You’re waiting to pick up your daughter at school, and mentally getting ready for the afternoon’s schedule of activities. You spot your daughter across the playground, see the look on her face and your stomach turns.
Your normally bubbly social butterfly is upset and sad. She comes over to you and immediately reaches for a long hug and you start walking to the car. You ask about her day, and she bursts into tears.
“I think I failed my English test. Someone messed up my art project. And Zoe is mad at me, but I don’t know why. I’m never going back to school again!!!”
As parents, we want to raise a child who is resilient and can manage the ups and downs of life. We want to be able to help them cope with challenges in healthy ways. Working on resilience and coping skills starts at home.
Here are some ideas for how to set up your home environment to nurture kids who can cope.
Make feelings a part of everyday conversation
Simply start by talking about feelings and making it part of everyday conversations. Ask how they feel about different experiences in their life. For example:
How do they feel when they learn something new? When they lose a game? When they’re about to go to back to school?
During the day, use teachable moments to explore and discuss feelings. When you’re reading a book or watching a movie with your child, ask them to think about how the characters feel. For instance, the movie Inside Out opens the door for a discussion about having more than one feeling at once. Moving can be exciting, scary, and sad all at the same time.
By talking about feelings, it will help them grasp that it’s completely normal to feel angry, or sad, or frustrated at times. It also lets them know that they can’t expect to be happy all the time every day.
Check in regularly
Provide opportunities to check in about your child’s day. It doesn’t necessarily have to be right after they get off the bus or immediately when they get in the car. Dinner time and bedtime are also opportunities to go over what happened during the day, and see if there’s anything they’d like to talk about. If there’s a concern your child brings up, talk it through and try to problem solve it together.
Start having family meetings
Hold a family meeting regularly to provide everyone in your family with an opportunity to listen to one another and practice communicating. This gives kids a chance to share their concerns, and you can use this time to problem solve any issues together. Working together as a family team, kids can learn that they can lean on others for support and that even if they can’t figure out the solution to a problem on their own, working with others can help.
Teach healthy ways to channel big feelings
There will be times when kids feel stressed, annoyed, frustrated, angry or sad. We tend to tell kids what they can’t do, but we should also offer some suggestions of what they can do.
When you notice that your child is having big feelings, suggest some coping skills to them, like:
- Imagine your favorite place
- Count to 50
- Take a walk
- Get a drink of water
- Take five deep breaths
- Distract yourself by playing a game
- Talk about it
- Do a word search
- Use a fidget toy
- Do wall push ups
- Write in a journal
- Build something
- Listen to your favorite music
- Take a break in a quiet spot
Make a list of coping skills for each of your children
What works for one kid may not work for another. For example, my daughter loves coloring, sewing and reading - those activities relax her and calm her down. My son prefers to run around at a playground, take a walk or play a board game with someone when he wants to relax. Recognize and respect the differences in your children's ways of coping.
Create an oasis in your home
One of the best things you can do is encourage kids to work with you to create a place where they can go when they need to calm down.
This spot can be anywhere that works for your family. In my house, the calm spots have often been their rooms, but a place like a guest room or a small tucked away spot will also work.
Make it cozy. Since it’s for your child, work with them to figure out what that means. Perhaps they want a favorite stuffed animal or a blanket they love available in that spot.
Then add in things that you know will calm them down - a favorite book, a journal to write in, or music that will make them smile. Try to keep all those calming activities in one spot, so your child will know where to find them when they are needed.
Be a good example
As a parent, you are your child’s first teacher. Your children are watching and learning from what they see you doing. This is especially important when you are dealing with stress. What do your children see when you are faced with challenges?
It’s important that you as a person identify and practice healthy coping skills too. You can’t fill from an empty cup - you need to take care of yourself so you can take care of those around you.
As a parent myself, I recognize the challenges of finding times for self-care. I know that you can’t go to the spa every week for a whole day. But you can think about what you love, what brings you joy, what makes you happy and what satisfies you, and find little spots in the day or week when you can do those things.
While it may be challenging at first to make that time, you’ll find that, when you do, you are more able to be a helpful support and calm example for your family.
You and your daughter get to the car, you give her another big hug and you hand her a water bottle.
You say “Here, take a sip of cold water. When we get home, how about we do a wordsearch together and then talk? What do you say?”
She nods, takes a quick drink, wipes away her tears and climbs into the car.
Janine Halloran is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and mom of 2. She is the author of the Coping Skills for Kids Workbook, which has over 75 coping strategies to help kids learn to calm anxiety, deal with stress and manage anger. Kids can read it on their own or together with a parent. To learn more, visit copingskillsforkids.com.