings. One of the hallmarks of depression is avoiding others and not joining in activities. Using distraction to get out of the depression “hole” is one of the stress coping mechanisms that your child will probably need help with – it is hard to pull yourself out once you are in the depression cloud. Take your child to the movies or out to dinner, suggest that he go for a walk or exercise, or help him find something to get involved in. Anything that takes his mind off the depression and allows him to clear his head for even an hour may help with the feelings of depression.
My friend lost her husband after he became ill, leaving behind three children. One of her strategies for dealing with her grief involved altruism. She created ways for her and her children to help others. They colored and mailed pictures to veterans, donated time and money to shelters, and performed simple acts of kindness, like giving a random compliment or holding open the door. Altruistic behavior does not have to cost you any money and you would be surprised at how much lifting someone else’s spirits lifts yours.
Altruism also works as a distraction to get your mind out of the cycle of depression and focused one someone else.
No matter what your child is going through, there are resources available to help both you and your child cope. And remember, if you have serious concerns, you should always contact a medical professional.