There are times when it feels like problems come at you left and right. Some days do you think to yourself, “Seriously, what else can go wrong today?” Life, as Buddha said, is full of suffering, and we have daily reasons to grieve. Acknowledging our sad feelings actually gives us more range in feeling our happy ones. Choosing to be happy doesn’t mean repressing our feelings. It means acknowledging and honoring our feelings, and then letting them go. The important word here is “choosing” as many of the “problems” we encounter really depend on how we choose to react to them. We can choose to let these problems consume us negatively or choose to acknowledge it, cope with it and as Elsa says, “Let it go!”
In past blog posts, I have talked about the importance of being resilient and how that contributes to fostering grit. Resiliency and learning to cope with stressful situations and problems that arise in your life and in your child’s life can be a learned trait. I came across an interesting website that focused on brain-based research and how important it is to understand how our brains work and grow in order to properly develop coping ability. Below is a very informative article from their website on how young children develop coping skills. For more information go to: http://copingskills4kids.net
Introduction: Principles for Developing our Coping Ability
The pre-teen years are the best time to learn these skills and begin to use simple, brain-based coping tools. During this time our brain is rapidly developing and our thinking ability becomes more like an adult. These skills and tools give us the power to control our stress and get over daily upsets. We learn coping skills like we learn math, English or music. Coping is like learning a new language. Many of the terms are quite simple to learn, but only through practice can we improve our coping ability. Let’s start by introducing some basic coping principles.
These principles are the same basic concepts that pre-teen students learn in Brain Works for Kids classroom education projects in grades 4, 5 and 6. Our ability to effectively cope with challenges and upsets requires learning and practicing skills so they become everyday coping tools. Just learning about these principles is not enough. Pre-teens need to use these skills and tools in times of stress. Coping skills become stronger the more we use them to overcome challenging experiences. Pre-teens are able to gain these skills now to prepare them for middle school life when we’re more likely to be stressed, angry and sad due to normal brain changes during teenage years.
Humans are born with instinctive coping IMPULSES, but we have to learn coping SKILLS. All of us are born with strong survival brain instincts that help us to stay alive when we were helpless and totally depended on mother (and dad). While our reptilian and emotional brain coping impulses are pretty well developed at birth, our thinking neocortex needs time to develop since it’s what we use to learn difficult things including coping skills. For helpless babies, crying is emotional and reptilian brains’ instinctive way of getting attention and help when we had too much gas in our tummy or our bottom was cold or irritated by a soiled diaper. When we were a bit older toddlers and got frustrated or upset while playing with other children, hitting playmates became our other main protective instinct. These same emotional and reptilian brain impulses were important to protect our self when our bodies or feelings were hurt. But by the time we’re nine-years-old, pre-teens and their brains are far more developed. We are able to learn and use higher thinking abilities of our neocortex to “manage” those childhood emotional and reptilian brain instinctive responses when we were frustrated or emotionally upset. Research studies show that by about the age of nine, pre-teens become capable of managing upsets by themselves.
By using neocortex to “figure out” how to cope with challenges we create new brain coping cells. It’s like lifting weights. Each time we challenge our thinking brain to understand why we feel upset, we also become smarter in the way we act and respond to stress. Each coping success brings greater confidence that tells us we CAN get over our next upset more easily. In the classroom Brain Works Project, pre-teens tell us that once they’ve learned and practiced “thinking brain coping skills” to get over stress, they feel confident they can “bounce back” from upsets more easily. This makes kids more resilient, and may even help us to like ourselves more!
There’s nothing “wrong” with you when your feelings are hurt. Sometimes our upsets are more stressful because we believe “Something is wrong with me” when the only thing that’s happened is your brain feels threatened and that makes us afraid. We need neocortex to help us understand that everyone gets their feelings hurt, but not everyone learns healthy coping skills for getting over it.
Take the example of a crocodile. We know it only has a reptilian brain. That’s why they are mean killing machines. They have no emotional brain or any feelings at all. But even if they did have a feelings they wouldn’t have a thinking (neocortex) brain that helps them understand and cope with their anger.
Taking responsibility for our own feelings. We cannot always control what others do or say to us which bring on our upsets. But we can learn to be responsible for coping and dealing with the emotional pain and stress we feel inside.
Coping skills increase our self-management ability. Once we learn how our coping brains work, we gain a new sense of control over all of our own coping brain functions. The more we practice healthy coping skills, the easier it becomes to get over the next upsetting experience.
Coping takes courage. It takes coping courage to learn how to deal with difficult or painful problems head-on. Just wishing that stress and emotional pain goes away doesn’t work. Neither does trying to “blur out” our hurt feelings and stress by using drugs or alcohol. Drugs are like trying to give our emotional brain a shot of Novocain like dentists use to numb our mouth. It only lasts a short time. After it wears off we still have to cope with the real hurt stored inside our brain. If you have the courage to face difficult situations, you will find yourself growing stronger after each time you cope successfully. We can’t run away from brain strain or pain. If we don’t deal with it directly sure enough it stays there inside our brain’s memory!
Brains Rule! Neuroscientists have used new imaging equipment that lets us see where feelings start inside our brain. Our powerful coping brains are there to tell us when we are upset and need to use our coping skills. Just like emotional and reptilian brains help us recognize when we feel threatened, our thinking brain is always there if we use it to figure out why we’re upset. We have a choice to go on “automatic” and let our instinctive brains – reptilian and emotional – take over and tell us how we should react when we’re upset. Or we can get our neocortex involved to take control of the coping process.
Ignoring or just storing our hurt feelings can be a dangerous coping habit. Once we sense our feelings are hurt by something that happens, trying to ignore it doesn’t make it go away. It only buries the pain more deeply in our emotional brain memory system, where it can challenge and threaten our sense of safety and even the ability to like our self. Since pretending that we’re not hurt doesn’t help us get over it, that same part of our brain that remembers pain is what we need to use to learn, pay attention and remember when we’re learning new things at school.
When we are upset and under stress, so is our brain! Yes our brain can become so stressed when we’re upset for long periods scientists have found the stress chemicals in our body can shrink portions part of our emotional memory. So our brain can lose some of its ability to remember, concentrate and learn. If you’re having trouble paying attention in class your brain may be distracted from learning. Coping skills just don’t make you feel better, they are important so that we learn to deal with and recover from stress and use all our brain’s thinking and learning ability.
Our coping brain has three different and necessary parts, but just one “captain.” We can learn how to make the different parts of our coping Brain Team work together. Learn more about our Brain Team led by Captain Neo, our neocortex. Neocortex is by far the largest and most powerful learning tool in the universe. This thinking brain contains 85% of our total brain cells for learning, six times larger than each of our two instinctive (reptilian and emotional) coping brain functions. So Rep (reptillian) and “Emo (emotional) brains mostly work automatically rather than think.
Our thinking brain can tell us when we can’t cope and need help. We can learn that it’s OK to ask for help when we just can’t get over some upsets, anger or sadness. Coping skills include the ability to seek and use outside help when we know we need to build more coping confidence. People who learn to ask others (friends, parents, counselors, etc.) for help to build coping ability become stronger (not weaker) the next time a challenging experience causes stress. We all need help and support from others sometimes. It’s nothing to be shy about telling others.
Often the most resilient people are those who’ve learned to ask for help when they know they need to build their own abilities to get over upsets more easily in the future. This website has lots of activities and resources you can practice to become better able to use brain-based coping skills.