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​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​By Kristen Galloway, Ph.D., Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health
and Michelle Woidneck-Kieffe, Ph.D., Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health​

​Builders and mechanics spend years gathering the right set of tools to use for jobs that present unusual or difficult challenges. These enable them to successfully deal with unexpected issues that pop up so they can move forward. This same idea applies to young children and teens as they learn and gather the right set of coping skills to help them navigate the many challenges that are a natural part of growing up.

As adults, we've spent a lifetime creating toolboxes of coping skills, and it can still be dif​ficult for us to handle uncomfortable, distressing feelings and situations in healthy, productive ways. And if it's hard for us, it's almost impossible for kids. Parents must think of their young children and teens as apprentices who need teaching and guidance to help them create their own toolbox of coping skills.

The following are common feelings young children and teens regularly struggle with and some corresponding coping skills you can teach them. After you find the coping skills that are best for your child's situation read What You Need ​to Know about Helping Kids Build a Coping Skills Toolbox​ for more information on using these and other coping skills.

Some of the feelings that young children and teens commonly experience are listed ​below. Choose the feelings your child is struggling with and their age to reveal some appropriate coping skills they can add to their toolbox.

  • Anxious/Fearful

    • Young Children

      First, identify what is making you afraid. Then, decide whether you are in actual danger or just ​feeling afraid. If you are not in real danger, take a deep breath and relax your body-imagine your body is a spaghetti noodle. Talk to someone you trust about what is causing your fear. Tell yourself that you can do this!

      You may also try thinking about a time when you were brave or imagine yourself as a superhero. Or try to distract yourself. For example, do artwork or play a card/board game, watch a favorite TV show, or do something else you enjoy.

      Example Coping Skills:

      • Try to identify what is making you afraid.
      • Practice deep breathing to relax your body.
      • Talk to someone.
      • Think about a time you were brave or imagine you are a superhero.
      • Try distracting yourself.

      Download Tools (PDF)

    • Teens

      First, try to identify the source of your anxiety. Identify whether you are safe or if you are in a dangerous situation.

      If you are in a dangerous situation, the first thing you need to do is seek safety immediately. If you are not in a dangerous situation and still feeling anxious, take the following steps:

      1. Is there a problem to be solved? For example, if you are anxious about an upcoming test, you could make a study plan. Or if you are anxious about trying something new, you could make a plan to learn more information.
      2. If there is no problem to be solved, or if you took steps to solve the problem and still feel anxious, try a strategy to get through the moment.
        1. For example, you may choose to do something you normally enjoy doing even though you are anxious (e.g., watching a funny online video, talking to a friend, going for a walk or exercising).
        2. You may also choose to try a self-soothing activity (e.g., download and listen to a meditation app; listen to music; take a bubble bath or shower; play with your pet; look at pleasant photos; try yoga).
        3. Seeking support from a trusted friend or adult may also be useful.

      Example Coping Skills:

      • Try to identify the source of your anxiety.
      • Use problem-solving (if needed).
      • Engage in an enjoyable activity.
      • Try a self-soothing activity.
      • Talk to a trusted friend or adult.

      Download Tools (PDF)

  • Sad/Depressed

    • Young Children

      First, try to identify what is making you feel sad. Does it make sense that you feel sad? For example, did a friend move away or did you lose a favorite toy? If so, remind yourself that sadness is normal and it’s okay to feel sad or even to cry.

      Many kids find it helpful to talk to a parent or loved one about their sad feelings. If you are ready to try to feel better, you can do an activity you usually enjoy, such as playing your favorite game, spending time with your friends or family, playing outside, or reading your favorite book. You may also try to distract yourself. For example, play with your pet, build something with LEGOS®, or play a new computer game.

      Example Coping Skills:

      • Try to identify what is making you feel sad.
      • Remind yourself sadness is normal and it’s okay to feel sad and cry.
      • Talk to a parent or loved one.
      • Engage in an enjoyable activity.
      • Try distracting yourself.

      Download Tools (PDF)

    • Teens

      First, try to identify the source of your sadness. Does it make sense that you feel sad? For example, did you experience a breakup or a disappointment at school? If so, remind yourself that it is okay and perfectly natural to feel sad or down.

      You may find it helpful to talk to someone about how you are feeling or even allow yourself to cry. Many teens also find it helpful to journal about how they are feeling.

      To help yourself to feel better, try doing an activity you usually enjoy (even if you don’t feel like doing it), such as working on an art project, playing a game, watching a funny TV show, or going outside and enjoying fresh air. You may try making a list of the things that are going well or that you are grateful for.

      Try to avoid isolating yourself or withdrawing from friends and family, as this often leads to feeling worse. Remind yourself that no feeling lasts forever and this will pass.

      Example Coping Skills:

      • Try to identify what is making you feel sad.
      • Remind yourself sadness is normal and it’s okay to feel sad or down.
      • Talk to someone you trust about your feelings.
      • Journal about how you are feeling.
      • Engage in an enjoyable activity.
      • Make a gratitude list.
      • Avoid isolating yourself.

      Download Tools (PDF)

  • Angry/Irritated/Frustrated

    • Young Children

      Everyone feels angry sometimes. It can be helpful to know how your body feels when you are angry. For example, does your heart speed up, do you begin to feel hot, or do you clench your jaw or fists? You may even feel like yelling, hitting, or running away.

      It is important to calm your body down so you don’t do these things. Try to calm down by relaxing your body. For example, if you have clenched fists, open your hands. Imagine your body becoming soft and relaxed, like a spaghetti noodle. Take a few deep breaths. Count to 20. Take a break from what you are doing. If you can’t take a break from what you are doing, continue to take deep, slow breaths and count up to 20 and back down to zero. When you are ready, it may feel good to do something that you usually enjoy, like drawing, painting, or playing outside.

      Example Coping Skills:

      • Identify how your body feels when you are angry.
      • Use a calming strategy to relax (e.g., deep breathing, count to 20, take a break).
      • Do an enjoyable activity.

      Download Tools (PDF)

    • Teens

      Everyone feels angry sometimes. It can be helpful to become aware of your anger cues. For example, does your heart speed up, do you begin to feel hot, or do you clench your jaw or fists? It’s natural to have an urge to act or lash out, but it is important to remember that the urge to act and taking action are two different things.

      Recognize the source of your anger. If you are in a situation where it’s appropriate to take a break, then take a moment to walk away from the situation and cool down. You may take a few deep breaths, count to 100, or take a walk around the block before returning to the situation where you felt angry.

      For example, if you are becoming frustrated with your math homework, it may be useful to take a brief break and return when you are feeling calmer. It is important that you do return to the activity and don’t avoid it completely.

      If you are in a situation where it is not appropriate to walk away or take a break (e.g., in a classroom, when parents are talking to you, or at work), then try taking a mental break. Take a few deep, controlled breaths; visualize a calming image (e.g., waves crashing on the beach, wind blowing through a meadow, visualizing a fun memory).

      You can help calm your emotions by activating your thinking brain. For example, count backward from 100 by threes, or say the alphabet backward. As soon as you are able, bring your attention back to the person or situation.

      If the source of your anger is another person, then it’s important to remember to respond effectively even when angry so you don’t cause more problems for yourself later. For example, rather than yelling or storming out of the room, ask to take a break from the conversation, or just listen and say, “Okay,” and then ask to continue the conversation later when you are calmer and have had time to think about what you want to communicate.

      Example Coping Skills:

      • Identify your anger cues.
      • Recognize the source of your anger.
      • If possible, take a break to walk away from the situation to cool down before returning to work though things.
      • Use a calming strategy appropriate for the situation (e.g., deep breathing, count to 100, visualization, go for a walk).

      Download Tools (PDF)

  • Stressed

    • Teens

      Everyone feels stressed sometimes. Stress can be a cue that you have too much on your plate or you are having difficulty managing your responsibilities.

      First, identify the source of your stress. For example, are you having trouble managing your time? Do you need to prioritize differently? Do you need to strengthen your organization skills? It can be helpful to identify tasks that are “must do’s” vs. “want to do’s” and to create a timeline of when tasks need to be completed.

      It might be helpful to create a daily and/or a weekly schedule to identify when tasks can be completed and to stay organized. Make sure to give yourself enough time to complete each task as well as transition between each task. For example, if school ends at 3:30 p.m., then it would be unrealistic to expect to start your homework at 3:30 p.m. It may be more realistic to plan to start your homework at 4 p.m. or -4:30 p.m. so you have enough time to commute home and grab a snack.

      Dedicate some time to keeping your materials and space organized. Having good organization skills can save you time and stress in the long run.

      Evaluate what is on your schedule. Which activities are most important and align with your long-term goals? Are there unnecessary or insignificant activities or responsibilities that you may benefit from eliminating?

      It may be useful to ask for help from trusted adults or peers when you are feeling overwhelmed. ​Make sure to schedule leisure time as well! It is important to engage in daily activities that are relaxing, such as reading, yoga, doing a crossword puzzle, or watching ​your favorite YouTuber.

      Example Coping Skills:

      • Identify the source of your stress.
      • Evaluate your schedule and make a realistic plan.
      • Ask for help with organization when feeling overwhelmed.
      • Make sure to schedule leisure/fun time.

      Download Tools (PDF)