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What are coping skills?

Coping skills are the strategies you use to tolerate, minimize, and deal with stressful situations in life. There are two different types of coping strategies
based on their area of focus: Carroll L. (2013) Problem-Focused Coping. In: Gellman M.D., Turner J.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine. Springer, New York, NY
  1. Problem-focused coping – aimed at resolving the stressful situation or event or altering the source of stress (ex. establishing boundaries, asking for support, creating a to-do list, time management).
  2. Emotion-focused coping – aimed at managing emotions associated with the situation, rather than changing the situation itself (ex. exercise, meditation, taking a bath, changing self-talk).

When it is not possible to change a situation, or when circumstances are out of your control, it’s necessary to use emotion-focused coping. However, in many cases, it is possible to use either problem- or emotion-focused coping. Given your particular circumstance, you can decide which coping style is likely to work best. For example, consider a day where your class is being extremely rowdy. In particular, two students are being very disrespectful by talking, interrupting you, and distracting their peers. You are extremely frustrated and can feel your patience starting to dwindle. A problem-focused approach to coping with this situation may include separating the students, asking the students to step out of the classroom, or letting students know that they will lose a privilege if their behaviour continues. All of these options attempt to remove the problem. Alternatively, emotion-focused coping strategies may include deep breathing or positive self-affirmations. In this example, it might even be best to employ a combination of problem- and emotion-focused coping skills.

Coping styles can also be grouped into two different categories
based on their approach Ackerman, C. (2020). Coping: Dealing with Life’s Inevitable Disappointments in a Healthy Way. PositivePsychology.com.
to a situation:
  1. Active Coping – designed to change the nature of the stressor itself, or the way you think about the stressor (i.e. approach-oriented).
  2. Avoidant coping – activities or mental states that keep you from directly addressing stressful events. People may be aware of the problem and actively choose to ignore or avoid it, or they may be in denial about the problem.

In general, active coping skills are considered more efficacious. However, avoidant coping skills certainly feel more effective in the short term and may be a good choice to help you reset and refocus when you’re feeling too overwhelmed or exhausted.

Regardless of whether the coping strategy is problem- or emotion-focused, active or avoidant, coping skills can be healthy or unhealthy (positive or negative) based on how they affect your psychological and/or physical health:

  1. Healthy/Positive coping skills – these strategies may not provide instant gratification, but they tend to have long-lasting positive outcomes.  
    Ex. Exercise, seeking professional support, using social support, journaling, relaxation techniques, self-affirmations, self-care, reading, visualization strategies, gratitude practices, etc.
  2. Unhealthy/Negative coping skills – these strategies tend to feel good in the moment but have long-term negative consequences.  
    Ex. Over- and undereating, sleeping too much or too little, drug or alcohol misuse, avoidance, social withdrawal, self-harm, procrastination, aggression, etc.
Unhealthy, or negative coping skills quickly become habitual and, if they are not addressed early, then negative coping strategies may lead to the onset of more serious mental illnesses such as eating disorders, substance use disorders, or social anxiety. Healthy, or positive coping skills tend to require more conscious effort and energy to engage in but employing positive coping strategies
results in Frydenberg, E., Care, E., Chan, E., & Freeman, E. (2009). Interrelationships between Coping, School Connectedness and Wellbeing Erica Frydenberg. Australian Journal of Education, 53(3), 261–276.
higher levels of long-term wellbeing and increased social connectedness.

What is a coping toolbox?

A coping toolbox is an actual physical container, which contains items that you can use to help you calm down and manage stressful or challenging situations in a healthier manner. This toolbox may include items such as fidget toys or a stress ball, your favourite book, pictures of happy moments in your life, a colouring book with pencil crayons, a journal and writing supplies, or inspirational quotes. For coping strategies that are not associated with a physical object, like breathing exercises or visualizations, you can create index cards that provide a visual cue or instructions for the strategy. Creating a coping toolbox ensures that healthy coping strategies are readily available and accessible, thereby also reducing the amount of effort or energy needed to positively cope with stress. A coping toolbox should have at least three different tools that apply to a variety of different situations. The toolbox becomes more effective as the resources become increasingly diverse, and relevant. However, too many resources can also be overwhelming and increase anxiety related to decision making. Ideally, try including between five to eight meaningful items.

What are the benefits of building a coping toolbox?

For children and adolescents, an
inadequate ability to cope with stress Kovacs, M. (1997). The Emmanuel Miller Memorial Lecture 1994: depressive disorders in childhood: an impressionistic landscape. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 38(3).

Matheny, K., Aycock, D., & McCarthy, C. (1993). Stress in school-aged children and youth. Educational Psychology Review, 5(2), 109–134.
is related to a range of psychological problems, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, suicide, and violence.
Research Lewis, R., & Frydenberg, E. (2002). Concomitants of failure to cope: What we should teach adolescents about coping. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 72(3), 419–431.
has also shown that overuse of unproductive coping strategies hinders a student's capacity to engage in productive coping strategies. A
research study Bugalski, K., & Frydenberg, E. (2000). Promoting effective coping in adolescents ‘at-risk’for depression. Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools, 10(1), 111-132.
evaluating the school-based coping skills program, “The Best of Coping: Bright Lives”, found that coping programs yield the highest benefits for youth who are at risk for depression and psychological distress, as well as those who are currently using the most unproductive coping strategies. Overall,
developing healthy coping skills Frydenberg, E., Lewis, R., Bugalski, K., Cotta, A., Mccarthy, C., Luscombe-Smith, N., & Poole, C. (2004). Prevention is better than cure: coping skills training for adolescents at school. Educational Psychology in Practice, 20(2), 117–134.
builds resilience and lessens the risk of future psychological problems.

Where can I learn more?

Verywell Family – 15 Coping Strategies for Kids  

Coping Skills for Kids – Resources to Teach Kids Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress, Anxiety and Anger

PBIS World – Teach Coping Skills

Positive Psychology – Coping: Dealing with Life’s Inevitable Disappointments in a Healthy Way

What will students learn?

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…

  • Identify and give examples of positive and negative coping skills
  • Access a personalized and effective toolbox for positive coping
References
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Ackerman, C. (2020). Coping: Dealing with Life’s Inevitable Disappointments in a Healthy Way. PositivePsychology.com.

Bugalski, K., & Frydenberg, E. (2000). Promoting effective coping in adolescents ‘at-risk’for depression. Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools, 10(1), 111-132.

Carroll L. (2013) Problem-Focused Coping. In: Gellman M.D., Turner J.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine. Springer, New York, NY

Frydenberg, E., Care, E., Chan, E., & Freeman, E. (2009). Interrelationships between Coping, School Connectedness and Wellbeing. Erica Frydenberg. Australian Journal of Education, 53(3), 261–276.

Frydenberg, E., Lewis, R., Bugalski, K., Cotta, A., Mccarthy, C., Luscombe-Smith, N., & Poole, C. (2004). Prevention is better than cure: coping skills training for adolescents at school. Educational Psychology in Practice, 20(2), 117–134.

Kovacs, M. (1997). The Emmanuel Miller Memorial Lecture 1994: depressive disorders in childhood: an impressionistic landscape. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 38(3).

Lewis, R., & Frydenberg, E. (2002). Concomitants of failure to cope: What we should teach adolescents about coping. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 72(3), 419–431.

Matheny, K., Aycock, D., & McCarthy, C. (1993). Stress in school-aged children and youth. Educational Psychology Review, 5(2), 109–134.

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