15 Coping Skills for Kids

Simple strategies 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
Kelly Miller / Verywell 

Why Kids Need Coping Skills

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 are also more likely to turn to unhealthy coping strategies as they grow older such as alcohol or food.

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

For example, instead of working on math homework he doesn’t understand, an adolescent who uses avoidance coping may go play basketball with his friends to avoid doing his homework altogether.

Failing his assignment is likely to compound his academic problems. He’s likely to fall further behind in school because he didn’t take steps to learn how to cope with the anxiety and frustration he experiences when he tries to do the work.

One study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors found that adolescents who use avoidance coping are more likely to use marijuana. 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 such as a substance.

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 five years old were more likely to go to college and have steady jobs as adults. These kids were also less likely to abuse substances, be engaged in criminal activity, and have mental health issues.

Emotion-Focused vs. Problem-Focused

If your child felt stressed out by a new club she joined, would you teach her skills to manage her stress better or tell her she could quit the club? Either strategy could help her feel better.

Emotion-focused coping skills are the skills that help kids deal with their feelings better 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 can also help kids learn how to tolerate stress better so they can persevere.

Problem-focused coping skills involve taking action to change the situation. These skills might involve ending a friendship that’s unhealthy 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 may involve your child doing things that help her feel better (like calming down when she is angry or cheering up when she is sad). However, these skills might also involve doing something that offers a temporary distraction so he can return to the issue when she’s feeling more level-headed (like taking a quick break when she’s feeling frustrated).

The following are some healthy emotion-focused coping skills for kids.

Labeling Feelings

Just being able to verbalize, “I’m mad,” or “I’m nervous,” can help take the sting out of an uncomfortable emotion. Give your child the language he needs to describe his feelings by reading books, looking at "feeling faces" posters, or talking about emotions.

Then, when he’s struggling with a tough emotion, ask him to describe how he is feeling.

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 your child to breathe in deeply through her nose and then breathe out slowly through her mouth like she’s trying to blow a bubble with a wand.

An alternative strategy is to teach your child to “smell the pizza.” Tell her to breathe in through her nose like she’s smelling a piece of pizza. Then, tell her to blow on the pizza to cool it down. Encourage your child to do this several times to help her feel better.

Exercising

Exercise can be a great way for kids to get out their excess energy when they’re nervous and to boost their mood when they’re down.

Strength building exercises (like lifting weights) and aerobic exercise (like running) can be excellent ways to help kids regulate their emotions.

Art Work

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

Reading

Reading books can serve as a great temporary distraction. When your child is done reading, she might feel better equipped to tackle a problem because she’s feeling calm and rejuvenated.

Playing a Game

If your child can’t stop thinking about something bad that happened at school or something he’s dreading in the future, do something to get his mind off his concerns.

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

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 child needs a boost in mood or needs help relaxing, you can remind her to practice some of her yoga poses.

Playing Music

Whether your child likes to make his own music on a keyboard or he enjoys listening to calming songs, music can affect his brain and his body.

Music is often incorporated into treatment programs for physical health, mental health, and substance abuse problems because it has been shown to speed healing, calm anxiety, and reduce depression.

Help your child discover how music can be helpful to him. Are there songs that calm him down? Does certain music cheer him up?

Watching 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 him feel better.

Positive Self-Talk

When your child is feeling upset, her self-talk is likely to become quite negative. She may think things like, “I’m going to embarrass myself,” or “None of the other kids are going to talk to me.”

Teach her how to speak to herself kindly by asking, “What would you say to a friend who had this problem?” She’s likely to have some kind, supportive words. Encourage her to give those same kind words to herself.

Engage in a Mood Booster

Work with your child on making a list of all the things he likes to do when he’s happy—such as do a dance, sing, kick a ball, or tell jokes. Those are his mood boosters.

Then, when he’s feeling down, encourage him to do something on his mood booster list. Even if he doesn’t feel like doing it at first, doing something fun can help him feel better.

Create a Calm Down Kit

Fill a shoe box with items that engage your child’s senses, like a stress ball to squeeze, lotion that smells good, and a picture that she enjoys. Ask your child for her input on things that you can include that will help her calm down when she’s upset, like a coloring book and crayons.

Then, when she’s anxious, angry, or overwhelmed, encourage her to go get her calm down kit. This allows her to take responsibility for calming her body and her brain with the tools she has waiting for her.

Problem-Focused Coping

Sometimes, there are situations where your child’s discomfort is a sign that something needs to change in the environment. For example, if he’s completely overwhelmed by being placed in an advanced class, the best solution might be for him to return to the regular class. Or, if he’s being picked on when he’s riding the bus, the bully might need to be addressed.

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.

There are many examples of problem-focused coping skills.

Ask for Help

When your child is struggling with something, ask, “Who could help you with this?” Help her recognize that there are likely multiple people who could assist her.

A homework issue might be resolved by calling a friend who can explain the problem in a different way. 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 her.

Kids who know that it's okay 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 okay to ask for support.

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 he doesn’t know what to wear to the dance or he keeps forgetting to do his 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 he wants to try. Over time, your child will get better at solving problems on his own.

Create a List of Pros and Cons

If your child is struggling to make a decision, like whether to play the flute or the violin, help her create a pros and cons list.

Write down possible positive and negatives about each option and help her review the list. Seeing things on paper may help her make a better-informed decision about what she wants to do.

Useful Tips

The ultimate goal should be for your child to be able to use coping skills on her own so she can deal with her discomfort in a healthy way when you’re not there to tell her what to do.

It's important to point out the strategies you're using to help her and talk about how she can remember to use them on her own in the future.

If you take her to the park to cheer her up after she got cut from a team, explain your reasoning. Say, “I know you were feeling really upset and 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 even more useful tips to keep in mind when teaching your child these coping skills.

  • Prompt your child. Say things like, “It looks like you’re feeling frustrated. What would help you calm down right now?”
  • Let your child feel bad sometimes. 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 he not stay stuck in a bad mood. When his emotions are interfering with his ability to function well, encourage him 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.”
  • Debrief after an event. Help your child learn to identify which strategies work best for her. Ask questions like, “Did coloring help you feel better?”
  • Make sure coping skills are in moderation. Any coping skill can become unhealthy if it’s overused. But it’s important to be especially 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—like he breaks an object out of anger or he opts out of something he wanted to do because he was nervous—use it as a teaching opportunity. Help him sharpen his skills so he feels better equipped to deal with his discomfort in the future.

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    Article Sources

    • Halliwell E, Jarman H, Tylka TL, Slater A. Evaluating the impact of a brief yoga intervention on preadolescents’ body image and mood. Body Image. 2018;27:196-201. DOI: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2018.10.003

    • Jones DE, Greenberg M, Crowley M. Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. American Journal of Public Health. 2015;105(11):2283-2290. DOI: 10.2105/ajph.2015.302630

    • Lee-Winn AE, Mendelson T, Johnson RM. Associations between coping and marijuana use in a nationally representative sample of adolescents in the United States. Addictive Behaviors. 2018;80:130-134. DOI: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2018.01.025