Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Helping Kids Through Anger: Coping Skills

We all have coping skills because we all have to cope with things we don't like.  The real question is whether our coping skills are constructive or destructive.  If I start throwing punches at someone when I'm frustrated with them, then I'm using a destructive coping skill.  That's exactly the kind of coping skill that comes most naturally.  When X is frustrating, we can cope by lashing out at X.  The next step is to recognize when lashing out at X will backfire.  So when I'm frustrated with the 6'8" body builder at the end of the bar, I might choose to lash out at the drunk pipsqueak nearby instead.  Most of us have caught on to the idea that this kind of coping is frowned upon and might get us thrown in the clink even if we win the fight.  We either learn to do it in a sneaky way ("I'll show that guy, I'll key his car when no one is looking!") or we find some other outlet for our frustrated energy.  The latter is where you're going to find the constructive coping skills (as well as plenty of other destructive ones).

One of the first steps to helping kids work through anger is to help them identify and rely on constructive coping skills.  Help them to find things they like or things that relax them.  For example, maybe a child who enjoys snuggling with something soft and warm could benefit from having a stuffed animal (stuffy? doll? plush toy?  Different families call them different things...)  Either way, the first trick to helping kids work through their anger is to support them in the development of good coping skills.  Lots of people use food for coping - that's why we talk about comfort food - but, while better than punching someone in the face, it's probably not the healthiest way of defusing anger.  The same goes for any kind of approach that can harm oneself.  The fact is that different people will get help from different things.  One person needs to talk it through while another needs to cool off alone.  One person will want to rearrange furniture and another will want to listen to music.  As parents, our role is to help our children figure out what works for them and then let them do it.

This may be easier said than done.  Sometimes a 5 year old isn't going to be able to walk away from the source of their anger to go color a picture.  Parents and teachers often frown on letting children walk away when they are the source of the child's anger.  I know my daughter gets plenty mad at me sometimes when I correct her homework, but that doesn't mean she gets to just go outside and ride her bike instead of trying those math problems again.  That's why you'll want to find a variety of coping skills that can be used in a variety of situations.

Another thing you'll want to be aware of is that when children (or anyone, for that matter) is learning a new skill, they'll need more reminders and support than usual, but that eventually (after a good long while and a lot of supported practice) they'll get to the point where they can calm themselves just by knowing that their coloring book, or stuffed animal, or sandwich hug from mommy and daddy will be there later.

So what are some coping skills that work for you and your family?

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