Coping Skills for Children

by Annette Hernandez, Ph. D., Clinical Psychologist

A large part of the therapeutic work I do involves teaching young kids how to cope with intense feelings (i.e. anger, fear, etc.). While my training in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) gave me the basic skills in teaching relaxation skills, I struggled with figuring out how to modify these skills for very young children. Fortunately, experience (including my own parenting) and a little creativity has helped me to develop ways to make coping skills understandable and developmentally appropriate for this age group. In my last blog, I talked about labeling feelings and provided links for Feelings Charts that parents can incorporate into their daily lives. Colorful charts and graphic representations go a long way in illustrating skills practice for kids. In this entry, I will talk more about specific coping skills such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

Deep Breathing: During stressful moments, most adults have learned that taking deep breaths can help us relax and move forward. But, how does one explain “inhale through your nose, fill your diaphragm with your breath, and exhale through your mouth” to a 4 year old? Concrete visual cues derived from everyday experiences can help clarify the steps in this task. For example, at my daughter’s preschool, she learned how to perform deep breathing with this neat and simple description: “Smell the roses and blow out the candles.” In other words deep breathing can be taught by asking a child to breathe in deeply like you’re smelling a rose, then blow out hard like you’re blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Smelling roses and blowing out candles are common experiences that children associate with pleasant events and positive emotions. By using the above analogy, you can accomplish two purposes: teaching a valuable relaxation skill and helping them associate the skill with a positive memory. I’ve learned that the latter (drawing on positive memories) serves as a precursor for a more complex skill used later in cognitive behavioral therapy called guided visualization. To facilitate consistent practice at home, I usually give parents a colorful chart that can be hung on the fridge at home or above a child’s bed to serve as a reminder to practice skills on a regular basis. Below are some examples of graphics that can be cut and pasted from Clip Art onto a chart for home use.

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