15 Coping Strategies for Kids

Simple skills can help kids embrace their emotions

Kids experience a vast array of feelings, just as adults do. They can feel bored, anxious, sad, disappointed, embarrassed, and scared—to name a few. While most of us experience any number of emotions from day to day, we are not necessarily taught how to deal with them or how to cope.

Kids need to learn skills to manage their emotions in a healthy way. It’s important to teach them coping skills that can help them face their fears, calm themselves down, and cheer themselves up.

Coping skills for kids
Verywell / Kelly Miller

Overview

Without healthy coping skills, kids are likely to act out—essentially sending a message that says, “I feel out of control so I’m going to act out of control.” Kids who don’t know how to deal with their feelings also are more likely to turn to unhealthy coping strategies, like alcohol or food, as they grow older.

Adolescents who lack healthy coping skills may also turn to avoidance coping.

For example, instead of working on math homework they don't understand, teens who use avoidance coping may go play basketball with their friends to avoid doing homework altogether.

Then, failing the assignment is likely to compound their academic problems. These teens are likely to fall further behind in school because they didn’t take steps to learn how to cope with the anxiety and frustration they experience when they try to do the work.

Impact of Coping Skills

One study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors found that adolescents who use avoidance coping are more likely to use marijuana. And those who lack problem-solving skills have higher lifetime marijuana use. This is just one example of how a lack of coping skills might lead to a dependence on something else.

On the flip side, kids who learn healthy coping skills at an early age may enjoy some big advantages in life. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health discovered a significant association between social-emotional skills in kindergarten and well-being in adulthood.

Researchers found that children who were able to regulate their emotions at 5 years old were more likely to go to college and have steady jobs as adults. These kids also were less likely to use substances, be engaged in criminal activity, and have mental health issues.

Multiple Strategies

There are two types of coping strategies. These include emotion-focused coping skills and problem-focused coping skills. Both types of skills are important for kids to learn and implement in their lives.

Emotion-Focused Coping Skills
  • Help kids deal with feelings so they are less stressed

  • Teach kids how to tolerate stress and gain perseverance

  • Necessary for situations that cannot be changed

Problem-Focused Coping Skills
  • Involve taking action to change a situation

  • Empower kids to take control of a difficult situation

  • Necessary for situations where things can be changed

Emotion-focused coping skills help kids deal with their feelings so they feel less stressed. These skills are necessary for situations when kids can’t change the situation—like dealing with the loss of a pet or not making the basketball team. These skills also can help kids learn how to tolerate stress better so they can persevere.

Meanwhile, problem-focused coping skills involve taking action to change the situation. These skills might involve ending an unhealthy friendship or telling a teacher about a bully. These skills can be helpful when a child has some control over the situation. It’s important to ensure that your child has both types of coping skills.

Emotion-Focused Coping Skills

Emotion-focused skills involve doing things that help your child feel better. They also involve doing something that offers a temporary distraction so they can return to the issue when they're feeling more level-headed. The following are some healthy emotion-focused coping skills for kids.

Label Feelings

Just being able to verbalize, “I’m mad,” or “I’m nervous,” can take the sting out of uncomfortable emotions. Give kids the words they need to describe their feelings. You can read books, look at "feeling faces" posters, or talk about emotions. Then, when they're struggling with a tough emotion, ask them to describe how they're feeling.

Learn Breathing Exercises

A few slow, deep breaths can help kids relax their minds and their bodies. One way to teach kids to do this is by encouraging them to take “bubble breaths.” Tell kids to breathe in deeply through their nose and then breathe out slowly through their mouth like they're trying to blow a bubble with a wand.

An alternative strategy is to teach your kills to “smell the pizza.” Tell them to breathe in through their nose like they're smelling a piece of pizza. Then, tell them to blow on the pizza to cool it down. Encourage kids to do this several times to help them feel better.

Participate in Exercise

Exercise can be a great way for kids to get out of their excess energy when they’re nervous and to boost their mood when they’re down. Strength building exercises like lifting weights and aerobic exercises like running or biking can be excellent ways to help kids regulate their emotions.

Encourage your kids to turn to physical activities when they are struggling with difficult emotions or situations. Eventually, going for a walk or a run will become a common—and healthy—way for them to cope with the challenges they face.

Create Artwork

Whether your child enjoys painting with watercolors, coloring in a coloring book, doodling, sculpting with clay, or creating a collage, creating art can be an excellent coping strategy.

Make sure you have plenty of art supplies on hand if this strategy works for your child. Eventually, your child will just pull out the supplies as a way of coping with difficult emotions.

Read a Book

Reading books can serve as a great temporary distraction, especially for kids who love to escape into stories. Often, when kids are done reading, they feel better equipped to tackle a problem because they're feeling calm and rejuvenated.

Books are a great way to distract the mind with something enjoyable and entertaining.

So, keep a supply of books on hand that your kids can go to when they need a temporary distraction.

Play a Game

When kids can’t stop thinking about something bad that happened at school or something they're dreading in the future, do something to get their mind off their concerns.

Whether you play a board game or kick around a ball outside, doing something active can help change the channel in their brains. Then, they'll be able to think about other things, rather than dwell on all the things that make them feel bad.

Do Yoga

Yoga provides many benefits to the mind and the body. A study published in Body Image found that four weeks of yoga led to better moods and improved body image in children.

Whether you decide to enroll your child in a yoga class or you do yoga videos together as a family in your living room, teaching your child about yoga could be a lifelong skill. And when your kids need a boost in mood or need help relaxing, you can remind them to practice some of their yoga poses.

Play Music

Whether your children like to make their own music or they enjoy listening to calming songs, music can affect their brain and their body. In fact, music is often incorporated into treatment programs for physical health, mental health, and even substance use problems.

Not only has music been shown to speed healing, calm anxiety, and reduce depression, it also is a great way to encourage creativity.

Watch a Funny Video

Laughing is a good way to take a mental break from problems. Watching a funny animal video, a hilarious cartoon, or something you captured on video could be a great way to help kids feel better. Even better, have your children create their own funny videos. Or, have them try recording some "Dad jokes" and playing them later for the family to enjoy.

Learn Positive Self-Talk

When children are upset, their self-talk is likely to become negative. They may think things like, “I’m going to embarrass myself,” or “None of the other kids are going to talk to me.”

Teach your kids how to speak to themselves kindly by asking, “What would you say to a friend who had this problem?” They're likely to have some kind, supportive words. Encourage your kids to use those same kind words when thinking about themself.

Utilize a Mood Booster

Work with your kids on making a list of all the things they like to do when they're happy—such as dancing, singing, kicking a ball, or telling jokes. Those are their mood boosters.

Then, when they're feeling down, encourage them to do something on their mood booster list. Even if they don't feel like doing it at first, doing something fun can help them feel better.

Create a "Calm Down" Kit

Fill a shoebox with items that engage your child’s senses, like a stress ball to squeeze, lotion that smells good, and a picture that makes them happy. Ask your child for input on things that can be included. Then, when they're anxious, angry, or overwhelmed, encourage them to get their calm down kit.

Having a kit like this allows kids to take responsibility for calming their bodies and their brains with the tools they selected.

Problem-Focused Coping Skills

Sometimes, there are situations where your child’s discomfort is a sign that something needs to change in the environment. For example, if they're completely overwhelmed by being placed in an advanced class, the best solution might be to return to the regular class. Or, if they are being bullied while riding the bus, the situation might need to be addressed with the bus driver or principal.

Sometimes it’s helpful to ask kids, “Do you think you need to change the situation or change how you feel about the situation?” With your help, they can become skilled at recognizing their options. Problem-focused coping skills are strategies that help reduce the source of stress. Here are a few examples of problem-focused coping skills.

Ask for Help

When your child is struggling with something, ask, “Who could help you with this?” Help kids recognize that there are likely multiple people who could assist them. For instance, a homework issue might be resolved by calling a friend. Or, it might be helpful to talk to the teacher the following day.

See if your child can name at least a few people who could help. Kids who know that it's OK to ask for help will feel empowered. They’ll know that they don’t need to know everything on their own and that it’s OK to ask for support.

Always encourage your kids to ask for help when they are struggling. It's a life skill that they will use for the rest of their lives.

Engage in Problem-Solving

There are many ways to solve a problem. Sometimes, though, kids feel stuck and don’t recognize the action they could take. When your child is struggling with a problem—whether they don't know what to wear to the dance or they keep forgetting to do their chores—sit down and problem-solve together.

Identify at least four or five possible solutions and write them down. Then, help your child pick which one they want to try. Over time, your kids will get better at solving problems on their own. Developing strong problem-solving skills will aid your kids in the years to come.

List the Pros and Cons

When kids are struggling to make a decision, like whether to play the flute or the violin, help them create a pros and cons list. Write down the positives and negatives about each option and help them review the list. Seeing things on paper may help them make a more informed decision about what they want to do.

Encourage your kids to make a list of pros and cons every time they are faced with challenging decisions. Learning to weigh their options will serve them well—especially if they are faced with moral decisions or difficult choices in the future.

Tips for Parents

Ultimately, your children should be able to use coping skills on their own so they can deal with discomfort in a healthy way when you’re not there to guide them. But, as they are learning these skills, look for opportunities to talk about different strategies.

Any time you help them, point out the strategies you're using and talk about how they can remember to use them on their own in the future. For instance, if you take your child to the park after getting cut from a team, explain your reasoning.

Say, “I know you were feeling really upset, and I know you love the park. So, I thought it would be a good way to help you feel better. What are some other things that can help you feel better when you’re feeling bad?”

The following are some additional tips to keep in mind when teaching your child how to use coping skills.

  • Prompt your child. Say things like, “It looks like you’re feeling frustrated. What would help you calm down right now?” The goal is that your children learn what works for them when coping with issues or difficult situations so they can identify what they need to do.
  • Allow your child to feel bad. Your child doesn’t need to be happy all the time. Feeling angry, sad, or scared can be part of the healing process. However, it’s important that your child not stay stuck in a bad mood. When emotions are interfering with their ability to function well, encourage kids to use coping skills.
  • Praise your child. When you notice your child using coping skills, provide praise. Say, “I saw you taking some bubble breaths on the playground today. Nice job calming yourself down.” Letting your child know that you saw them use their skills reinforces their importance.
  • Discuss strategies. Help children learn to identify which strategies work best for them. Ask questions like, “Did coloring help you feel better?” The goal is to encourage your child to identify what works and what doesn't when they are feeling stressed, frustrated, or overwhelmed.
  • Watch for escapism. Any coping skill can become unhealthy if it’s overused. But it’s equally important to be aware of how much time your child is spending on electronics. Screen time can become a means of escapism that helps your child avoid problems, rather than cope with them.

When your child makes a mistake—such as breaking an object out of anger or opting out of something they wanted to do because of nerves—use it as a teaching opportunity. Help your kids sharpen their skills so they feel better equipped to deal with discomfort in the future.

A Word From Verywell

Developing strong coping skills takes time and patience. Don't expect your kids to use these strategies effectively right out of the gate. It will take them a little time to determine what works and what doesn't. Additionally, they may find that some coping strategies are more useful than others. So, don't try to force them into a mold. Instead, empower them to choose what works best for them.

If you think your child or your teen is being negatively impacted by stress or is having trouble coping with difficult situations, talk to your pediatrician. Your child's doctor can offer suggestions as well as make a referral to a mental health professional if one is needed.

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