Coping Skills

Everyone knows that people are born with their individual packages of abilities. Some people are excellent at doing mathematical calculations, adding multiple digits in their head before they enter kindergarten. Some people have musical talents that seem incredible. Recently I saw a piece on television about a young man whose first drawings were of staves of music and who was writing symphonies when his age was still in the single digits. Similarly, there are people whose bodies are so flexible that at young ages they already are doing amazing gymnastic feats. Indeed, we are not all created equal.

Of course environment is an important intervening factor. A home environment that allows a person to grow and develop in his or her field is very important, and indeed, most of the geniuses we hear about might never have achieved such stature without the support they got from their parents.

There are other talents that are less visible and less recognized. One of them is resilience. Some children seem to be born emotionally stronger than others. They seem to land on their feet no matter how much they are buffeted. These children possess a strength that most people don’t recognize: coping skills.

Coping skills are what allow a person to act in their own best interest in the worst of circumstances. They are what enable people to endure difficult situations without screaming or panicking. They provide for people a mechanism for dealing with difficult situations. Instead of taking the advice, “When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout” (The Notebooks of Lazarus Long by Robert A. Heinlein) these people find a constructive response.

Once I had a young girl as a client. Her parents were going through a long and acrimonious divorce. It included public scenes, accusations, threats, and a lot of yelling. She was brought to me so that I could provide support. During the first session I asked her what she did when her parents were having a fight. She said that most of the time she would go to her room, close the door, and listen to music or call a friend. Sometimes she would take a shower. Sometimes she would go out and take a walk.. She proceeded to give me about ten more ways that she coped with her parents’ fighting. I was astounded. Here was a young girl who had the ability to make the world safe for herself by finding something to do to distract herself from the helpless and sad feelings that she could have been experiencing.

It was knowing her that helped me to understand that coping was indeed a skill that some people naturally possessed and others did not.

Some people, in stressful situations try to go head to head with the person or people who are causing them trouble. Often, that is counterproductive. When others are acting irrationally, then the best response is to stay rational. Often I tell my clients that in a stressful situation, “somebody has to be the grown-up.” Someone needs to keep thinking creatively and decide what the best course of action is. Sometimes it is to walk away. Sometimes it is to remain unruffled. Sometimes it is to comfort the person who is being unpleasant. Sometimes there is nothing to remedy the situation, but the person who copes with it effectively knows that at least he or she remained rational.

Parents can help their children by beginning to teach them coping skills early in life. Explaining to a hysterical three year old, “You don’t have to cry; you can tell me with words,” is the beginning of helping a child to understand that he or she doesn’t have to fall apart when things are not optimal. “Think of how handsome you will look when the barber is finished cutting your hair,” is a way of saying that one can cope with a process for the sake of the result. This will come in handy someday when the child will have tasks that do not give immediate rewards. “You are looking tense; why don’t you go outside and get some exercise” teaches the child that sometimes exercise can relieve stress. Parents should make note of how they themselves cope and teach those tricks to their children.

We are not all born as well equipped as my little client, but coping skills can be taught and practiced. The more techniques we learn, the better we are able to deal with our day to day lives.

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  1. Rona, I always get something from your stories. Thanks for this wonderful site and the wisdom you are passing on. Love, Edie