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Helping Children Cope with Life’s Challenges

It is essential that children learn how to navigate life’s challenges and to cope with adversity in order to become healthy and functional adults. Sheltering children will only set the child up for failure, so it is important to know what is appropriate for children of different developmental stages to learn. Learning how to understand, express, and handle negative emotions is one very important coping strategy that caregivers can teach children. Here are some strategies that are effective based on the age of the child.

  • Give feelings names. When a child is throwing a tantrum because they are not able to express what they want, say “you are frustrated because I don’t understand you. How about you show me?” A vocabulary for emotions is essential for communication.

  • Label feelings in many every day experiences. If the child is smiling while they are riding their tricycle, ask them if they are happy because you see them smiling. If you see a cartoon character crying, ask the child what emotion the character is feeling. This practice will help them identify feelings in themselves and others.

  • Talk about your own feelings, what they look like, what triggers them, and how you handle them in acceptable ways. For example, if you were mad about something earlier in the day, ask the child whether they remember the event that made you mad and what you looked like. Label the anger, and then share how you handled it (e.g., took some deep breaths, counted to three, and then thought of new ways to fix the problem).

  • Use pictures books, drawings, or videos to teach about emotion. Ask your child to draw what is feels like when they are sad. Discuss how TV characters could express their feelings better.

  • Praise children when they talk about their feelings rather than just acting them out. This is a very important emotional development and you want it to continue.

  • For older children, remind them to engage in perspective taking, particularly during times when they are experiencing negative emotions. This ability promotes empathy. Anger and fear are very self-absorbing emotions, and can make understanding the target of their feelings difficult. Ask teenagers how they think others are feeling and why. You want to discourage black-and white, all-or-nothing thinking. Get the child to understand there is always more than one side to a story, and that no one is perfect.

When children need comforting during times of stress, it is important to provide the right type of comforting based on their age. For children younger than the age of two, physical contact such as hugging and cuddling and provide a feeling of safety and security, are important as they don’t have the words yet to understand what is happening. For preschool aged children, they need to also feel safe and secure, but you should not redirect their attention away from the problem. They need reassurances that their reaction is normal, and then learn how to handle it. You should acknowledge their feelings (“I know you are feeling scared”) and then reassure the child that you love them and that you and others are not going away. Playing is how many children express themselves, so maybe get some puppets or role-play a situation that they are trying to understand.

Elementary aged children have more contact with their peers and community, and are observing how others handle problems. These observations spark your child’s imagination for finding ways to cope with problems. For example, if your child tells you someone is being bullied at school, get details. Ask how they children and other adults are dealing with it. Ask what they have done and what they can do differently. These cognitive exercises help the child feel prepared and secure in handling unknown situations, and also helps them identify healthy strategies for coping. Having children write stories also helps them express their feelings in concrete and tangible ways.

Teenage children may not want to talk about their feelings with anyone but their friends, and may seem irritable, clingy, and forgetful when stressed. You want to keep the lines of communication open without forcing them to talk. Casually bringing up problems, like “I have been thinking about your brother all day, do you ever think about him?” can help do this, and if they still refuse to talk, try to encourage them to talk to another trusted adult. When they see friends having problems, they may express a lot of concern for them. However, underneath they may also have a real fear that their friend’s problem could happen to them. Talk about their friends—discuss how your child is strong and resilient. Find ways for the teenager to be more responsible, such as volunteering or working, as this will give them a better sense of control.

What do you think? Post your thoughts in the comments and take a moment to see what other learners are saying and respond to any other comments that resonate with you.

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Positive Parenting After Separation

Colorado State University

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