Coping Skills on the Teen Journey
“I am not what happened to me. I am who I choose to become.”
You are on a 10-year journey from childhood to young adulthood and that journey is a rollercoaster – full of ups and downs. The ability to deal with the unavoidable stresses is key to success on the journey. It’s also a key skill throughout adulthood, so it’s wise to learn how to cope with the stresses as a teenager.
Coping and Thriving
Coping skills are important, but the object in life is not to cope, but to thrive as much as possible. However, sometimes we have to just cope and survive. It’s critical to develop the ability to cope and have a range of activities to make that possible. However, it’s deceptively easy to get stuck in coping and forget that we really want to get to thriving.
Coping is designed to get us in a position where we can focus on thriving. Sometimes coping can dominate and sometimes it can dominate for a long time. But coping needs to be in service of thriving – not an end in itself.
It’s Normal and Natural
Having to cope is normal and natural. We all are faced with situations in which we need to cope. It’s not a sign of failure or weakness. It’s just something we sometimes need to do in the course of our lives.
Managing the Situation and/or Our Response to It
Coping can help to manage the stressful situation as well as decrease the intensity of feelings and thoughts. “Coping” commonly refers to an individual’s effort to (a) manage highly stressful situations; and/or (b) manage emotions, thinking, physical status, and behavior. In other words, coping is anything that one does in an attempt to manage stress.
Sometimes we have a lot of influence in managing the situation – like avoiding it, leaving it, or changing it. But, many times we don’t have much influence and then our focus needs to be on how we are responding to the situation – managing our feelings and actions.
“When something bad happens, you have three choices:
You can let it define you
You can let it destroy you
You can let it strengthen you”
Your Coping Skill
Your coping skill has three parts. It is the combination of your ability to (a) identify the actions that you might take to manage yourself and the situation; (b) choose the ones that fit the situation the best; and then (c) act on them – with as much support as possible.
Warning. Most of the resources on the internet have lists of what they call “coping skills”, but they are really “coping actions.” The skill is in choosing the best actions and then putting them in play. The internet sources are valuable, but the terminology is a bit misleading.
“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in
which we really stop to look fear in the face … we must do that
which we think we cannot.”
Categories of Coping Actions
There are lots of actions noted below and there are even more on the internet, so here are a few notes on how to approach these actions.
- The actions are in categories because there are so many and it’s helpful to categorize them. Do not, however, get caught in worrying about what category an action is in.
- You can create your own categories if you like (you may have a lot of overlap). There are lots of simple examples, for instance:
- Activities I can do at home, at school, other places.
- Activities I can do on my own and activities I do with others
- Activities that I can do in a particularly stressful situation and activities I want to do on a regular basis just to be healthy (preventing the stress and building strength)
- It’s not a matter of doing as many activities as you can. It’s a matter of choosing the activities that you think will help in a particular situation.
- You will probably find that you have some common activities – those that you do in most stressful situations – and you will some activities that you choose for specific situations.
- You will have some activities that you use to manage your emotional and intellectual responses to a stressful situation and some activities that you use primarily to manage the situation itself.
- Talk with people. Once you have your list of coping skills you will have a lot to talk about with others – and it won’t just be about how bad the situation is (which is OK to talk about), but it will also be about what you can potentially do to cope with it. You can get more ideas, you can get support, you can deepen your commitment to action, and you can probably help others with your example.
“Expect trouble as an inevitable part of life, and when it comes, hold
your head high, look it squarely in the eye and say, ‘I will be bigger
than you. You cannot defeat me.’”
#1 Emotional Coping Actions
These are activities to help you manage your emotional reactions to the stressful situation. It’s not good to ignore your emotions or pretend they don’t exist, but it is good to be aware of them and moderate them so that they don’t run away with you or dominate your experience.
- Make a list of feelings
- Write down positive affirmations
- Write down what you are grateful for
- Journal about what is difficult, what it feels like and how you want to change it
- Pay attention to your inner voice – what you are saying to yourself – and focus on what you might do (imagine it)
- Note what you have accomplished during the day (particularly little things) – not what you have failed to do
- Note the characteristics and qualities you have developed
“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”
#2 Social/Interpersonal Coping Actions
Because these are interpersonal activities, they will rely to some degree on others, but you will have a surprising amount of influence with most of them.
- Set boundaries where necessary and avoid or minimize contact with others who are not good for you
- Help someone else
- Send a thoughtful note to someone
- Play with or take care of a pet
- Spend time with family, trusted adults and/or peers
- Focus on building a relationship skill
- Problem-solve with someone
- Use your humor
- Be assertive
“You’re only human. You don’t have to have it together
every minute of every day.”
#3 Thinking Coping Actions
When you engage in positive thinking actions you benefit not only from the outcomes of those actions, but you also limit the room that exists for negative thinking. Plus, your thinking affects your emotions.
- Brainstorm solutions (with others if possible)
- Keep an inspirational note with you
- Make a list of what you are grateful for
- Make a list of your qualities and capabilities
- Identify the capabilities you might build through dealing with the situation (we grow through being tested)
- Check your inner voice – minimize the negative messages and use it for encouragement – for example, “This situation is tough and painful, but I can deal with it and come out stronger.”
- Act opposite to negative emotions, for example engage with others or activities when feeling like retreating or just pulling in
- Read something that is enjoyable and/or that will help you feel like you have learned something
“We first make our habits – and then our habits make us.”
#4 Physical Coping Actions
There are a lot of actions here and most of these don’t depend on others. They will also affect your ability to think and to manage your emotions.
- Practice deep slow breathing
- Get some exercise
- Practice a sport
- Focus on a hobby
- Go for a walk or hike
- Ride a bike or skateboard
- Take a hot bath or shower
- Rearrange your room or backpack
- Write in a journal
- Relax in a comfortable safe place
- Yell, punch a punching bag or pillow
- Have a cup of tea or hot chocolate
- Tense and relax your major muscle groups
- Bake or cook
- Listen to music
- Go outside and listen to nature
- Do yoga and/or meditation
- Watch a funny or inspirational movie/show
- Write a poem
- Write, draw, paint, sculpt
“You’re not going to master the rest of your life in one day. Just relax.
Master the day. Then just keep doing that every day.”
#5 Spiritual Coping Actions
There are not as many activities here, but they can be profoundly important.
- Pray or meditate
- Get outside and enjoy nature
- Get involved in a worthy cause
- Read or watch videos that provide spiritual or life guidance
- Talk with those in a spiritual community
- Remember that you are part of something larger
“Throw me to the wolves and I will come back leading the pack.”
Unhealthy Coping Skills
Just because a strategy helps you endure emotional pain, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Some coping skills could create bigger problems in your life. Here are some examples of unhealthy coping skills:
- Drinking alcohol or using drugs: Substances may temporarily numb your pain, but they won’t resolve your issues. Substances are likely to introduce new problems into your life.
- Unhealthy eating: Food is a common coping strategy, but can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.
- Ignoring or bottling up feelings. This one is pretty fundamental.
- Self-harm behavior. This can mask pain or provide a sense of control, but it avoids the problem.
- Social withdrawal. Withdrawing from a painful social setting can be an effective way to cope with that situation, particularly initially, but getting too disconnected (and not making new connections) is not healthy.
- Sleeping too much: Whether you take a nap when you’re stressed out or you sleep late to avoid facing the day, sleeping offers a temporary escape from your problems. However, when you wake up, the problem will still be there.
- Venting to others: Studies show that repeatedly venting to people about how bad your situation is or how terrible you feel is more likely to keep you stuck in a place of pain – and it can cause them to pull back from you.
- Avoiding: Trying to pretend that the stressful situation exists doesn’t work because it does exist. Pretending it doesn’t simply takes you out of the game.
- Aggression. Aggression is one way to work out frustration, pain or anger, but it usually creates negative side-effects that outweigh the benefits.
While these coping mechanisms may provide momentary relief, they do not solve the problems causing the stress nor do they promote long-term health. They rob you of the chance to grow by dealing with the stressful situation.
“The struggle you’re in today is developing the strength you need for tomorrow.”
Remember. Your “coping skill” has three parts. It is your ability to be aware of a bunch of possible actions that you can take under stress; your commitment to acting on a number of those activities; and your ability to follow up on your choices and act.
Also Remember. The need to cope is normal and natural in life and the skill you develop as a teenager will serve you well as an adult.
“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times
I fell down and got back up again.”