Family Life, September 2015

How Teaching Children Healthy Coping Skills May Help Prevent Addiction


by Allyson Fox Pitre

IMG_4406 copyThe initial instinct of most people in society and in the church is to protect the innocent and vulnerable from any discomfort. This is true of parents, especially parents with small children. If pain can be avoided, it is the duty of a parent to guide their young one through the perils of early life and social interactions with only having positive experiences, right?

What if the obligation of parents is not going to extreme lengths to prevent failure for their children, but instead, walking them through ways to experience their pain and emerge from the other side in a healthy manner?

So often, parents will shield their children from rejection, betrayal, hurt, disappointment and other unpleasant feelings in childhood, and later be faced with adolescents and young adults who have no toolbox of coping methods to rely on. When someone experiences “negative” emotions, they often utilize means of coping they witnessed their parents using, or they apply what has been effective the past. But what if they have not had the opportunity to either witness their parents handle uncomfortable situations, or have not had the chance to exercise their own coping skills due to a lack of history of undesirable circumstances?

In working with my clients, I often see children and teenagers crippled by a negative experience and they begin to utilize maladaptive coping skills that they taught themselves, such as overeating, video game immersion, cutting, or using any means available to escape the experience.

The intention of the parent was to create a safe, pain-free environment for the child to grow up in, but instead, produced someone who does not know what it looks like to address negativity. Therefore, when faced with a circumstance of dissension, they are ill equipped to navigate this first exposure in a healthy manner. Often, when triggered by emotions they have not learned to cope with, maladaptive behaviors may emerge. This may present itself in addiction, which can be defined as using any means to escape from experiencing or facing that moment in their life.

It is helpful for a child to see how their parents experience the unpleasant consequences of life and ways to continue to engage even when it hurts. This does not mean emotionally regurgitating every possible point where the parent feels overwhelmed or hurt, but doing so in age-appropriate situations. For example, if a mother has a disagreement with a friend, it may be helpful to share, in generalities, that they are sad and hurt by someone else’s words.

The child can observe how their mother does not shut off the world, or even avoid her friend, but deals with the situation in a healthy manner. Children do not need to know details of their parent’s fears, but it is more important that they know their parents have them, and they do not let being afraid cripple them. It is much more powerful for a son or daughter to see their parents handle situations in a Godly manner, rather than teaching them with words.

It is important to find ways to educate children about facing failure or pain because it may give them vocabulary to express their emotions. Many children I work with cannot identify their feelings and therefore have difficulty being understood. When unable to communicate and find empathy, any person, regardless of their age, can turn to isolating as a means to self-soothe.

It can be important to not dismiss a classmate that did not invite a child to a birthday party as “mean” or “not good enough”, but instead remind them that being sad is natural. Then, show them how to go to God for comfort, because only He can satisfy. When seeing not only their parent utilize God’s presence as means to handle difficult situations, but also being guided through a method of coping when they are first navigating negative experiences, a pattern will develop. Proverbs 22:6 articulates how crucial it is in beginning to “train a child in the way he should go” during the early years because once healthy patterns are developed, “he will not depart from it” when he is older.

Teaching the young how to recognize and utilize healthy coping mechanisms is not a complete guarantee that they will not turn to addiction later in life. However, they will be much more prepared when the waves of life toss them into the wind. Preparation, exposure and methods of dealing with the difficult times can be the greatest gift a parent gives to a child and the greatest protection.

About Allyson: Allyson received her M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Denver Seminary in 2011 and has worked with at risk children, youth and their families since 2012. She has experienced leading and co-leading psycho-educational groups as well as individual therapy at various counseling agencies. She has been able to experience counseling relationships, where fighting against lies that clients’ believe about themselves is an important step in reversing an atmosphere of perpetual misery. She has been able to engage with families and clients through a community based approach to counseling and understand how a family system can influence the difficulties clients’ face. Allyson works towards transforming clients’ thoughts about themselves, as well as the structure of the home and community, into a place where change is possible. Allyson can be reached at: