Coping styles in teenagers

On Thursday 9 February, Associate Professor Erica Frydenberg from the University of Melbourne’s School of Graduate Education spoke to Year 7 parents about coping and the importance of teaching adolescents the skills to cope with life’s challenges.

For nearly 30 years, Erica has made a valuable contribution to the field of social emotional learning through the development of the Adolescent Coping Scale (ACS). The research, informing the development of the ACS, has in turn inspired explicit coping skills teaching programs, including Think Positively! A course for developing coping skills in adolescents, which our Year 7s will work through this year. This book takes a positive approach to the promotion of health and wellbeing in young people, giving them the skills to cope with the problems of everyday life.

What are coping styles?

The development of the ACS found 23 distinct coping strategies that are then grouped into three basic styles of coping: solving the problem, non-productive coping and reference to others.

Productive Non-productive Reference to others
Focus on solving the problem Not coping Invests in close friends
Work hard and achieve Worry Seeks social support
Focus on the positive Ignore the problem Seeks professional help
Seek relaxing diversions Wishful thinking Tries to be funny
Physical recreation Tension reduction Seeks spiritual support
Accept my best efforts Self-blame Seeks to belong
Get sick Social actions
Give up
Keep to self
Act up

The group of strategies that involve ‘Reference to Others’ can generally be considered a subset of Productive coping strategies, as connecting with others is an important contributor towards overall wellbeing.

There is no single ‘best way to cope’, as the demands of each challenging situation call for different approaches. For example, in a situation where a young person is struggling with feelings of embarrassment after making a public mistake, ‘seeking relaxing diversions’ or ‘using humour’ may be useful ways of coping, however these might not be the most appropriate ways to cope with getting an assignment finished the night before it’s due.

Do boys and girls cope the same way?

As well as having to deal with different situations, boys and girls differ in the way they tend to cope. Research indicates that boys are more likely to ‘externalise’ problems and blame others and factors outside of themselves, where girls are more likely to turn to each other.

How do we teach young people to cope?

“If you can name it, you can tame it.”

Programs that teach coping and other social-emotional skills first focus on providing children with a language for expressing what they are dealing with. By helping them put into words the situations they find challenging and the associated feelings provides a point from which to take meaningful action towards addressing their concerns.

Having conversations about how we cope with challenging situations can bring into a young person’s awareness the types of strategies they would typically employ. This then allows us to do two things: firstly to reflect on the usefulness or success of their current coping strategies, and secondly to introduce the idea of alternate ways of coping. This may involve new ways to cope that they’ve not previously thought of, or using existing coping skills in new situations.

When teaching coping, we talk about the various ways we cope and whether these are strategies that are likely to have positive outcomes, both in the short- and long-term. Identifying and discussing the helpful strategies that students are already employing is empowering and positive. Identifying and examining their unhelpful coping strategies can help young people understand why they may have been stuck in a problem previously. Identifying more helpful strategies to use in future contributes to a positive mindset about coping, and can be a helpful antidote to feeling helpless.

What can parents do?

  • – Acknowledge their children’s feelings and talk about the different options for coping available: what have they already tried? Did it help? What else could they consider?
  • – Whilst acknowledging difficult emotions, discourage non-productive coping strategies such as whining, tantrums, blaming oneself and anger
  • – Encourage helpful strategies like saying sorry, asking for help and staying calm
  • – Modelling effective coping strategies yourself.

Want to learn more?

Frydenberg, E. (2015). Families Coping: Effective strategies for you and your child, ACER Press.