Last Modified: January 9, 2024 | Published: January 8, 2024

What are healthy coping skills in childhood? 

Healthy coping skills in childhood are the ways a child manages difficult emotions with healthy habits.

The first step is for a child to be able to recognize they are experiencing an uncomfortable emotion. 

Next, when a child is experiencing an uncomfortable emotion, they pick a healthy habit. 

How does my child develop healthy coping skills? 

Children learn coping skills by watching their parents. 

Children pick up and recognize what the adults are doing in their lives. 

After a hard day, model healthy coping for your child by going for a walk, journaling, taking deep breaths, using a meditation app, taking a bath, calling a friend, or another healthy habit. You are helping your child pair difficult emotions with a healthy self-care activity. 

If you come home at night and say, “I can’t wait to have a glass of wine, beer, or an edible,” your child is learning that a way to cope with a stressful day is to use a substance.

I am not saying to not partake in those substances but to be careful in how you are modeling the use of those substances.

Model having an uncomfortable emotion and using a healthy coping strategy. You are helping your child pair negative emotions with a healthy self-care activity. 

Preparing Your Child To Develop Coping Skills

Here are the first steps you can take to help your child develop healthy coping skills. This process takes time, so be patient with yourself and your kids! 

Teach your child about different emotions 

Start with the primary four emotions: happy, sad, angry, and afraid. Then, expand your child’s emotional vocabulary. Make it into a game. Work together to explore at least 25 different emotions. 

These conversations don’t need to be long. The idea is that you repeatedly bring up emotions with your child. 

When your child can identify the uniqueness of different emotions, they can process the feelings and make more positive choices. For example, knowing the difference between being scared versus being nervous. 

Some ideas for increasing your child’s emotional vocabulary

  • Watch this video by Dr. Willard to explain feelings to your child. 
  • Watch a show. 
    • Talk about the emotions you notice in the actors. 
  • Talk about your feelings with your child. 
    • For example, if someone cut you off while you were driving. You may share how you felt frustrated and took deep breaths to calm down. 
  • Play emotional charades as a family. 
    • Take turns acting out different feelings and have others guess what emotion is being played. 
  • Have your child draw a picture of their feelings and share it with you. 
  • Read books about different feelings together. 
  • Use an emotion wheel. 
    • Cadey’s book, Raising a Mindful Child Ebook, has a feelings wheel you can color with your child. Use the wheel with your child in conversation.  Have your child pick out the emotion they were experiencing.

Help your child recognize where they feel emotions in their body

Feelings live inside our bodies. When we recognize where we feel uncomfortable emotions, this can be our first sign that we need to implement a coping skill. 

With young kids and elementary-age children, you can make it into a game. Pretend to be detectives together and uncover where your child feels different emotions. Also, share where you feel emotions in your body. 

Mom and daughter being an emotion detective. Mom with smiley face and daughter with a magnifying glass.

Parent and child being feelings detectives

With middle school and high school-age kids, ask them where they notice emotions in their bodies and share what you notice about yourself. 

If you didn’t grow up talking about or feeling emotions, this can be difficult. When this is hard, it can help to pay attention to where you feel sensations in your body. 

Connect those sensations to feelings. An easier one for most people to identify is anxiety. 

Anxiety and worry can often show up as a stomach ache, feeling jittery in your arms or legs, or a headache. 

Help your child connect experiencing a difficult emotion and picking a healthy coping strategy 

The first step in healthy coping is for your child to recognize they are experiencing an uncomfortable emotion. 

Help your child pair having a hard time with picking a healthy strategy. Review positive coping skills your child can use for difficult times. Read below for a list of ideas. 

Teach your child that feelings come and go 

When we avoid or push down negative emotions, they intensify. Emotions are like an ocean wave they come in, and they also go back out. 

When you numb an emotion, it is like a dam, and that emotion is held onto, causing a build-up of anger, frustration, and sadness, increasing the likelihood of a mental health disorder later in life. 

To help your child, teach your child that feelings come and go. Feelings, on average, last about 90 seconds when acknowledged. Dr. Willard created this video to help explain how feelings come and go, give it a listen. If you found this helpful, download the Cadey app to get more videos like this. 

9 Coping Skills to Teach Your Child 

1. Have your child breathe in peace and breathe out fear

Breathing in the opposite positive emotion can also bring a greater sense of calm. 

  1. Have your child locate where they are feeling an uncomfortable emotion 
  2. Have your child breathe in the feeling of peace
  3. Have your child breathe out the uncomfortable feeling 

2. Teach your child heart and belly breathing 

  1. Have your child put one hand on their heart and one on their belly. 
  2. Have them take deep breaths. 
  3. Now, have your child notice their body calming down. This is a great strategy to practice at bedtime. 
  4. Watch this video by Dr. Willard to learn how to teach your child about taking deep breaths. 

3. Practice counting to 10 with your child

  1. Have your child pause and think about something pleasant as they count to 10.
  2.  Watch this video by Dr. Willard as she explains how to teach this to your child. 

4. Make stress dough with your child 

  1. Create playdough with your child.
  2. Have your child use this dough when they are feeling stressed. 
  3. Here is a scented playdough recipe from HGTV

5. Make stress balls with your child

  1. Here is a homemade stress ball recipe for kids from Mindful magazine. 

6. Help your child watch the clouds 

You want to make sure your child does not look into the sun. If you feel this may be a struggle, skip this activity. 

  1. Get a blanket
  2. Go outside and place the blanket on the grass
  3. Look up at the clouds and see what you notice
  4. Make it into a game; who can find the most unique shape 
  5. Watch this video on feeling clouds by Dr. Willard. 

7. Teach your child the superhero pose

  1. Have your child stand as their favorite superhero 
  2. Have your child notice how their body feels when they are standing strong 
  3. Have your child breathe in strength and breathe out worry and fear

8. Show your child the “feel your feet” strategy

  1. Check out our video of this strategy 
  2. Have your child notice their feet 
  3. Ask your child how the ground feels is it cold, warm, or hot
  4. Ask your child to notice if the ground is soft, squishy, or hard 
  5. Take some deep breaths and be in this moment 
  6. Download the Cadey app to watch other videos like this

9. With your child, read a book and talk about the feelings

  1. Read a book and talk about the feelings with your child
  2. Let your child know that bad days are temporary 
  3. Watch this video by Dr. Willard for book recommendations
  4. Download the Cadey app to watch other videos like this

5 Coping Skills to Teach Your Teen 

Any of these strategies mentioned in this blog post can help your teen. It can help to share the idea with your teen, provide the supplies, and allow them to implement it on their schedule. 

1. Give your teen a foam roller to hit against a couch or bed 

  1. Get a foam roller, 24 or 36 inches
  2. Have your child identify where they feel a strong emotion in their body
  3. Have your child hit the foam roller against a bed or couch 
  4. Now stop hitting, stand still, and imagine the emotion flowing out of the body and into the earth

2. Provide supplies so your teen can create art 

Each teen is different in how they like to express themselves. Some will enjoy creating a song, a dance, a drawing, a painting, writing, etc. 

Teens will often use social media to express challenging emotions. It can be wise to pause and give it time before posting online. This is a great strategy your child can use for a pause. 

  1. Talk about different art forms that can be used to express difficult emotions 
  2. Provide your teen with art supplies such as pens, markers, paper, journals, etc. 
  3. Let your child know if they would like to share their creative work with you, you will be there. (Some children may not want to share; this is OKAY, take your child’s lead.) 
  4. Praise your child when you see them engaging in a healthy strategy 

3. Do something physical with your teen

Help your teen discover movement they enjoy doing. Some prefer team activities, while others prefer solo activities. 

  1. Talk with your teen about different physical exercises they can do to cope with stress. 
  2. Swimming, walking, running, hiking, yoga, stretching, dribbling a basketball, playing tennis, workout class, going to the gym, etc. 
  3. Encourage and model physical activity in times of stress
  4. Praise your teen when you notice them using a healthy coping strategy

4. Show your teen how to use a yoyo or a kendama

Mastering a yoyo or kendama can bring you into the moment and help take your teen’s mind off their stress. 

  1. Find a yoyo or kendama
  2. Practice 
  3. Have fun 

5. Teach your teen about positive self-talk and affirmations

  1. Check out this article about cognitive distortions 
  2. Help your teen recognize when they are in negative self-talk 
  3. Model changing negative self-talk into positive self-talk

What are unhealthy coping skills in childhood? 

Unhealthy coping skills in childhood are the ways children use an experience or substance to numb feelings and escape life. 

Unhealthy coping looks like hours on electronics instead of doing homework, scrolling on social media, doing drugs, drinking, and hurting one’s self. Almost everyone does some form of escape from life from time to time. For example, we may spend the evening watching Netflix instead of cleaning. We might scroll on our phones to tune out life. 

Occasionally, escaping life is not a concern. Unhealthy coping is a problem when your child cannot complete their daily tasks, finish school work, or engage with life.

Parents need to be aware if their child is coping by using substances, like marijuana, or engaging in self-harm behaviors. Immediate intervention may be needed to help the child transition to healthier coping strategies.

Learn More About Healthy Coping Skills in Childhood 

Healthy coping in childhood is having healthy daily habits and making healthy choices in the face of stress and strong emotions. 

Healthy coping can start with healthy habits such as participating in a sport and exercising daily. It also includes eating healthy real food, drinking enough water, and getting enough sleep. If you would like to learn more about the importance of sleep, check out this Cadey article on sleep.  

Healthy coping is choosing to go for a walk when stressed, talking to oneself kindly when life doesn’t go the way they hoped, etc. 

Cadey is Here to Help You Take the First Step

Whether you’re excited to teach healthy coping skills to your child or feel overwhelmed at the thought, we get it. Learning to use these skills takes time.

Use the Cadey mobile app to get started. You’ll find curated expert advice for your top parenting concerns.