Coping Skills: A Wellness Toolkit for Parents

Not Just for Kids, Coping Skills Are For All of Us!

Have you wondered, how are we supposed to deal with parenting in a pandemic? How on earth do we respond to our kids, when our own emotions are all over the place? What we all need are coping skills, those tools for success that sound much easier said, than done.

Coping skills are a therapy term for techniques which counteract negative thoughts, feelings, or problematic behaviors. These are simple skills that help us manage the hard stuff of life. We use coping skills every day when lose the internet connection during a Zoom meeting, but have to reload and look professional, of course (!!) Or, waiting in line, ready to get out of the store (these masks are not always comfortable to wear!)… and that older lady brings out coupons (!?!) It’s time for… “deep breaths,” aka, coping skills.

Frankly, a good bit of therapy time with my online counseling clients revolves around teaching these tools for managing strong, often overwhelming, emotions. And, explaining when and how to use them.

What Do Coping Skills Do?

First of all, coping skills reduce emotional intensity.

positive coping skills for anxiety for parents

It’s normal to have intense feelings. But, having an emotion doesn’t mean you have to get swept away by it.

Secondly, coping skills improve rational thinking capability.

Did you know? Biologically speaking, we humans can’t think clearly when we’re flooded with emotion. Fascinating! Truly, when our emotions are so intense, our thinking skills SHUT down. This biological process is known as “amygdala hacking,” and not surprisingly, it’s a top cause for conflicts in relationships.

Thirdly, coping skills help you make space for solutions.

Sure, solutions exist. While we may know that, but in the heat of the moment it doesn’t feel that way (that darn amygdala!). That’s why, we have to wait for the storms of strong emotions to pass in order to see them. Coping tools help us get here, faster.

Finally, coping skills show others you are calm and in control.

Leaders (parents included!) have to project calm so those around them can follow suit. Finally outcome? A more productive, happy environment where emotions aren’t raging out of control, so everyone feels safe and heard.

Kids Need Coping Skills Too.

What is one of the first things most parents teach their preschool child to help them learn to get along? Use your words! Yes, using your words is a coping skill!

mother and children on a sofa
Photo by August de Richelieu on

Parents, we need to increase our emotional toolboxes, too. Now, more than ever.

Sometimes we think that as adults, we should be able to rationalize our way out of anything. It’s not at all true!

Actually, since our ability to think decreases in times of intense emotional reactions, we have to have ready-to-go ways to cope with our feelings. It’s like a firetruck ready to go with hoses and other ways to put out fires. Firefighters plan for, and expect, to battle flames; they aren’t caught off guard by them. This is how they can rescue people in danger, and not be overwhelmed by their own fears or ill-preparedness.

By the way, amygdala hijaking is fantastic for when we are in urgent danger, like, running from a giant boulder rumbling our way… but living life always on the brink of eruption is no way to live. Let’s take a page off the firefighter’s book, and get prepared. How? First, let’s go back to biology for a minute…

The Stress Response

Why do our brains do all of this freaking out, automatically, if it’s so darn unhelpful? Well, in moments of actual, urgent danger, taking time to think decreases our chances of survival. So, the body has this shortcut for emergencies, activation of a stress response known as fight-flight-freeze. More on that in another post.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and worldwide political and social upheaval, it’s no wonder that stress is high, everywhere. However, though there are legitimate reasons for safety worries, many people experience this stress response automatically throughout the day. Even when there is no actual danger, at all. Parents, you’re at particular risk because of the great burden of raising children. What was always a big job, is now even heavier. Your anxiety level is higher, leading to more hijacking, more intense emotional responses, and less control.

But thankfully, learning Coping skills to counteract the stress response, allows us to stay in our best, most logical mind.

Respond, Don’t React

Coping skills allow us to respond to situations rather than react.

Here are some favorite coping skills I share with clients on a daily basis (and pssst, they work!):

  1. Take 3 deep breaths: inhale through the nose, hold, and exhale through the nose. Allow the exhale to be full and complete. Continue until you feel relaxed.
  2. Remove yourself from the stressful situation in order to cool down. Say to your spouse or child, “I’m taking a cool down break.” Model healthy coping skills techniques!
  3. Use your 5 senses: what is something you can see, hear, taste, touch, smell.
  4. Try a progressive muscle relaxation script (such as this one from University of Michigan Counseling and Psychological Services). Tension often hides in the body. So, this technique allows your mind to seek it out muscle by muscle and release it. It’s like a massage but in your mind. Powerful!

At the end of the day, we must realize that as parents, we need to respond to our children, rather than react. Coping skills, when practiced during times you are relaxed, are the key to managing the strong emotions that will of course show up for you throughout the day. The kids will thank you, of course!

And, perhaps even more importantly, they will be learning from YOU how to solve life’s challenges– big and small– with patience and grace. If you aren’t sure how to implement these ideas, or just want to bounce your thoughts or questions off a pro, please read more about how online therapy can help during this difficult time.

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