By psychologist Angie Willcocks
When people find out I’m a psychologist, they have some amusing reactions. Some people ask, "Are you reading my mind now?" Others ask, "Have you analysed me yet?" And still others make a bee-line for the nearest exit. One of the most common and interesting assumptions is that working as a psychologist "must be depressing" But why?, I once asked. And the answer was this: "You have to listen to all sorts of sad things that have happened to people and there’s nothing you can do about it."
Yes, indeed that would be a depressing job! Thankfully, I have never thought of my job like that. I don’t see my work as just listening to problems all day and not being able to do anything about them – though it is true of course that psychologists cannot actually fix problems most of the time.
My job is not usually about identifying what is wrong and coming up with a plan to 'fix it'. Rather, it is about drawing a client’s attention to what can be done to improve the situation, even if the problem is never fixed. My job is to focus on and encourage problem-solving, optimism, hope and resilience.
Helping kids to cope
I think the job of parenting is very similar. It’s impossible (and probably unhelpful in the long run) for parents to fix all problems in their children’s lives. It is painful, though, to see your child distressed about something that cannot easily be 'made better'. Parental separation, illness, friendship problems, distance between family members, or even the loss of a pet or loved one are the sorts of things that cause real distress. And they cannot be easily fixed.
If parents start thinking there’s nothing they can do to 'make it all better', they quickly become overwhelmed and anxious themselves (and then are not much use to the kids at all).
However, if the focus is taken off fixing the problem and moved to supporting the child to cope, there’s actually a lot parents can do. Even when parents can’t make it all better, they can foster and encourage positive coping skills.
Coping well (for adults as well as children) does not require positive feelings about the situation. Sadness, anger, grief or disappointment are all very normal and actually have little to do with coping. Coping is really made up of how we think and what we do about a given situation.
Negative feelings are quite normal
Take the example of a parent who works away: it is quite normal for children to feel upset, angry, disappointed (among other feelings). The presence of these feelings does not, in itself, mean that the child is not coping. Just like adults, children should be allowed to identify and express their feelings. Of course, it is necessary for them to express them in appropriate ways. It is OK to be angry but not OK to hit people.
It is usual for a child to feel disappointed, for example, if their dad can’t come to sports day. But the feelings or the situation do not have to be fixed – rather the child can be encouraged to think through what might make the situation easier to cope with. Something like this: "I know you're disappointed that dad can’t make it to sports day. He wishes he could come too. Is there something we could do to make it a little easier?" Examples might include an uncle or friend coming along, recording an event for dad to see later or wearing or carrying something of dad’s so that it feels like he is close by. Kids are amazing at coming up with practical suggestions, and these should be encouraged. Suggest some of your own ideas as well.
It is true that, just like adults, some kids might need a little more help than others to cope. This is largely due to temperament, as some people just do seem to feel things more deeply and have more trouble shifting their thinking.
Generally speaking, parents can help children to develop good coping strategies in the following ways:
- Demonstrate positive problem-solving in their own life (and allow the kids to witness it). If a child sees their parent/s trying to work through a problem in a logical manner, they are likely to try to use the same strategies.
- Allow feelings to be discussed and examined within the family, but then move on and shift the focus. Feelings come and go all day like waves on the ocean (and some days are rougher than others!) Any given feeling does not last long unless we keep thinking about whatever generated the feeling in the first place. It’s ok to say “what might make you feel a bit better now” and take the focus off the feeling and shift it onto thoughts and/or actions. Kids are actually quite good at this, leading adults to be amazed at how quickly a mood can change! I think this is a healthy sign and shows that kids have not yet got into the ‘overthinking’ that adults often do!
- Encourage and support good self esteem: Self esteem refers to the way we think and feel about ourselves. Good self esteem does not just come from being told how wonderful and perfect one is, but from the experiencing the buzz of doingthings well. Encouraging good self esteem means encouraging and supporting kids to develop age appropriate skills, talents and interests that they can feel good about. Supporting children to develop their own talents and interests is important, as is encouraging skill development (that is developmentally appropriate of course self-self-esteem will plummet if the task is too difficult to achieve with a healthy dose of practice and persistence). Skills can be as simple as tying shoelaces, running, skipping, unpacking the dishwasher, kicking a ball or making that perfect cup of Milo.
- Allow your kids to make use of support that is available. Resilient kids tend to find and use support wherever it is available, be that at school, church, through sporting activities, their extended families or friends. Encouraging and supporting community involvement can be important in helping kids to cope.
- Encourage and support the development of skills such as relaxation and visualisation in your child’s life. These are truly invaluable skills that will provide benefit for many years to come.
- A healthy diet, adequate sleep and physical activity are always important, but especially so at times of increased stress.
One CD I highly recommended is Relaxation for Kids by Gillian Ross (it's Australian but available online).
Mining Family Matters aims to break down the barriers of isolation and the stresses of living away from family and friends. Although this website provides general advice from a psychologist and practical tips from mining families, the content should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. Always speak to your doctor or specialist provider for advice on a specific medical condition. If you are depressed and require urgent assistance, call 9-1-1 or visit the Canadian Mental Health Association website at www.cmha.ca.
Angie Willcocks is a registered psychologist with a private practice in Adelaide, South Australia. www.angiewillcocks.com.