Distraction is Not Enough.... diversifying your child's coping skills

In my work with clients, I always talk about coping skills. Coping skills are ways we tolerate distressing situations. They are things we can do to help ourselves feel better. Most people already have some coping skills, healthy or unhealthy. Most coping skills people develop on their own are distraction-based. And, if I am being honest, most therapists talk to clients first about distraction-based skills. “Go read a book,” “Watch a movie” “Listen to music” are top coping skills suggested by therapists. But these skills are more difficult to use at certain times because they tend to require something to use them, like a book, a TV, a tablet or a phone. In addition, distraction is a form of running from a problem- fine in small doses, but unhealthy as the only choice.


I believe therapists need to help kids diversify their coping skills. Specifically, I want kids to have a coping skills or two from each of the following categories: distraction, sensory, expressive, social, cognitive, mindfulness. Some skills hover between categories or are in different categories to different people. Let's go over each, with some examples.


Distraction: As discussed above, distraction helps you NOT think about the distressing situation. Distraction can be electronic or analog, but if it takes you away from the world in which your problem exists, it is a distraction skill. Distraction skills are great for bringing very high distress down. But distraction isn't always an option- and if overused, distraction is avoidance.


Sensory: Everyone has sensory needs. Everyone is distressed by some form of sensory feedback and relaxed by another. I've worked with kids who hated being out in the sun; other clients think sunlight is very relaxing and soothing. Sensory feedback can involve using all five sense or it can focus on just one. Taking a shower, burning a scented candle and getting a hug from mom or dad are all forms of sensory coping. They don't distract the brain with new idea, they replace what is likely a distressing experience for your body with things designed to soothe you. Weighted blankets and brushing are common sensory interventions for people on the autism spectrum.


Expressive: When we are distressed and we distract, we are running away from thinking about our situation. When we are choosing to be expressive with our skills, we take a step back from our distress and think about how we want to share information about our distress with others. As an art therapist, I love expressive coping skills, but you do not have to be an artist to use expressive coping skills. You can write about your distress, you can paint or draw about it. You can build a lego sculpture about it or a MineCraft world about it- if if you are creating something new to tell others what is going on with you, you are using an expressive coping skill. Expressive coping skills may distract from the distress, but they don't distract from the original problem.


Social: A social coping skills is when you reach out for support. I consider reaching out electronically acceptable- many kids have more friends online than they do in person. Whatever a parent thinks about that, it is real and social supports through the power of the web are useful and wonderful, provided parents have taken steps to ensure basic internet safety (you have, right?) Reaching out to a friend to talk or text about distress is a wonderful choice. Everyone should have a friend or family member they can reach out to about their distress.


Cognitive- Cognitive coping is very tied to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, an evidenced-based therapy for kids (and adults) that is usually effective. For the purposes of this article, I'm going to say that any skill in which a kid modifies their thoughts about a problem is a form of cognitive coping. Kids might choose to classify something that is distressing as “not that big of a problem” and remind themselves of this. Usually cognitive coping needs some work up front to be effective and they may only be useable after another coping skill brings the distress down to a manageable level. But if distress is caught early or if acute distress has been soothed, cognitive coping can be highly effective in helping a kid deal with a problem.


Mindfulness- Like cognitive coping, mindfulness likely needs some work up front to make it useful in moments of distress. Meditation, yoga and other interventions that bring a person into the moment are useful; however, they require practice to do well. I will introduce the idea of mindfulness with book for younger kids, but for teens, I often outsource mindfulness instruction to apps. There are a million mindfulness apps, with different types of mindfulness activities. Most people will find one that works for them.


So, there you have it. Many types of coping skills, each type useful in its own way. But everyone should be able to use many different kinds of coping skills, not just one type. How can you diversify your child's (or your) coping skills? What categories are most useful to your child (or you)?