Adults face a variety of common issues and problems in their lives that cause distress. Many are the result of an inability to manage difficult emotions and feelings. Although these are complex and can have both a genetic and an environmental component, parents can follow a number of steps to help children learn skills to cope with, or perhaps even avoid, some of these later developing issues in adulthood. The brain takes years to fully mature; in fact, this does not happen until the mid-20s. As a parent, you can plant the seeds of appropriate and healthy coping strategies when your children are young, allowing them to grow and develop into adulthood.
Recognize the influence that you can have on your children. Although you may tell your child, “Do as I say, not as I do,” the truth is that children are always noticing what their parents are saying and doing, even if it often feels like they are not paying attention! Consider ways that you can work on issues where you struggle. This means modeling respect for yourself and for others. Use well-grounded, mature behaviors, and demonstrate empathy by showing an appreciation for and acceptance of the needs of others in the community.
The job of parenting is to protect and nurture the child; however, it is not to shield young children and teenagers from every challenge that might arise. Many problems can be a “teaching moment” in which children and teenagers learn to make decisions, to manage the consequences of their actions, to gain self-confidence, and to develop resiliency. Being too involved in whether your child’s sports team is a winner or a loser, getting in the middle of friendship drama and arguments, or putting pressure on your child’s teacher to give a better grade does not allow children and teens to develop problem-solving skills. Strive to concentrate on teaching your child to take a step back and look at the whole picture and then plan how to respond.
According the psychologist Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, distress tolerance and emotional regulation are important skills for adults to have for optimal functioning in life. Learning these skills while in childhood and the teenage years will greatly increase an adult’s optimal emotional health and ability to cope.
You can play a big role in helping your child to develop distress tolerance and emotional regulation skills. According to Dr. Linehan, these skills focus on understanding and coping with emotions. By adulthood, hopefully your children will be able to identify their own emotions as well as those of others, to pursue goals even in the face of anxiety, to have the capacity for developing and sustaining meaningful relationships, to self soothe in healthy ways, and to delay gratification.
You can help your children and teens to learn these skills by allowing open but respectful communication. Letting your child express feelings in a safe manner while being heard without shame or dismissal is the goal. Help your children recognize and label their emotions and give suggestions for strategies for regulation. Your acceptance of these emotions is very important. For example, identifying your child’s emotion as anger or frustration is the first step. Helping your child or teen to express it with words and to find healthy coping strategies are the next steps.
Be wary of stereotyping by gender, such as giving the message to boys that they should not express their feelings or to girls that their emotional expression is too melodramatic. Similarly, refrain from shooting down emotional expression by invalidating emotions or telling your kids to “toughen up” or to “just get over it.” Rather help your children learn to manage the emotion in a grounded and measured way. You might say, “This feeling is anger, and it is okay to be angry. Let’s discuss what you can do to help feel better and to cope.”
When an event happens that cannot be changed, radical acceptance may be the best response, while learning to tolerate difficult or uncomfortable situations. When a bad situation or emotion cannot be changed, the best thing to do might just be to keep moving forward without making matters worse. Examples of this might be dealing with a death or illness of a pet or of a family member, a divorce, or a family relocation to another city or state. The older the child is, the more he or she can learn to accept that it happened and that changing or undoing it might not be possible. The way to move forward often is to accept that it happened, even if your child is not happy about it, find a way to cope, and problem solve about the next steps to take.
Mindfulness skills can help your children and teens to manage difficult thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Children and teens can learn these skills, and they can be lifelong assets for their mental health. A variety of books, podcasts, and videos are available for parents and their children to use together.
The main tenets of mindfulness involve observing thoughts, feelings, and body sensations; thus teach your children the benefits of doing one task at a time rather than multitasking; being patient; recognizing negative judgments that hold them back; and trusting themselves to move forward with an open mind according to their goals. Often using breathing techniques, noticing body sensations, and practicing visualization are a part of this process.
Regular practice of these skills can help adults and children to increase their ability to control worry, fear, and unwanted behaviors. Don’t underestimate the negative influence that scrolling on a cell phone, texting, or diving into social media can have. Mindfulness can help children and teens to recognize the problems that technology use can cause as well as to help find better options for their time and energy.
Encourage your child’s participation in a variety of activities that promote healthy physical and emotional well-being. Exercise provides a strategy for managing stress and building self-esteem through team work as well as physical accomplishments. Building mastery of something enjoyable and for which your child feels some sense of talent, such as sports, dance, puzzles, crafts, or games, can be affirming.
You can also encourage your children and teens to build positive experiences by recognizing and appreciating the good things when they happen and to try to purposely add more when appropriate. Examples might be spending time with a friend; playing with a pet, coloring or painting; or volunteering to help someone such as an elderly grandparent. The concept of giving back to others through acts of kindness and volunteer work is a value that can be nurtured in childhood and developed throughout one’s life.
More strategies for teaching children and
teens the skills of distress tolerance and emotional regulation:
Help them label and express their feelings with words.
Allow open creative expression through conversation and art.
Teach self-care strategies for the body related to hygiene, food, sleep, exercise, and health care.
Teach mindfulness in which they slow down, check their emotions, resist the urge to label the emotions as good or bad, and then let those emotions go.
Teach them enjoyment of their senses — sight, touch, smell, taste, hearing — and the use of this to help de-escalate their emotions when they are overwhelmed.
Use opposite action. For example, if they are sad and withdrawn, they might visit a friend. If they are angry, they might talk quietly and behave politely rather than screaming and fighting.
Listen to music.
Find a new hobby.
Learn an instrument.
Watch a positive movie or TV show.
Tell a joke.
Go on a picnic.
Sing and dance.
Relax, unwind, and laugh!
Helen Kluiters is a licensed independent social worker in private practice. She received a Master of Social Work with a concentration in individuals and families and a Master of Education with a concentration in early childhood education, both from the University of South Carolina. She provides psychotherapy for adults in her private practice.