4 Healthy Teen Coping Strategies

I went over to James Lick Middle School last week to speak with some of their 8th graders about healthy vs unhealthy ways to deal with difficult emotions.  They had just finished Sherman Alexie's excellent book, The Absolutly True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  The story describes how a young artist uses his drawings to cope with the stressors of growing up in poverty on an American Indian reservation. The book also illustrates some pretty unhealthy ways to deal with stress, loss and hopelessness as demonstrated by a number of characters who battle with alcoholism. 

The 8th graders were really good at identifying unhealthy coping strategies, drawing from the book as well as personal experience. What was harder, however, was coming up with more positive strategies to engage in when things get tough. "We know what we're not supposed to do," commented one student. "We just don't know what to do instead."  Before I get sidetracked on the lack of emotional education in our schools, I'll share the four main strategies we identified together. 

 1) Find your support. And talk. Maybe it's a longtime friend. Maybe it's an adult you trust. Identify the people around you who will listen. Teenagers are exploring and identifying the peer relationships they have all the time. The most supportive friends may have gone through a similar experience or suffered a similar loss. Adults may be able to pull from previous life experiences to help.  Many teens (especially boys) at the beginning of treatment tell me, "What's the point?  Talking about it won't solve anything."  Many of the situations in which people experience difficult emotions involve an element of hopelessness, that the situation is beyond anyone's control. While talking may not solve the problem, the act of supportive listening and emotional expression can be extremely helpful.

 2) Work your memories.  When dealing with loss, take solace in your memories.  While the people in our lives may leave suddenly, our memories of them belong to us forever.  Sharing memories with others experiencing the same loss can be particularly helpful.  People naturally gravitate towards each other after shared trauma or loss. Use this opportunity to share what you remember. 

 3) Find some positive.  No matter how small, finding positive thoughts is helpful in buffering difficult emotions and coping with difficult feelings. "I'll just get through today," or "I can try again tomorrow," can help bring perspective and rationale to a chaotic situation brought on by tragedy or trauma. 

 4) Take time to escape. Isn't this supposed to be in the unhealthy column?  True, when people get stuck using escape to isolate or as their only strategy. But in moderation, escape can provide a welcome and healthy break from dealing with difficult emotions. This is why many people seek to return to their usual routine after a traumatic event or loss.  It's OK to think of other things for a while. It's OK to give yourself a break. 

Why don't teens gravitate towards these behaviors?  Unhealthy behaviors like avoidance and numbing work quickly, satisfying their impulsive side. Also, just like the kids I talked to last week, they simply aren't taught a more positive alternative.  Modeling some of these strategies may give your teen the example they need to deal with the stressors in their lives in a healthy way.  Talk explicitly about these strategies and help your teen to develop a healthy repertoire of how to cope when life seems out of control. 


The Myth of the Bumbling Dad

Originally written in April, 2013

I had a great Sunday with my family this past weekend. We were able to step away from our daily hustle and bustle and spend (almost) the whole day together. We drove out to Berkeley and visited a comic book store and a game shop, my 6 year old dying to spend the birthday money he's been squirreling away. We also saw a musical at the Bay Area Children's Theater entitled Knuffle Bunny, based on the wonderful children's book by Mo Williems. My son almost hit the floor laughing as the little girl in the story desperately tried to communicate to her thoroughly incapable dad that he had left her beloved stuffed animal at the laundromat. Mom clearly would never have made such a grievous mistake, right?  Only the inept male parent would have screwed up so badly. The whole thing got me thinking: are we embracing the image of the Bumbling Dad?

Parenting roles have clearly changed over recent history.  My father continues to state (somewhat guiltily I think) that he "never changed a diaper." (Don't worry, Dad. I've got us both covered.) I guess it's difficult for a father like me to continue to see our role in the family so frequently reduced to such a dimwitted stereotype. After all, this is Berkeley, California, capable of making San Francisco look surprisingly conservative  when it comes to social consciousness and traditional gender roles.  What do we love about this portrayal of dad as the idiot? 

The Bumbling Dad is not a new concept. It's been represented in movies like Mr. Mom as Michael Keaton resorts to drastic diaper changing methods.  Dads haveShrunk the Kids and Blown Up the Kids in their respective films.  They can be portrayed as Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin in animated form. In the popularTwilight series of books and movies, the character of Bella's dad is a harmless, clueless male figure who can't possibly understand or help his daughter as she falls madly in love with the local teen vampire (oh, I've seen it).  Advertising seems to be flush with dumb dads who can't do laundry or (heaven forbid) be left alone with their own children for an extended time without some kind of family disaster.

While it's easy to think of examples of this playing out over and over again in popular culture, I can't think of any reason why men are inherently bumbling when it comes to raising their children. The dad of the millennium stays home with young kids, changes many a diaper and volunteers at the elementary school. In fact, our society puts tons of importance on dad just being physically present in the family, giving us all kinds of statistics about what happens to kids when their dad is not around.

Let's hold ourselves to a slightly higher standard. Dads are doing more and more in the modern family and are producing a new generation of boys who will see men taking a more active role in parenting as the norm.  I'm ready to reject the tired stereotype of the Bumbling Dad in all its forms.  The best evidence will not come from movies or TV, but from the example set at home for our own sons and daughters.  We are capable of so much more than just being around.