At a Glance
When kids struggle with self-control, they may have trouble coping with everyday challenges.
You can help your child learn healthy coping strategies, like giving names to feelings.
Over time, your child may turn to these coping strategies on her own.
Kids with learning and thinking differences can struggle with self-control for various reasons. And when faced with everyday challenges, they might react in unpredictable or even explosive ways. That’s why it’s important to help them develop coping strategies.
You can help your child feel more in control of her emotions and reactions. Here are five ways to help her develop coping skills.
1. Give words to feelings.
Strong emotions can be scary for kids. And they can fuel strong reactions. But when children are able to talk about how they’re feeling and what may be causing it, their emotions can feel more manageable. When she’s upset, gently ask your child:
“How are you feeling right now?” Offer her the words to use, like mad, sad, frustrated, anxious, worried or embarrassed.
“Where are you feeling it in your body?” She may say her belly feels tight, her heart is racing or her head feels hot.
“What do you think caused it?” Help her think through what happened right before she started to get upset. You might be able to help her see a different perspective or better understand what occurred.
If your child struggles with language, she may find it difficult to talk about feelings. You can use a “How am I feeling?” visual chart to help her identify her emotions.
You may also want to read an expert’s tips for talking to your child about social and emotional issues. Find out how to respond when your child is frustrated. And if your child shares that she feels afraid of something, follow these steps to help her overcome a fear.
2. Find your child’s triggers.
Think about which situations are toughest for your child. Then consider how you can change your own behavior to help her cope with them. For example:
Does she yell when you tell her to turn off the TV? Offer a five-minute warning before shutting it off.
Does her stress level skyrocket when you ask her to get dressed each morning? A picture schedule might help her anticipate what’s expected.
Are transitions between activities particularly tough? Try to arrange for downtime between each club, sport and meeting.
If you’re unsure what your child’s triggers are, here are some places to start. Explore common triggers for kids at formal celebrations and at family gatherings. Learn about tough situations for kids with sensory processing issues, for kids with dyspraxia and for kids with ADHD.
You can also follow these steps for observing your child, which can help you develop a better understanding of your child’s struggles.
3. Stick with what she loves.
What does your child already do to feel good? Maybe she rides her bike, reads a comic book or texts with a friend. Next time you see her getting upset:
Ask if she wants to take a break with one of these calming activities.
Point out that she already has ways to calm herself down.
Over time, she may turn to these coping mechanisms on her own.
If your child doesn’t already have particular activities that calm her down, help her come up with some. For example:
Grade-schoolers: “When I’m angry at my brother, I can jump on the trampoline in the basement.”
Middle-schoolers: “If I’m stuck on a math problem, I’ll listen to two songs and then try it again.”
High-schoolers: “When I’m feeling anxious about college applications, I’ll go for a run.”
4. Be present and understanding.
When your child feels emotional, give her your full attention. If she sees that you’re distracted, she may feel even more out of control. What does being present look like?
Focus on her. Open bills and check phone messages later.
Model active listening. After she’s done speaking, restate what she’s just said in her own words, not yours. You might say: “It sounds like you felt Mr. Knight was being disrespectful.” This helps her feel heard and understood.
Ask related questions. Help her work through positive next steps. “Is there anything you think you could tell him tomorrow?”
5. Seek help when needed.
When you rely on the help of others, you show your child that there are many components to a healthy coping strategy. For example:
If your child struggles in math, a tutor can teach new long division strategies.
If you argue every time you take her driving, maybe a relative can help her get her permit.
If your child feels depressed, schedule an appointment with a counselor. Learn about signs of anxiety and depression in different grades.
Connect with other parents in our online community—they can provide tips and support. You can also explore hundreds of age-specific strategies for handling social and emotional issues. Having resources at hand can help you and your child feel more confident about your coping skills.
For more ideas, check out self-soothing techniques for young children. Read about the eight strategies a teen with dyscalculia uses to cope with anxiety. And get more tips for helping grade-schoolers, middle-schoolers and high-schoolers gain self-control.
Emotions can feel more manageable when kids know how to describe their feelings.
When you discover your child’s stress triggers, you can make changes to help your child cope.
It’s OK (and healthy!) to seek help from professionals to teach your child coping strategies.