Coping Skills for Children

What is coping?

Coping refers to what a person does to avoid, remove, lessen or "get through" a stressful situation. The coping process uses personal resources to manage routines, frustrations and challenges. This process helps the person maintain or enhance feelings of well-being.

The way a child copes in the hospital can be affected by:

  • age
  • past medical experiences
  • family support
  • understanding of diagnosis and hospitalization
  • developmental level
  • other stressors

Coping techniques and common reactions children use in difficult situations

  • Anger/aggression: frustration with an uncontrollable situation can often be misplaced and directed at people
  • Crying: a natural emotional release
  • Deep breathing or self-calming technique: a method that can help distract the child from stress
  • Denial: disbelief and shock that an event is happening. This can carry over to rejecting necessary medicine, procedures, etc.
  • Escape: focus on a specific activity (such as video games or play) to avoid a stressful situation or pretend it doesn’t exist
  • Information seeking: desire to know more about a situation in order to process it or further understand it. Some adults don’t want information-seeking children to have in-depth details, but access to those details can help the child cope.
  • Play: can be used as a release and distraction. Some children talk about feelings or reenact real-life situations through play.
  • Rebelliousness: reasserting independence in order to gain some control
  • Regression: returning to old routines or behaviors (such as being clingy). This may remind a child of a time when life seemed easier. New skills like potty training may seem less important while the child adjusts to the new routine.
  • Selective silence: choosing not to talk. Children have control over when and with whom they speak. This action helps the child reassert independence and a feeling of control.
  • Submission: becoming passive or withdrawn 
  • Use of fantasy: a technique that can be helpful. For example, a child may view himself or herself as a "super hero." This can motivate the child during procedures, etc. But caregivers should also be the child’s “bridge to reality” when a child demands that superheroes do not do chores, etc.

Child Life and coping

Coping skills exist within every child. Sometimes the stress of hospitalization affects these skills. Coping strategies are unique for each person.

Often parents see a reaction listed above from their child and say, "I just don't know why she is acting this way. This just isn't her."

While these behaviors may be out of character for your child or teen, they are normal. Many children use these behaviors to get through a challenging time.

It is important to understand where the behaviors come from. But it is also your right as a parent to set limits and to help your child find more positive or useful coping strategies. For example, you may say, "I know you are angry that you have to come to the hospital, but it is not OK to hit the nurse. You are only allowed to hit your 'angry pillow.'"

Child life specialists can help patients and siblings develop positive coping skills, plans and techniques for challenging events. Involve the child or teen in choosing the positive method that works best. That allows the child to regain a feeling of control. "Out of character" reactions are usually brief and will lessen once your child or teen starts to feel more comfortable and secure with new routines.