Helping Kids Cope with Stress

Stress is part of everyday life and occurs when a certain life situation knocks a person out of balance. Immediately they feel threatened and overwhelmed because they perceive that they have limited resources and confidence to manage the stressor. For many kids, coping with the demands of school can be stressful because they find it difficult to keep up with the workload, they begin to fall behind, and feel threatened by the outcome. On the other hand, students who view the pressures of school as a challenge not a threat, seem to work harder and have an easier time managing the demands. Coping with stress begins with how kids appraise the situation and take control of their thoughts, emotions and actions.

The response to stress is multifaceted and complex, but we know that positive emotions are important to managing stress. Coping is how a person thinks, behaves, and responds in a stressful situation. Effective coping strategies help kids alleviate the negative effects of stress and meet the demands in healthy ways. Unfortunately, some kids exhibit defensive mechanisms in response to stress by distorting reality of the situation through self-deception. This shields them from emotional discomfort that is caused by stress like guilt and anxiety however, this behavior causes additional stress because avoidance and wishful thinking rarely solve the problem or get the work done. It’s healthier to engage in constructive mechanisms when dealing with stressful events. Confronting the problem directly, avoiding deception and being realistic about the situation are positive approaches to handling stressors.

Coping with stress involves thoughts and behavior. Folkman & Lazarus (1984) distinguish between two types of coping strategies: emotion-focused and problem-focused.

  1. Emotion-focused coping strategies center on the negative aspects and emotions that are causing the stressful situation. When this occurs, a student perceives the situation to be outside of his or her control leaving them with feelings of frustration and despair. Often kids engage in avoidance which alleviates the stress short-term but it’s not healthy long-term.

  2. Problem-focused coping targets the cause of the stress allowing kids to engage in strategies that help them view the demands of school as manageable and less threatening. They perceive the stress to be within their capacity to alter and control. Problem focused strategies help individuals recognize the source of the stress and make necessary changes to reduce the stress. Initially, avoidance strategies may increase feelings of hope when used in a minimal manner however, its best for students to engage in problem-focused coping.

Personality can be tough to define, yet it’s an imperative part of the coping process. Personality is complex, and encompasses the ways in which a person thinks, feels and behaves. Students feel greater distress when they view challenges negatively, while students who have a more positive outlook may experience less distress and engage in healthier coping strategies. The Five-Factor Model or Big Five is a widely accepted model of personality that lists five broad trait labels or dimensions. These labels consist of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. To better understand why personality is important to the coping process we need to take a closer look at the facets of the Big Five. According to this model, all individuals fall somewhere along each of the following continuums.

Openness to Experience:

Individuals who are high in openness are interested in new experiences, are flexible in their thinking and receptive to their personal feelings. Students who are high in openness have vivid imaginations, may like fantasy, science fiction, and often daydream to escape and create an interesting inner world. Students who are lower in openness may be more closed minded and rigid in how they approach new experiences.

Conscientiousness:

This facet is highly correlated with self-esteem because individuals who are high in conscientiousness feel competent and capable. They are diligent in the way they approach life and school work. Kids who are high in conscientiousness are neat, tidy, well-organized, and have high aspirations to work hard and achieve personal goals. They also get homework done and turned-in on time, and their backpacks are organized and orderly. Students who are lower on the conscientiousness scale are less interested in the details of how things get done and their world tends to be less organized.

Extraversion:

This is probably the most recognizable personality trait because it’s easy to see in people. Extraverts are sociable, warm, and have an easy time forming close attachments to others. They can be socially assertive and gain energy from interacting with others. Students who are extraverted enjoy social interaction but can also be dominant and impulsive at times. They also like to keep busy, crave excitement, and feel positive emotions like joy, happiness, love and excitement. They may be described by their peers as cheerful, optimistic and energetic. Introverts draw energy from reflection and prefer being alone or part of smaller groups. Students who are higher in introversion recharge through solitude and tend to be more reserved. They are not motivated by outward recognition and rewards.

Agreeableness:

Individuals who are high in agreeableness are sincere, trusting, and straightforward in their thoughts and communication. They view others as being honest and well-intentioned. Students who are high in this facet have an active concern for others. They are generous, willing to help, and tend to be modest, humble and compliant. Students who are lower in agreeableness are more oppositional.

Neuroticism:

Those who are highly neurotic tend to be less stable and frequently demonstrate negative emotions. Students who are high in this facet may feel more anger, frustration and bitterness towards themselves and others. They may also feel depressed and a range of emotions that go with depression like: sadness, guilt, hopelessness, and loneliness. The higher a person is in the facet the more vulnerable they are to stress. Students who are lower in this facet are more emotionally stable, pleasant and tend to be resistant to stress.

Personality traits influence students’ behavior, and success in school. It’s important to recognize that personality is only one of many aspects of behavior, but it is one that is consistent over time. Stress appraisal and emotions affect how kids cope with daily demands; and it’s critical that they learn to view stress as a challenge and not a threat. When kids see a specific situation as a threat, they want to “fight or flee.” This response causes increased frustration at school and in the home environment. The five personality dimensions provide insights for parents and educators as to how a student might respond to and manage stress. Positive personality strengths that may help students manage the demands of school include: efficacy, optimism, hope and resiliency. Personality traits do influence the coping process and healthy coping skills help kids effectively navigate everyday stress.

About the Author

Vikki Carrel

Author, National Speaker/Trainer, Academic Therapist

Vikki empowers people! She is an author, national speaker, corporate trainer, and an Academic Therapist. Vikki grew up in Salt Lake City, met her husband at the University of Utah, and has owned several companies across the United States. In 2010, Vikki and her husband moved back to Utah, and she founded Vikki Carrel & Company, a speaking and training organization. While living in the East, Vikki was an Academic Therapist in the Central Bucks School District for several years. She received specialized training in teaching and implementing educational strategies to help students who perform below bench mark in reading and writing. Her strength is working with children that have ADHD, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and other learning disabilities. Vikki is the author of Switching Lanes, Puzzle Pieces and co-author of Chloe’s Closet. As a co-founder of Two Balance, Inc. and Mother Daughter America she has empowered teens, collegians, and adults for over two decades. Vikki continues to draw from her impressive 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur, working in non-profit leadership and education to teach strategies that help individuals with resistance to change, the power of perception, reducing stress, increasing personal productivity and impression management. Vikki holds a degree in Business Administration/Marketing. She and her husband have two grown sons and a daughter in law.

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