When a child feels upset, angry, frustrated, or scared, our response to that emotion transmits an important message. Our response effectively communicates how to think about and deal with problems that are stressful. As children grow, so do their responsibilities and pressures. Learning to face up to these responsibilities and pressures is a valuable skill. Generally, adults’ problems are bigger but so is their ability to cope. Children’s problems may seem comparatively small, but stress in children is just as significant, in terms of the experience, as stress in adults.
I’ll explore what stress is, and how we can help our kids to overcome stress by changing thoughts about the problem and problem solving. This is part of a series on raising resilient children, by mental health professionals from around the world, hosted by Nicole Schwarz at Imperfect Families. Please check out the links throughout this post and at the end to learn more about raising resilient children.
What is stress?
Stress is the response we have when we think something is threatening us or our goals, and we don’t feel able to cope with that threat (1). Therefore, we can reduce stress by changing how we think about the problem, or how we feel about our ability to cope.
Re-framing the problem: Making apparently big problems small
Optimistic explanations for problems
Optimism in psychology circles refers to how people explain events, and grew out of research into hopelessness. Specifically, whether people assume events occur due to stable or transient reasons, have global or specific implication, and are due to internal or external factors. Take the example of a failure – inability to build a tower for a toddler, inability to replicate a duplo structure for a preschooler, or inability to do a maths problem for child at school. Hopelessness develops when children assume that the failure was caused by some internal problem that they have (“I am bad at ….”, “I’m stupid”; Internality not Externality), something stable, that can’t be changed (“I’ll never be able to do …”, “I will always be stupid”; Stability not transitory), and something that affects every part of their life (“I can’t do anything!”, “I am a failure!”; Globality not specificity; 2). Explanations are opposite for good events, as demonstrated in the figure. Of course, things aren’t just stable or transitory. They can last for seconds, days, weeks, months, years, lifetimes. All of these, Internality/Externality, Stability/Transitory, and Globality/Specificity are scales, not dichotomies.
Children tend to adopt the explanatory style their parents use when explaining the child’s behaviour or problems for those specific problems (3). Whether this generalises to other problems is less clear (some studies find it does, some find it doesn’t). This is how praise can backfire, if we attribute success to being a “clever boy”, the implication is that failure is because he is not clever. For a great discussion of praise that builds your child up without backfiring see “How to Build Up your Child” and “The Power of a High Five” by Ashley from Nurture and Thrive Blog. Optimistic thinking has been linked with a lot of positive outcomes including academic and job success, and decreased risk of depression in response to negative life events (4).
So what can we do to help our children to think more optimistically? We can monitor the explanations and descriptions we give for bad events, and try to make them more:
- Transient: “I can see you are feeling angry”; “You didn’t try very hard” – Emotions and effort change (not stable: “You are mean/naughty/lazy” – Traits imply stability); Don’t apply any labels you don’t want children to live up to.
- Specific: “You dropped that, please be more careful” (not global: “Can’t you do anything right?!”);
Should we try to make explanations more external? Not necessarily. Sometimes children are at fault and need to accept responsibility. So just replacing internal explanations with external ones doesn’t always make sense, but we also don’t want children to blame themselves for things they couldn’t control or prevent either. Most negative events have numerous causes, so we can explore these, to teach children to take responsibility only for what is in their control.
What can we do if we hear our child making pessimistic attributions (I’m stupid, I’ll never be able to…, I can’t do anything right)? Firstly, acknowledge the feeling of frustration/sadness/anger, and connect. This is a first step in any important discussion. Children are more likely to listen if they feel heard, and more able to reason once they are calm. Secondly, help children to generate alternative reasons and challenge their beliefs, this is a fundamental component of cognitive behavioural therapy. Here are some examples:
Stable/Transient: If Alex says “I’ll never be able to do y” I could say “I remember when you couldn’t do x, can you remember that?”… “Can you do x now?” (I would have picked an example he can do easily now)… “How did you learn x?”… “Why do you think you’re so good at x now?”… “Well, do you think if you practice y, someday you could do that too?”. I ask a lot of questions, rather than providing the answers, because I want Alex to practice the thought process, not just passively receive a lecture. It also helps me to see what he has and hasn’t understood.
Global/Specific: If Alex says “I can’t do anything”, I guess I would remind him of things that he can do, including things he takes for granted, and things he has recently mastered. Once he’s older, I might challenge him to question his own statement by asking “Is that true?”.
Internal/External: If Alex were to say “I’m stupid”, I’d probably rephrase “You accidentally did x. That doesn’t make you stupid.” or “You are struggling with this problem. I know you’re not stupid. Why else might it be difficult?” and prompt if needed “Are you tired?”, “Have you ever done this kind of x before?”…
If emotions are getting in the way of having a rational discussion like this. Another approach is to model it with a toy. I can often find out how Alex is feeling or thinking by asking how Batman is feeling more effectively than asking Alex directly.
Incorrect explanations can become a self fulfilling prophecies. For example the assertion that “I can’t do x”, can lead to avoiding that activity, and therefore never learning to do it. It is important to also test alternative explanations. For example, if we decide that Alex is just too tired, I might suggest “Let’s try this again after you have a good sleep”. If we decide he’s never done anything like this before, we might decide to try for another set period of time, or number of times before giving it a rest.
These solutions and the next were inspired by the Penn Resiliency Program developed for a school setting (5, 6), but I have simplified it enough that I can imagine having the conversations with Alex in the not too distant future (Alex is 2 and a half now). If you are interested in working on these skills with your school-age child, The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman provides scenarios, cartoons, and exercises to practice thinking more realistically. (This is an affiliate link – thank you!).
Putting things in perspective
When something feels like “the end of the world”, most probably, the problem has been blown out of proportion. By perspective taking, we can attempt to bring problems back into perspective. This isn’t about nullifying the problem, but shrinking it to a more realistic size. How the Penn Resilience Program addresses this is by drawing out worst case scenarios, which usually involve a series of causal steps, and then assessing the likelihood that the first step will lead to the last step. They then generate equally implausible best-case scenarios, and try to find the most-likely outcomes between the two extremes (5, 6). I can’t imagine working through this with Alex for a long time to come, but a technique I have always found useful is “Will this matter in a week/month/year/5 years?”, “Will I even remember this problem in a week/month/year/5 years?”. I’m not sure when children develop the ability to perspective take like this. If you’ve read up on the development of perspective taking, or have had success using these kind of techniques with your children, please let us know in the comments.
These skills can help children to see problems for their realistic size and implication. Usually, that won’t eliminate the problem, and it won’t eliminate the stress unless children know they have the ability to cope with the problem.
Coping with the problem
There are many ways that we can try to cope with problems. How effective these coping strategies are depends on the problem, the context, and the individual. The aim is to help our kids to develop a well equipped coping toolkit, so they are likely to have the right tool for the job. I will examine the general problem-solving approach here, and provide links to further resources.
The size and complexity of problems grows as your kids do, but it is never too early to start problem solving with your kids. Initially, this will take the form of modelling by helping your child to overcome their own problems, demonstrating how you overcome problems, or role-playing with a toy, but as children develop, they will be able to take more and more of an active role in the problem solving sequence. Studies show that interventions teaching interpersonal problem solving to preschool and kindergarten children increase behavioural adjustment, including less impatience, better emotional control, and less aggression over the following year (7, 8). Similar results have been found for 7-13 year olds (9). Usually, the recommended problem solving sequence progresses through these steps (10):
- Define the problem including what the desired end is.
- Brainstorm solutions including alternative means to the end.
- Evaluate solutions and decide on one to try.
- Attempt solution.
- Evaluate success and return to steps 1, 2, 3, or 4 as necessary.
Problem definition can include optimistic explanations and putting it in perspective as discussed above. Another component is how much control your child has over the outcome. I’m a big fan of the serenity prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
A common scenario used in teaching interpersonal problem solving to early childhood and kindergarten children is when one child has a toy that the other child wants. If I were to model this to Alex, I might say “Look, Cat-woman has a suitcase. Batman wants the suitcase. What could Batman do?” I’ll use this scenario throughout.
Studies show that the ability to generate a number of different ways to reach the same end is important in social adjustment (7, 8). This is often referred to as means-ends thinking, and includes generating alternative paths or stories to reach the same end, planning out the steps involved in each story, anticipating and circumventing obstacles, and acknowledging the time it would take to reach the goal. Brainstorming solutions is a valuable tool for tackling family problems too, once the children are old enough to contribute. Often the “every idea is a good idea” rule is applied during the brainstorming phase to encourage free thought. This could be a potentially useful rule to minimise sibling bickering also.
In the example above, Batman could ask nicely for the suitcase, grab the suitcase, nag Cat-woman until she hands over the suitcase, swap the suitcase for something etc. At this stage, we are just gathering suggestions, not evaluating them.
The ability to predict consequences of actions is another important skill in social adjustment (7, 8). For each suggested story, you could explore the consequences with your child. For example, what do you think Cat-woman would do if Batman grabbed the suitcase? How do you think she would feel? What would happen if Batman asked nicely? This may well raise the obvious obstacle: “Cat-woman would say no”. This would be a good opportunity to explore sharing options such as toy swaps, turn taking, or playing together.
Attempt and evaluate solution
Once a solution has been chosen it is time to implement. First, it is a good idea to work on the skills required. For example, you might get your child to practice what they might say. Once the solution has been attempted, you can discuss what worked, what didn’t, and repeat steps as required.
This process will evolve with age. Currently, with Alex, we suggest alternatives (would x help?), and he evaluates (usually “no”). For example, when he is upset, we ask whether lying in his bed with Mr Leopard would help. Now Alex will spontaneously try that, saying “I need a baby sleep with Mr Leopard”. He then evaluates the outcome spontaneously and comes out chirping “that helped!”, or whining “that not help”. So he has evidently started to incorporate the suggestions we’ve made. The next step will be him making alternative suggestions himself, and being able to imagine the consequences. Down the track I intend to use this sequence to solve family conflicts.
|I created a problem solving chart to remind children of the steps (pictured here). Alex isn’t ready yet to suggest solutions to the problem but I am hoping this chart will help when he’s ready. I’m also hoping it might be useful when he is intent on taking Liz’s toys. For this and many other resources, please sign up to my email list!|
Other coping resources
There are many other tools to collect for your child’s coping toolbox, many have been addressed in the Raising Resilient Children Series, such as developing humour, and facing up to fears please check them out here.
3. Hankin, B. L., Oppenheimer, C., Jenness, J., Barrocas, A., Shapero, B. G., & Goldband, J. (2009). Developmental origins of cognitive vulnerabilities to depression: Review of processes contributing to stability and change across time. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(12), 1327-1338. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20625
4. Abramson, L., Y., Alloy, L. B., Hankin, B. L., Clements, C. M., Zhu, L., Hogan, M. E., and Whithouse, W. G. (2000). Optimistic cognitive styles and invulnerability to depression In J. E. Gillham (Ed.), The science of optimism and hope (pp. 75-98). Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.
6. Shatte, A. J., Gillham, J. E., and Reivich, K. (2000). Promoting hope in children and adolescents In J. E. Gillham (Ed.), The science of optimism and hope (pp. 215-234). Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.
7. Shure, M. B., & Spivack, G. (1981). Interpersonal problem solving as a mediator of behavioral adjustment in preschool and kindergarten children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 1(1), 29-44.
9. Kazdin, A. E., Siegel, T. C., & Bass, D. (1992). Cognitive problem-solving skills training and parent management training in the treatment of antisocial behavior in children. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 60(5), 733.