How Children Cope
While every child is unique, there are also some universal strategies children employ when coping with adversity. This chapter will help you recognize some of the behaviors that children may exhibit in response to difficult events in their life, so that you're better equipped to respond to their needs.
Factors that determine how well children cope with difficult events
How well children cope with stressful situations is dependent upon several variables:
A) A child's age and developmental stage. Young children are extremely limited by the coping strategies at their disposal, whereas older kids may be more adept at dealing with distress, but this comes with the tradeoff that they're also more aware of what is transpiring.
B) A child's proximity to the event and its significance to them. Events that they witness or which threaten their immediate family are always more distressing. The more degrees of separation there are between a child and the situation in question, the better they'll cope.
C) Whether they were a witness, victim, and their relationship to the victim and/or perpetrator. This can have different effects depending on the type of adversity experienced.
D) Any preexisting psychopathology within the child and past experiences with trauma. Preexisting problems always make it more difficult for a child to cope with additional stress, and studies show that as the number of "significant adverse events" in a child's life increase, so does their vulnerability towards a number of poor outcomes. Isolated traumas, on the other hand, generally have no long-term impact if handled properly.
E) The child's perception of the danger faced and/or their interpretation of the events. Children often see things much differently than adults do, and this has a direct impact on their ability to cope. Parents need to be cautious not to create disturbances by treating the situation as more traumatic than the child sees it.
F) Along these lines, parental psychopathology and distress plays a big role in a child's ability to cope. If parents are in distress, the kids will be too. If adults struggle to cope, you can rest assured the kids will struggle too. Not only do caretakers model emotional responses that kids will copy, but parental difficulties have a very real and measurable impact on their parenting efforts and interactions with the kids. The availability of adults who can model calm responses while offering help and protection is one of the most important variables in how well children cope.
G) To a lesser extent, interactions with first responders and other helping professionals (when available) can set the tone for a child's ability to cope going forward.
H) The presence of additional adversity faced in the aftermath of trauma. For example, divorce is the implosion of a child's family and a trauma for all kids who go through it. But as difficult as this transition can be, it's often what occurs afterwards where the greatest damage resides: Parents get busier and financially poorer, a child's life becomes a series of stressful transitions from one home to another, Mom and Dad move on and remarry, forcing them to adjust yet again to another difficult change, many parents simply lose interest and drop out of their child's life, and so on. This is why divorce is frequently far more harmful than most instances of child abuse. Kids are resilient, and can endure the occasional insult or injury. But when these stressors occur over and over again, their ability to cope starts to break down. Parents dealing with a crisis of any type need to be especially aware of the post-crisis environment and take steps to limit any additional stressors that may take place.
I) A child's genetic predisposition. Some children are naturally more resilient in the face of stress than others. (See our book: Children & Adversity)