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The A,B,C’s of Building Coping Skills in Your Students

I recently returned from a leadership training event that included both students and staff/faculty at Texas Tech. This campus is full of incredibly smart individuals and high performing coaches and athletes. Like other universities, however, it’s a place of high pressure to make the grade, make the team and make the most of opportunities.

It was while I was there I came up with a hypothesis.

We live in a day of high stress and high pressure, regardless of our field. We also, however, live in a day that pushes us to look outside for solutions rather than within. This causes stress to tax our coping skills because our answers are out of our reach.

The students I met who felt stressed with academic pressures either sought to adapt themselves to those stressors or to adapt the stressors to their liking. At first glance, the latter did not fair so well in their coping skills. This caused me to begin digging.

How Students Try to Cope

The results of a new study from Vanderbilt University have just been released on what enables youth to cultivate coping skills. Lead author, Bruce Compas, published this meta-analysis of more than 200 coping and emotion regulation studies that included more than 80,000 young adults. According to a report from Vanderbilt, he says, “learning effective ways to manage stress is especially important for children.”

For the purposes of the research, the report summarized the most common approaches taken by students in five categories:

  • Problem solving (Students try to resolve the issue through critical thinking.)
  • Emotional suppression (Students merely repress the issue internally.)
  • Cognitive reappraisal (Students examine the issue from new perspectives.)
  • Distraction (Students attempt to divert their attention to something else.)
  • Avoidance (Students work to ignore or evade the issue completely.).

The report states, “Dr. Compas and his team assessed the impact of these strategies on the students’ internalized symptoms like depression, anxiety and loneliness, and external manifestations of stress like antisocial behavior and aggression.” In the end, the team uncovered one supreme finding among participants:

“We’ve found that the most effective strategies for coping are ones that involve adapting to the stressors rather than trying to change the stressors.”

These findings reflect what Dr. Compas has gleaned from his longitudinal research with children who have cancer: “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.”

The ABC’s of Helping Students Learn to Cope

So, what can we do as parents, teachers, coaches, employers and youth workers?

A – Assess: Help them identify the exact issue that’s causing them stress.

B – Belief: Help them determine what they believe about it that feels out of control.

C – Change: Help them change their perspective and approach the issue differently.

“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 bigger problems associated with stress.”

“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 continued. “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.”

In short, the solution is rarely to change the stressor around us. It’s best to become strategic about changing our coping mechanism inside us. Good leaders do this well.

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