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Helping Your Child (And Yourself) Choose Coping Behaviors That Work

Updated: May 8, 2023

Behaviors are the outward sign of how we feel inside. That means that others are likely to be able to detect how we are feeling based on what we do in response to our feelings.

Many times, we end up in trouble or in the counselor or principal’s office, because of the way we chose to handle a crummy feeling. For instance, we yelled when we felt frustrated, complained when we felt tired, shoved someone when we felt hurt, or goofed off when we felt bored. It is not the feelings that got us in trouble—it is the behaviors!

Coping is anything we humans try when we don’t like how we feel. Humans cope in lots of different ways—some of which are effective, healthy, and acceptable to others and some of which are ineffective, unhealthy, and harmful to others. When our fight, flight, and freeze responses are activated, it’s hard to think about making smart decisions. Our body is busy trying to keep us alive, it doesn’t have time to think about much else! Lots of times this is when we make an impulsive decision--such as yelling or punching someone or something--that is ultimately not a good one.

Therefore, we have to intervene with something else! When choosing which coping behavior to try, remember these 2 rules:

Rule #1: It must work for YOU

While some things you try might feel a tiny bit good in the moment, they might actually leave you feeling worse afterward because you feel guilty or got in trouble. The behavior you choose must actually work to cool you down. It must help you feel in control and prevent you from hurting yourself or others or from getting in trouble.

Rule #2: It must work for THOSE AROUND YOU

The behavior you choose must be okay with everyone around you. It must not hurt, disrespect, distract, or disobey other people around you. What you try has to be okay with your classmates, teacher, parents, and family members.

Make a list of things you know work for you when you don’t like how you feel. Coming up with some go-tos ahead of time can really help, as sometimes it is hard to think clearly when we are in the heat of the moment. For some ideas, click here.

For parents and teachers:

Help your child be the judge of whether or not what they try follows these 2 rules. When considering Rule #1, you can use language like, “Man, it really seems like you’re feeling upset right now. I wonder if what you’re trying is actually helping you to calm down. What else do you think you could try?” Work together to make a list of go-to things that work for your child or class as a whole. If your child is behaving in a way that is not following Rule #2, be very clear about it. Use language like, “I can see that you are feeling frustrated. The thing you are trying right now (yelling, arguing, complaining, throwing things, refusing to do something, etc.) is definitely not following Rule #2. See if you can choose something else to cope with that frustrated feeling.”

Be honest in sharing why it doesn’t follow Rule #2 because it doesn’t work for you. Say something like, “I see that you’re trying something to cope with a crummy feeling. But what you tried did not follow Rule #2 because it did not work for me. It made feel sad and upset that you slammed your door. And it damages our house, which certainly doesn’t work for all of us.” Give them one or two opportunities to change their coping behavior. If they aren’t able to find something that follows the rules, let them know that there will be a consequence. Say, “I know this feeling is a tough one to handle. But the things you’ve tried haven’t been working for me/us. I’m giving you one more opportunity to find a new coping behavior that follows both rules. I can help you think of a new one if you’d like. If you don’t change this behavior, there will be a consequence that helps you learn, as my job as a parent is to help you learn how to make decisions.”

Implement a consequence as necessary and follow up afterward after things have calmed down about other things they could have tried. 

Working with a therapist can be a great way to learn what works and what doesn’t, as they can help you and/or your child look at things in new ways. Since therapists take a neutral, nonjudgmental role, they can help you assess if what you are trying is really working or not. Being honest with yourself and others is the first step toward finding something that actually helps.


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