Developing Coping Skills During Challenging Times: Tools for adults and kids

by Jenny DuClos, Director of Counseling & Social Emotional Learning

Spring 2020 was a formative chapter we’ll never forget. Looking back on life and learning during the lockdown, we recall a range of personal emotions and multiple ways of dealing with uncertainty. We all utilized coping tools in abundance during those early days to keep our families afloat, the toilet paper stocked, bills paid, and our children engaged and occupied in any way we could without leaving the house. 

What coping tools did you and your family implement in those utterly upside down times from March to August?

For me, daily walks to the beach were a family sanity saver. Keeping busy with household organization projects was very grounding. Who knew that painting a bathroom could be so Zen? Hours of rolling over the old with a fresh coat of newness provided such a sense of control and calm during a very unsettling time period. We planted a garden — another gratifying, meditative project for all of us — and adopted a pair of cats and four baby chicks. Tiny creatures, covered in fur and curled up in your lap, seem to bring the blood pressure way down. We delighted some days because there was little to do, and sometimes that was the very same reason we all cried. It was the COVID rollercoaster ride.

One of my sons coped by taking swims in the frigid ocean water, bike riding, cooking, dismantling all of the couch cushions to make forts, and devouring Nintendo. My other child yearned for art projects, imaginary play, science experiments, and anything outrageously silly I would allow him to soak up on YouTube. 

Coping Strategies: The five major categories

I recently learned about the theory that there are five major categories of coping strategies: relaxation, distraction, movement, sensory and processing. When you can uncover which of these categories work best for you, and for each of your children when they are experiencing big emotions and needing time to self-soothe, the result can be empowering and transformative for the whole household.

Caring for a pet can help relieve stress and anxiety.

We all have our own unique preferences for dealing with big emotions and self-soothing during difficult moments. I’d encourage you to explore what your own coping strategies are and help your children generate a list of theirs. I can tell you that “movement” tools like going on a five-mile run or jumping on a Peloton bike would not be on my list at all — but I know these are definitely on some of yours. I tend to gravitate to the “distraction” and “processing” categories: talk to a trusted someone, nap, write, craft, clean, read, cook, garden and play with pets. Knowing thyself, and tapping into what you need on the hard days, is a form of self-care and self-compassion. The importance of these two things cannot be overstated in times like these.

Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it.

Charles Swindoll

Coping Language: Finding the right words

If you are interested in helping your child or teen explore their preferred coping skills, this is a very helpful resource for getting the discussion started. Click here to download a guide to better understand the Coping Language of each member of your household (including you!).

I’ve had parents ask if using coping tools during a “big feelings moment,” rather than immediately talking about the root of the issue, is merely encouraging avoidant behavior. It’s a great question to consider. I believe that the use of a coping tool when one is stressed — perhaps far too stressed to access language or verbalize feelings — is anything but avoidant; it’s so very healthy. When one is able to self-soothe and clear the mind, a much more productive conversation can be possible. This allows time for the amygdala section of the brain to regain a sense of safety and for the child to regroup.

The value of a strong social-emotional curriculum

As part of our K-3 Social Emotional Curriculum, as well as in Life Skills classes for grades 4-8, we talk frequently with students about their thoughts, feelings and coping skills. We discuss their triggers, which Zones their brain and body are in at a given time, and tools for feeling better when tensions run high. We spend a lot of our instructional time absorbed in these valuable discussions, stressing our interconnectedness and the impact our behaviors have on each other. By working to build a strong social-emotional foundation and teaching coping skills year-round, we help students to have the tools to draw on when they need it most. 

When a student is aware of their feelings, we can work together to discuss coping strategies.

As educators, we know that social-emotional skills are vital to overall well-being and lifelong success. We do all that we can to destigmatize vulnerability and acknowledge that we all have areas of strength and weakness. In our environment, we value and even celebrate moments of stumble or struggle, and see these as evidence of trying. We know that our students are best able to learn when they feel a sense of connection with their teachers and peers, and feel emotionally safe to bring their whole selves here each day. This is some of our favorite daily work with your children.

Please reach out anytime if you’d ever like to talk about parenting, or would like to have a thought partner to walk through a challenging situation with you. I am here for our students, and also for their parents — please be in touch!

A Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Jenny DuClos has experience as both an art teacher and preschool teacher for special needs children. She received a master’s degree in counseling from California State University, Sonoma, and was awarded a Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurship at The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where she received a Master’s in Education in Cognitive Neuroscience and Education. Learn more about Jenny here.