Learning & development

September 13 2016

Teaching children how to cope with life’s challenges

By Australian Psychological Society

Helping children to deal with worries and stress will help them grow into resilient adults.

Just like adults, young children have worries that cause stress. Adults may worry about job security or a fight with a partner, while children may stress about a friend moving away or losing their favourite toy. But in much the same way as grown-ups, children who use positive coping strategies are more likely to work through their worries, reduce stress and bounce back from difficulties. And children who develop these helpful coping strategies are more likely to become resilient, mentally healthy adults. Who are the best teachers of coping skills for children? You guessed it: parents.

Why are coping skills important?

Coping skills are what we think and do to help us get through difficult situations, which, as much as we wish they weren’t, are an unavoidable part of life. Psychologist Associate Professor Erica Frydenberg from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education says for children aged four to six these situations are often things like saying goodbye to a parent at kinder or school, having to try something new or wanting to belong to a group of friends.

She says helping children to cope with these sorts of worries will equip them with skills to cope with adult-sized problems later in life and help to reduce the risk of mental health problems like depression and anxiety, which affect an estimated one in seven school-age children.

“What we have found with our work is that starting these conversations about coping early on helps children develop good coping habits,” says Associate Professor Frydenberg. “We need to teach children to manage those worries so they don’t become uncontrollable worries because that’s what poor mental health is – when you don’t feel you have the resources to manage situations that are challenging or difficult. It’s inevitable that we’ll have anxiety as we go through life but problems occur when it goes on for too long without being managed or dealt with.”

How can parents help children develop helpful coping strategies?

Associate Professor Frydenberg FAPS* says parents can help children to cope by discouraging unhelpful strategies – like excessive crying, tantrums, blaming oneself and anger – and encouraging helpful strategies such as asking for help, saying sorry and staying calm.

She says encouraging children to talk to an adult about their worries is particularly effective when it leads to conversations about coping. In fact, children as young as four and five have, on average, 36 ways of describing how they cope that can be used in conversations.

“What parents can do is acknowledge the upset of children and talk about the different ways children can deal with a situation,” says Associate Professor Frydenberg. “We find that even saying that to children generally develops a positive reaction and generates some ideas about what they could do.”

And as with all things parenting, modelling helpful coping skills is a powerful teaching strategy. “Adults are role models and children learn from adults,” says Associate Professor Frydenberg. “It’s important for adults to think about their own coping skills.”

Assoc. Professor Frydenberg is presenting her work at the Australian Psychological Society Congress 2016, in Melbourne, 13-16 September.

*Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society

Bio: Erica Frydenberg is an educational, clinical and organisational psychologist who has practiced extensively in the Australian educational setting. She has authored and co-authored more than 120 academic journal articles and chapters in the field of coping, developed psychological instruments to measure coping in children, adolescents and adults, and authored and co-authored 15 books on topics ranging from the early years through to adolescence and parenting.