Coping Strategies that Children May Employ
Children in distress can employ a variety of different behaviors to cope with difficult life events. Knowing these different defense mechanisms will help you better understand their behavior. Each child is unique and will respond to adversity in their own way, but there are a number of common coping behaviors you should be aware of:
A) A child's ability to tolerate pain
Young children have a low threshold for painful feelings, and so they may utilize several strategies to keep their distress at a tolerable level. (Webb, 1993) They may rotate between confronting an issue one day and then avoiding it the next. Parents should expect this Jekyll and Hyde approach to the situation.
B) Children may create an alternate reality to help them cope
Some kids may alter the way they tell others about what happened in a way that is more comforting for them. For example, a boy who had been at home while his brother was killed in a car accident may go around telling people that he cradled his brother in his arms as he died. Such false statements are a way for children to tweak the details to make things more bearable, and should be corrected gently. They can also clue you in about unique things kids are struggling with. In the above example, the lie is a sign that the child regrets not being able to say goodbye in a proper way or is irritated that he wasn't around when his brother needed him, indicating an area that needs to be touched upon in the road to recovery.
C) Play may be affected
Play is often impacted when a child is under stress. Children play less when they are made to feel more insecure about their circumstances. Unfortunately, play is also a child's primary source of self-therapy and emotional regulation, and so in the same way that a depressed person who withdraws into a shell can make their depression worse, kids in distress may withdraw from normal play activities, even though this is one of their most crucial ways of coping with stress. If parents notice this, they should gently try to coax a child to become more involved.
Children also may use play and other distractions as a coping mechanism. Keep in mind that if you encounter children reenacting violence or traumatic events or exhibiting other "disturbing" play scenarios, this is usually both normal and healthy. It's a child's way of trying to understand the situation better and try out different perspectives through reenactment.
D) Kids may become easily distractible
When dealing with stress – especially stress of an ongoing or social nature – kids typically become preoccupied with their thoughts and thus are easily distractible. This is the nature of stress. It's designed to keep our mind focused on whatever is making us anxious to the exclusion of other things. Devoting mental energy to other tasks becomes more difficult.
Thus parents should expect that a child's grades might slip or they may suddenly have difficulty concentrating at school. There may even be times at home when they appear to "zone out." Show compassion and understanding for the fact that it's difficult to focus when your mind is preoccupied with these other worries.
E) Kids may test their environment
When children endure an experience that threatens the predictability of their world, they may repeatedly test different aspects of their environment, looking for other areas where control and predictability might break down. It's very much akin to how an insecure lover might test a mate's loyalty to the point of driving them away. They might misbehave to test your love for them, or ask you questions over and over again about other areas of life. It's important that parent’s respond to this in a productive way. If you get irritated or overreact, it only makes them more insecure and more likely to step up such behavior.
F) Kids may become overly bossy or demanding
When something is happening in their life that they don't like, kids feel a lost sense of control. Children may try to make up for this helplessness by trying to exert their will in other areas.
G) Children may find ways to blame themselves
No matter what the circumstance, children may find ways to blame themselves or create theories about how their thoughts or actions led to a particular outcome. For example, they may form the idea that their misbehavior caused their parents' divorce. In most instances, this is less about them feeling genuinely responsible and more a means of coping with the uncontrollable.
If something frightening happens and I don't fully understand the causes, I'm going to feel helpless. Feeling helpless and out of control is scary, and so children may blame themselves or form ideas about how various events are mediated by them, because feeling responsible may be less scary than feeling helpless. If we believe our actions caused a certain outcome, then there is hope that by altering our actions we can avoid future hurt, and thus, the feelings of helplessness or utter lack of control can subside somewhat.
H) Differences in the way boys and girls cope
In general, girls seem to exhibit more symptoms than boys do after witnessing violence or another traumatic event. (Fitzpatrick & Bo1dizar, 1993; Singer et a1., 1995; Green et a1., 1991) However, girls tend to be more eager and willing to engage in healthy ways of coping (such as opening up about their feelings or talking about an experience) whereas boys are more likely to suppress their emotions and deny being affected. So girls may cope better over the long term.
Girls and boys also tend to exhibit symptoms differently. Girls are more likely to internalize pain or to voice distress, whereas boys are more likely to exhibit anger issues and direct their distress outwards in the form of behavioral problems. Keep in mind, however, that these gender differences are only tendencies, and do not fit the script of every child.