15 Coping Skills to Teach Kids
When trying to help kids cope with difficult emotions (e.g., mad, sad, scared), it's good to have them practice using coping skills. But many kids either don't know any good coping skills, or only know a couple. Depending on the situation, some coping skills aren't an option, or they simply won't work. To help kids be best able to cope with difficult emotions, it's helpful for them to have a lot of coping skills they can choose from. Here, I go through 15 that are likely to be helpful.
Not all of them will work with every kid, but every child should be able to find several that work for them from this list. Plus, this list helps to give an idea of what types of behaviors make for good coping skills. By knowing that, kids can more easily come up with their own!
Note: Want to help your child learn how to use these coping skills? This whole list is available in my Emotion and Coping Game. Plus, you can add your own skills to the game through the app! Take a look to see if it's right for you.
1. Ask an adult for help
A good first skill to teach is for your child to ask an adult (specifically an adult they can trust!) for some help. This has a few benefits: a) it helps set the standard that they should turn to you for examples of other coping skills, b) it sets a good default action for when their other coping skills fail, and c) it encourages them talking about their difficult emotions with adults who can help them work through those emotions. While it may not be a coping skill in itself, it's a good back-up to set in place.
2. Chill out
This is a very helpful coping skill, especially for when kids are feeling frustrated/mad. The idea of a "chill out" is for a child to step away from the situation for a few moments to give themselves some time to calm down. This can hopefully be used to prevent temper tantrums, fighting, and other similar behaviors. If you notice your child is becoming frustrated, prompt them to take a chill out until their emotions calm down. You can even set-up a designated chill out space where they have access to things specifically meant for them to calm down (e.g., some things to help them with other coping skills below).
3. Count to 10
It's a very simple one, and it doesn't work in every situation. But it's one that can be used anywhere, and it's often enough for young children to derail their frustrated thoughts. This skill can easily be used alongside others (e.g., taking a chill out).
Moving around is a great way to boost mood, which is why there are variations of moving around in this list. Dancing is one that can be a lot of fun for some kids, and gives the opportunity for some silliness. Not every kid will be up for dancing, but it can make a big difference for kids who enjoy it!
5. Deep breath
One of the most common coping skills we teach. Deep breaths calm down our bodies (e.g., they slow down our heart rates). That makes them a great option at least when feeling scared and mad, but even sometimes sad. There's a lot of evidence behind deep breathing, and it can be done pretty much anywhere. Some kids assume they won't work, but are quickly surprised once they try them!
For some kids, drawing can be a nice distraction from difficult emotions. It can promote mindfulness (similar to adult coloring books). And some kids may enjoy using drawing as a way to show what they are feeling when they don't yet have the words to talk about it (e.g., gingerbread feelings). Parents can then use the drawings as a way to talk with kids about their feelings, helping to teach them the necessary vocabulary.
Similar to dance, exercise is a great mood booster. It can not only prevent some of the difficult emotions, but it can help battle them in the moment as well. It's not always an option depending on the situation, but it's a great option for teens. Using exercise can also promote other healthy habits (e.g., better sleep habits, better diet), which in turn will further improve mood.
8. Happy memory
It's a fairly simple one, but thinking of happy memories can be great for counteracting feeling sad. Some kids may even want to keep a happy memory journal, where they log the good things that happen each day. That can allow them to read back through it when they are feeling down. Kids battling with anxiety and depression can also benefit from trying to think of happy thoughts in order to help counteract some of their automatic negative thoughts.
9. Help a friend
Our emotions can get the best of us if we are "stuck in our own head." To help prevent that, it's great to help other people so the focus is on them instead. It can also lead to feelings of productivity, and it helps to strengthen social bonds. Plus, by helping others you increase the likelihood of them helping you, so it can help kids develop a supportive social network.
10. Listen to music
Music is a great way to evoke a certain mindset or mood. If you're feeling down and want to improve how you're feeling, try having a playlist of songs that tend to help you feel good. Music can also be a good way to take a chill out; just put on some headphones, and take a quick break from everything. Pair it with deep breathing, and it can be a powerful way to reduce the intensity of difficult emotions.
11. Play a game
Playing a game alone can bring about feelings of accomplishment, and can act as a nice distraction from everything. Playing with others can also strengthen social bonds. It's a good way of combining some of the other skills above, and it may be easier for some kids to socialize this way than in other ways.
Reading (especially fiction) can be a great way to get the mind off of difficult emotions. Books require you to become enveloped by the story, so it's like an extreme chill out. If kids like to read, this can be a great option (though they need to be careful not to read all the time and avoid everyone else).
13. Relax body
Similar to how deep breaths can calm the body down, body relaxation can do the same. It's often paired with deep breathing, and sometimes mindfulness/meditation. The idea of relaxing the body is to pay attention to our bodies and to notice where our muscles may be tense. By relaxing some of those muscles, it helps to calm down the rest of our body. And when our body is calm, it helps to reassure our brains that there isn't anything to worry about.
Similar to dance, this is a good distraction for kids who enjoy it. Singing isn't for every kid, but it can be a good way to improve the mood of a kid who really likes to sing, especially if it can be funny/silly.
15. Talk to a friend
And finally, talking to a friend can help. Friends aren't always around, but it's helpful to get an outside perspective sometimes. That can be family, but often friends are more easily able to relate to the specific challenges a child may be facing.
These are a lot of helpful coping skills for children/adolescents, though it's by no means a list of all possible coping skills. In fact, kids should be encouraged to think of their own! After looking at the descriptions of why each of the above skills can be helpful, you'll get a sense of what types of other behaviors might also help. So if your kid wants to try something else, encourage them to do so! They'll also find that different skills will likely work at different stages in their life, so they'll want to constantly update their coping skills to maintain a good set of options at all times.
Can you think of some coping skills I didn't include above? Are there certain coping skills you've found most helpful? Let us know in the comments!