Don’t Just Tell Kids What Not to Do: Show Them What to Do

Healthy coping strategies are the key to risk prevention.

Posted Apr 21, 2012

Resilience requires a wide repertoire of skills to cope with stress. Here’s the bottom line—life is stressful, so we need to prepare our children to handle challenges effectively.

While we’d like to think that childhood is idyllic, children are not as shielded from stress as we might imagine. They worry about school, their peers, the future, their identity, and their appearance. They want to please us, and sometimes they worry about us. They sense parents’ stress even when they’re small. Children pick up on all our spoken and unspoken words. When we seem unnerved, they feel anxious.

Stress makes us terribly uncomfortable. We feel nervous, unsafe, insecure, and ungrounded. We can’t think clearly. We become restless, lose sleep, become tired, and maybe get headaches. We grow irritable, less patient, and much less understanding of others.

We all hate discomfort. To avoid it, we figure out some way to cope and make ourselves feel comfortable again. Anything that will banish those disquieting feelings will make us feel more settled, at least for the moment.

We have both positive and negative ways of coping. It's not that positive ways always work and negative ones always fail. On the contrary, some negative ways offer immediate relief. The difference is that positive coping strategies enhance well-being and ultimately lead to at least partial relief. Negative strategies might feel great and offer quick relief, but they perpetuate and intensify the cycle of stress.

Virtually all the behaviors we fear in children and teenagers are misguided attempts to diminish their stress. Procrastination, feigned laziness, and boredom are methods of dealing with school-related stress. They temporarily push stress out of sight and mind for a while. Bullying, smoking, drugs, gangs, sex, disordered eating, and self-mutilation are also efforts to deal with stress. We may have our greatest impact in helping children and teens avoid negativity and dangerous behaviors by equipping them with a wide range of alternative, effective, and safe coping strategies.

Our challenge is to raise children with effective coping strategies that deal directly with problems, healthy strategies that help us confront and comfort our emotions, and safe, thoughtful strategies that help us avoid our problems.

This means kids need to learn how to:

• Avoid stressful situations by choosing not to confront those people, places, and things that trigger painful responses. Let some things go rather than wasting energy on things that can’t be changed.

• Build strong, resilient bodies by incorporating wellness strategies regarding exercise, relaxation, sleep, and nutrition.

• Know how to avoid emotions occasionally by taking “instant vacations” such as working on hobbies, reading books, or taking walks.

• Release emotional tension through healthy means such as taking, writing, praying, playing, and creative expression 

Even the youngest children pick up ambivalent messages. They know the difference between what we say and what we do. Adolescents pounce on our hypocrisy, point it out mercilessly, and use it to explain why we shouldn’t have the authority to set rules of behavior. We can’t model problem-solving if we take a nap to avoid our discomfort each time we get stressed. We can’t tell kids it’s good to talk about their feelings if we bottle up our own emotions. We can’t teach the danger of drugs while drinking alcohol. We can’t talk about the importance of balancing our lives if we haven’t taken a day off in a month.

So, for the sake of your kids, take care of yourself first: Don’t think it’s selfish to have a hobby, take time to relax, or have creative outlets. When you take care of yourself, you show your children how to be emotionally healthier. You are the model they will follow as they learn to manage stress.

Role modeling may be most effective when you talk aloud about what you’re doing:

“This is a gigantic work assignment to finish in just a week. I’m going to break it down into smaller parts that I can handle.”

“I’m so stressed out that I can’t even think. I’m going for a run. That always makes me feel better.”

“I really need to clear my head. I’m going to take some slow, deep breaths and imagine I’m on that beautiful beach we visited last summer. Remember that sunset?”

“I really need a few minutes to myself after the day I’ve had. I’m going to soak in the bathtub for a half hour.”

“I’m so angry that I can’t think straight. If I make a decision now about how to deal with your behavior, you won’t like it. Right now I need some time to myself to cool off. I’m going for a long walk to relax. Then we’re going to deal with this problem.”

“When I paint a picture, it tells a story of how I feel. That way, I don’t have to keep all my feelings inside.”

“ I had such a hard time today. Come and give me hugs. I always feel better when I’m with people I love.”

“I need to figure out how to handle this situation with the neighbors. I’m going to call Aunt Mattie. Just talking makes me calmer, and sometimes she helps me find a totally different way of looking at things.”

“I’m not even going near that casino. Just being near it makes me want to spend money. If I’m not there, I don’t miss it a bit.”

“I’m exhausted. I broke my rule and fell asleep while I was still worried about work. I sleep so much better whenever I relax before bed or at least make a list of things I have to do the next day so they don’t keep spinning in my head.”

Remember: the greatest gift you can give your child – and perhaps the most important thing you can do to prevent problem behaviors – is to model self care and healthy coping strategies.

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg is the author of “Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings” as well as “Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century” which he coauthored with Susan FitzGerald.