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Trying to cope but repeating old patterns?

Posted on: October 15th, 2019

I know of a child who regularly has meltdowns when asked to do something he or she does not want to do.  Instead of using words, the child escalates to the point of disrupting property, slams doors, yells, and makes poor statements about his or herself.  The child’s coping skill….going to sleep.  Is it effective?  Maybe.  Can it be generalized to other settings?  Unlikely.  You can’t go to sleep at school if things aren’t going your way or when a teacher asks you to follow directions. “Use your coping skills,” I hear from others, time and time again.  Not only have I said these very words to my own kids, but to clients, too.

What are coping skills anyway?  According to UCLA, coping skills/strategies are “the behaviors, thoughts, and emotions that one uses to adjust to the changes that occur in life.  Some are more effective than others depending on the stressful situation and the person employing them.”  How one copes can be good for you or not so good for you.  

For example, if you think to yourself, “I’ve got to take a break before I lose it” then go for a run, this can be good for you.  Running releases endorphins drives out stored up muscle tension, and can benefit your body physically and mentally.   The pros are that you are coping in a healthy way and are not giving into the distress you feel.  On the other hand, if a person thinks that nothing will ever get better and he or she needs to release the pain, self-harming behavior, such as cutting, may occur.  This, too, can also release endorphins, yet can leave permanent scarring, resulting in hospitalization, or even death.   Both sets of coping skills can become habits.

What I do know is that coping strategies require practice to become a habit.  Timing is important too.  Being aware of what causes stress, anxiety or frustration is also important.  We call these triggers, the things that “set us off.”  Ignoring the signs and waiting too long before using a coping strategy can worsen the experience.

When the intensity of one’s thoughts and emotions become too big, tantrums happen, or the individual may give into distress by self-harming.  Sometimes the escalation is so quick that there isn’t time to intervene, such as in ADHD or autism, where thoughts become stuck or inflexible, quickly leading to the behavior.  (It’s also important to note that in children with these conditions, the frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for self-regulation and executive functioning, is still immature, making it harder to access coping skills.)

Healthy coping skills can include:

  • exercise, 
  • writing in a journal
  • drawing/coloring
  • listening to music
  • playing an instrument
  • taking a shower/bath
  • playing with a pet
  • spending time outdoors in nature
  • organizing or cleaning activities

In regards to DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), coping skills can include mindful distractions and ways to soothe yourself.  They can improve the moment when you can’t make things better right away.  They can help you make more informed decisions so that you are not giving into distress.  For kids, parents/teacher/counselors can model and teach expected responses and practice calming skills with kids to assist them in the learning of new habits and behaviors.  

Being a musician, music is meaningful to me.  I sing, strum guitar, and play the piano for self-expression and to self-soothe.  If I don’t do it, I miss it.  It’s a release that I’ve come to require in my life for my own self-care.  In addition, I walk my dog daily.  It’s a time to think quietly and focus on my steps, a mindful moment.  These have become habits and routines that have made my life more balanced.  

If you are having trouble learning coping skills or would like to improve on the ones you have, contact me at SHCS!