Coping Flexibility for Children: A Useful Skill for Healthy Recovery

Coping Flexibility

Coping Flexibility for Children: A Useful Skill for Healthy Recovery

After a stressful event such as an injury, children (as well as adults) engage in many different types of coping. But most types of healthy coping fall into one of two categories.

One form of coping is “Trauma Focused Coping.” This is coping in which people focus on the traumatic event and its aftermath. They might also consider the meaning of the event as a whole, and want to talk about the scary parts of the experience. In other words, this type of coping involves children focusing on the stressful event in order to better understand it and address the impacts it has had.

The other form of coping is “Forward Focused Coping.” This type of coping involves engaging in enjoyable activities or hobbies, expressing thanks for help received or for good things happening, focusing on goals, or planning activities as a distraction from thinking about the event. In other words, forward-focused coping involves focusing on the present and the future, and trying not to focus on the stressful event.

I use both of these strategies! And my child does too. What does that mean?

Using both types of coping is actually a good thing! Research seems to indicate that using both forms of coping, using a variety of coping strategies, and being able to be flexible in what type of coping you use can help people adapt after a stressful event. In fact, this ability is a skill that researchers call “Coping Flexibility.”

Coping Flexibility is the skill of using a variety of coping techniques to handle stressful situations. It involves the following:

  • Being aware that different coping strategies are better in some situations than in others (see below for some examples)
  • Understanding which are most helpful for your child in a given situation (remember, people are different and there is no one correct way to cope),
  • Being able to adapt and use the techniques that are most helpful in a given situation

So using both styles of coping is probably a sign that your child is working to process the events that have occurred and is working to take good care of themself and move forward after the event.  

There are times when it might feel most helpful for a child to focus on, and talk about, the future or to enjoy things rather than focus on the stressful events that have occurred. This is Forward Focused Coping. Your child may want to work toward goals such as getting school work done, finishing an art project, getting better at a sport, or finishing a book series. a Or maybe your child just wants to watch a movie with friends! All of these are healthy ways of coping, particularly when day to day stress levels are high.

Other times, your child may feel the need to talk about memories of the event or emotions that they experienced at that time. This is Trauma Focused Coping. They may want to talk about the scary parts of the experience with your or with a friend, reflect on how this event has impacted them, or just spend time alone. These strategies can be beneficial too!

  • There is a time and place for both types of coping.

For example, distraction or avoidance may be a very effective strategy when your child has to focus on a task at hand (for example, if you child is about to take a test at school). However, too much distraction (e.g., always pushing away emotions) could slow your child’s recovery. On the other hand, focusing on the event might help your child understand its meaning and integrate it into their life story, but it might be overwhelming to do this during times when youtube are feeling sad and are having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. Flexibility and balance are key factors for healing after a stressful event.

Research in this area is new, but the research findings seem to suggest that Forward Focused Coping is especially helpful when sources of stress are long-term or ongoing.

So, for example, imagine that Marcus is coping with permanent impacts from an injury and is experiencing a high level of stress related to school changes, difficulty doing things due to pain, and dealing with lots of medical appointments. What type of coping might be best for Marcus?

Answer- While everyone is different, it would probably be good for Marcus to focus on forward-focused coping strategies, such as making time for enjoyable activities, trying to find “silver linings” hidden in all the difficulties, and working to develop a positive outlook for the future. Spending a lot of time and energy processing the scary and difficult aspects of the injury may not be a good strategy for Marcus right now, because stress levels are already quite high. Of course, if the situation changes in the future it will likely be important for Marcus to consider some other coping strategies as well. 

Now let’s consider a different example. Imagine that Deana was in a car accident and it was very scary for her. She is noticing that it is impacting her sleep and that she is feeling irritable. But she has several supportive friends that are safe to talk to, she is doing relatively well in school, and her day to day stress levels are manageable outside of the emotional impacts of the trauma. What type of coping might be helpful in this situation?

Answer- Deana may benefit from considering using some trauma-focused coping strategies, such as talking with a trusted friend about recent struggles or spending some time reflecting on how the accident has impacted things. Again, remember that everyone is different in how they cope, so what is right for Deana may be different than what is right for you. In this situation, Deana has supportive friends and feels safe talking to them. She also has most of her day to day stress managed. So, trauma focused coping may help her stay connected with friends, get support as she processes the experience, and eventually help her improve her sleep and mood.

Coping Flexibility is a healthy way for your brain to process what happened and how it fits into your greater life story. In fact, researchers have found that people who are able to flexibly switch between focusing on memories of the event and planning for the future may have an advantage! They tend to cope with events with fewer negative emotions and more positive emotions.

It is important to note that children may not be able to tell you about what type of coping they need. Paying attention to what your child naturally does when feeling sad or stressed will help you learn how to best support your child as they adjust to recent stressful events.

Tips for Helping your Child Cope:

  • Mix in different types of coping strategies with your family. You could play a game together one evening, and invite a conversation about how your child is coping with recent stressors on the next night. This will show your child different ways of coping and will also help you learn what coping styles your child prefers.
  • Talk about healthy thinking. Discuss how thoughts and beliefs can impact feelings, and give examples of healthy ways to make sense of the accident. For example, you could say, “Since the car accident I have felt scared to get in the car sometimes, but I know that we were safe driving lots of times before the accident, and now I am even more careful, so it’s pretty likely that we can travel safely in the car without having to worry.”
  • Offer an “open invitation” so your child knows you are there to talk to. You could say something like, “When I feel scared or frustrated, sometimes I want to talk about it with someone, and sometimes I just want to do something fun. If you ever want to talk, or you ever need someone to do a fun activity with, I will be here for you.”
  • Be aware of your own stress levels, and take care of yourself when stress levels become difficult to manage. Adapting after a stressful injury event is not easy. You learning to manage your own emotions will make you better able to support your child and will show your child healthy ways to cope. Be sure to pay attention to how your body feels and how your stress levels are impacting you as you recover. When you need it, find ways to rest and relax. Click here to learn some relaxation techniques.

 Bonanno, G. A., Pat-Horenczyk, R., & Noll, J. (2011). Coping flexibility and trauma: The Perceived Ability to Cope With Trauma (PACT) scale. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 3(2), 117–129.