From acting out to reaching out, children and teens cope with stress in a variety of ways with varying results. A new, comprehensive Vanderbilt University study published in the high-impact journal Psychological Bulletin outlines which coping strategies work best.
Bruce Compas is lead author of the landmark research, a meta-analysis of more than 200 coping and emotion regulation studies that included more than 80,000 young people. He says learning effective ways to manage stress is especially important for children. Compas is a Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.
“Chronic stress is bad for adults, but it is particularly troublesome for children, because among many other effects, it can disrupt still-developing white matter in the brain, causing long-term problems with complex thinking and memory skills, attention, learning and behavior,” Compas said. “We found that the ways children cope are highly personal, and the strategies they choose do not always lead to ameliorating the negative affects of stress.”
For the purposes of the study, common coping strategies were divided into five categories: problem solving; emotional suppression; cognitive reappraisal; distraction, and avoidance. Compas and his team measured the affect of these strategies on the subjects’ internalized symptoms like depression, anxiety and loneliness, and external manifestations of stress like antisocial behavior and aggression.
“In this new work, we found that when the subjects used adaptive strategies, like looking at a problem in a different way, engaging in problem solving or pursuing constructive communication, they were better able to manage the adverse effects of stress,” Compas said. “Those who used maladaptive strategies like suppressing, avoiding or denying their feelings, had higher levels of problems associated with stress.”
“We have found the most effective strategies … are ones that involve adapting to the stressors rather than trying to change the stressors.”
These findings echo what Compas has learned through his longitudinal studies of children coping with cancer and other chronic pediatric conditions.
“Most or all of the stressful aspects of cancer are uncontrollable, from the diagnosis itself, to the treatments, to the side effects of treatments, and the uncertainty about the future,” he said. “We have found time and again that the most effective strategies for coping with these types of uncontrollable stress are ones that involve adapting to the stressors rather than trying to change the stressors.”
Whether a child or teen’s stress is triggered by anxiety about a new school or something far more serious, Compas says parents can play a key role in helping them manage their stress successfully.
He offers these tips:
- Make time to listen to your child and let them share with you the stresses and challenges they are facing. No need to give any advice at first, just listen and let them share what they are struggling with.
- Remind yourself and your child of the first rule of coping with stress: “Try to change the things you can change, and accept the things you cannot change.”
- Think out loud with your child about how you have coped with similar situations in the past or how you might cope with the situation if you haven’t faced a similar stressor in the past.
- Encourage your child to make a plan and then follow up in a day or two. If the first plan doesn’t seem to help, think it through together and try another plan until either the problem has changed or your child has been able to accept the problem and adapt to it.
“Stress is the single most potent risk factor for mental health problems in children and adolescents, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, eating disorders and substance use,” Compas said. “But the good news is the brain is malleable. Once positive coping skills are learned and put into practice, especially as a family, they can be used to manage stress for a lifetime.”
Read Bruce Compas’ study, “Coping, Emotion Regulation and Psychopathology in Childhood and Adolescence: A Meta-Analysis and Narrative Review,” in Psychological Bulletin. The research is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.