Why Your Child Can’t Access Coping Skills When They Need Them Most

Coping skills, Tantrum,

Many parents try to empower their children by teaching them techniques to calm themselves when they’re upset: breathing slowing, doing calming yoga poses, thinking positive thoughts. Recently, I did an informal survey, asking parents whether their kids ever have trouble using these kinds of coping skills.

The overwhelming response: yes! Not only do children fail to reliably use skills when they need them most, but my informal survey revealed that a reminder from a parent often upsets the child even more.

If your kids encounter this problem, you’re not doing anything wrong. There are good reasons that children (adults, too!) have trouble calming themselves down with learned strategies in the heat of the moment. To discover why, we need to look below the surface of behaviors.

Our internal/external sensory experiences, which impact the state of our nervous system, influence how we solve problems that we encounter from one moment to the next. If we feel thirsty, we get a drink of water. If a child falls down or feels scared, she might suddenly scream. We have a built-in system, neuroception, that constantly surveys the environment, telling us what we need to do to stay safe and in balance. When something triggers a child’s nervous system into high gear, their body is poised to move – to yell, hit, push, or demand something, all in an instinctual attempt to feel better. When a child is in this “gear,” their body isn’t positioned to pull down the menu of options that you have so carefully taught them. Many adults also have difficulty doing that, and children have a tougher timey because they can’t yet self-regulate.

In fact, humans come into the world with very few abilities to regulate our own bodies and basic feelings. We need our parents to do that for us: feeding us when we’re hungry, soothing our distress, and meeting our safety needs, moment by moment, day by day, through relationships that help us feel calm in our bodies. This is called co-regulation. We often assume that children who can walk, talk, and understand our words automatically have the ability to calm themselves by thinking. But development isn’t that simple. (I’ve written about this expectation gap—the difference between what we assume a child should be able to do and their actual developmental ability.)

If your child routinely fails to use the wonderful self-help skills that you have taught them, have hope. One day your child will be able to access them when needed, that is, before they lose control of their behaviors. But in the meantime, if your child isn’t able to connect to their memorized coping skills, it’s a  signal that they need more co-regulation. That is, they aren’t yet able to self-regulate on a consistent basis.

The best way to help a child is through nurturing their body’s sense of calm and connection. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to do this. In short, we help a child to cue into their body’s signals and to determine when their “battery” needs a recharge. Over time, this helps the child learn to pay attention and honor what their body is telling them. Developing an awareness of one’s body signals takes time, and many adults are still learning how to do this! But over time, we can help children develop awareness and become empowered to ask for a hug, take a deep breath, or have a snack. Following their body’s valuable signals: that’s the best kind of coping skill of all.

The nuts and bolts of how to do this are found in an understanding of your child’s nervous system, which I share more about in my latest book, Brain-Body Parenting, and in a coping skills workshop and in Beyond Behaviors.

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