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  • Writer's pictureKelsey Barrett

Focus on…coping skills? (Parents of teens)

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

The number one counseling goal I hear from parents of teenagers is: coping skills. Like self-care, I think "coping skills" has become a catch-all umbrella term that has lost its meaning. The concept itself is extremely powerful, so let's break it down.

What are coping skills?

"The methods a person uses to deal with stressful situations."

Coping skills whether we are aware we are using them or not are simply how we deal with everyday life. We can do this in healthy or unhealthy ways. Maybe your teenager screams at you, slams doors, listens to music as loud as possible, or texts their friends. People drink or do drugs or zone out via video games, distract themselves with work, play guitar, run, and create pottery. All of those are coping skills, but some of them are healthy and some aren't. If you have heard the cringe-worthy term, "adulting" that is another way of describing learning to cope with life.

Teenage brains specifically are building up their frontal lobes which is where they would store their problem-solving and positive coping skills. Unluckily it won't be fully developed until they are 25 and brains grow inside out, so the reptile brain or amygdala where our flight, fight, and fawn centers are - is full size. Thanks, puberty. This means preteens and teens might be more reactive or make decisions that as an adult don't seem wise. Their risk assessment might be off and it might be hard to think creatively once they have already thought of one coping skill.

How can we help?

The frontal lobe will build connections through repetition, so attempting to allow teens to problem solve without shame and with patience can support that work. Let them make their own choices while offering logical limits to create stopping points for major life-altering mistakes. Think of yourself as a consultant, and allow them to choose the path they want. It will help them learn!

Remember teens haven’t tried out what works or not yet, so this is going to take trial and error. Like self-care coping skills that work are different for everyone.

Before we get into a list or a breakdown of types of coping skills, ask yourself:

"How do you cope with the stressors in your life?"

How do you handle overcommitting, feeling left out by your friends, disconnection from your friends or family, or a big fight that results in someone talking bad about you or your work? How do you fall asleep at night when you are feeling anxious? How do you manage days you just feel down? Teenage struggles aren't foreign to adults we just have more experience dealing with them.

The truth is a major part of what we deal with mentally is passed on via genetics, so if you are struggling or have struggled with something your kid may struggle too. Instead of reinventing the wheel do some self-exploration on what has and hasn't worked for you and your partner then share your mental work. Let your kids in on the secret of regulation.

For example, an easy coping skill often taught by school counselors is alligator breathing or box breathing. These are truly great grounding coping skills that can help slow down the moment, but personally, breath work doesn't do it for me except for in very specific circumstances.

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