Find the best coping skills for kids to deal with strong emotions and difficult situations
Sometimes emotions can become overwhelming. Just like adults, kids can experience stress, anxiety, confusion, depression, anger, frustration, and more. However they have had less time to learn how to deal with strong feelings.
Coping skills help kids deal with difficult emotions and situations. Practicing coping mechanisms can also improve long-term mental health and reduce overall stress. Below are 15 coping skills to help kids feel better in the moment.
Special note: Some of the exercises below may not work for you depending on your health, abilities, or preferences. If that’s the case, choose one of the other activities that works better! Also find more ideas in our kids feelings bundle!
1. Take a deep, slow breath
Just like adults feel better after a deep breath, kids usually do too. The trick to calming through breathing is to breathe in fully and breathe out slowly. Here’s one simple breathing exercise for kids that’s easy to remember:
Count to 10 as you breathe in slowly
Wait for 5 seconds
Breathe out slowly, while pretend you’re breathing out through a straw, with rounded (pursed) lips
You may need to remind younger kids that this isn’t the same as holding your breath while swimming. It’s just about slowing your breathing down.
Slowing breathing tricks your mind into thinking you’re calm, and that’s what makes you feel better.
Whether you’re an adult, kids, or teen, you can try this right now! If you have any health conditions that prevent you from using breathing exercises, see if one of the coping mechanisms below works better.
2. Notice sounds around you
When you are using one of the five senses, you are staying in the moment. This is also called mindfulness or grounding. One way to be mindful is to listen to sounds that are happening right now.
Here are some ways kids can use listening to sounds as a coping skill:
Stop and listen for sounds within the room. Do you hear a fan, music, or a tv? Just notice all of the sounds for a minute.
Listen for sounds outside the room. You might have to mute devices inside to hear fully. Are there birds, traffic, or squirrels making noise? Listen to the sounds from the outside for a minute.
Play your favorite music and pay really close attention. What instruments do you hear? How does the singer’s voice sound? See if you can notice things you don’t usually pay attention to.
3. Notice colors around you
Do you like colors? For some kids and teens, looking for colors can be a super effective coping skill. Start with one color, such as blue, and look around the room.
Count to yourself how many things you can see that are blue. Once that’s done, choose another color and do the same. Continue until you feel better, or you find as many colors in the room as possible.
Counting and noticing colors is a skill from dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). It’s part of the ACCEPTS skill which helps with distress tolerance. That’s a fancy term for dealing with really strong emotions or overwhelming situations.
If you’re not into colors, you can also count shapes. How many square things are there in the room? How many triangle-shaped things can you see outside in nature?
4. Hug a stuffed animal
There’s a reason a lot of kids (and adults) love stuffed animals. They give a similar feeling to hugging a pet or person.
And with a stuffed bear or other soft toy the hugs are unlimited!
As you squeeze the stuffy, notice how it feels. Is it soft? Does it have fur? What do your hands or arms feel like as you hug it? Does it change your emotions?
If you don’t have a stuffed animal you can also hug a blanket, pillow, or towel. Anything cozy and soft will do!
You can also buy or make a weighted blanket or stuffed animal by opening the lining and filling it with rice or beans.
Adding heaviness to the fabric creates a life-like feel for stuffed animals, feeling almost as if you’re holding the real thing. You can buy many different versions of weighted blankets and animals online.
5. Validate your emotions
Do you ever think, “I shouldn’t feel sad,” or “It’s wrong to be mad.” Many people think this and may even say it to kids. But it isn’t the feeling that’s the problem, it’s only the negative behaviors that sometimes follow.
Your feelings themselves are a real thing. Just like you might have a stomach ache, you might feel sad. Feeling mad is a lot like having a headache. Tell yourself that other people feel this way sometimes too, and it’s okay that you do.
Often, simply remembering that other people have the same feelings as you do sometimes can make you feel better.
6. Question negative thoughts
Some kids develop low self-esteem, due to trauma, learning difficulties, or other challenges. They may internalize negative messages such as, “I’m no good,” or “I can’t do this!” Thinking constant bad things about yourself would damage anyone’s self esteem.
While it’s good to roll with emotions when you can, it’s not always a good idea to go along with any thoughts that come through your head.
Take time to notice what thoughts are coming up. If they’re often negative, then it may be a good idea to start questioning those thoughts.
Is it possible that you’re feeling negative about yourself because of something bad that happened in the past? Could it be that you’re better at art/sports/socializing than you think you are?
A CBT therapist (cognitive behavioral therapist) can help you practice noticing and changing patterns of negative thoughts. They can also help you develop overall coping mechanisms for stress.
7. Draw a Picture
Do you like making drawings or other pictures? There are lots of ways that drawing can help as a coping mechanism. You can draw out your feelings, or just draw something you like. You can make the picture simple or fun with stick figures, or take your time and create a masterpiece.
Here are some drawing prompts for kids and teens:
Draw what you’re feeling
Choose colors to match your emotions
Draw a self-portrait
Draw a picture of your pet
Draw your coping skill
Paint a family portrait
Combine drawing with a collage
Put your own spin on a picture you like
Make abstract art
Create art with shapes
Scribble with your favorite colors
Draw on your old clothes (with permission)
8. Talk to an adult
Adults are always telling kids what they should and shouldn’t do, and many kids and teens are afraid to get in trouble. That makes it hard sometimes to confide in an adult.
However, you can start with adults who you’re more comfortable around. Maybe you have a counselor, a teacher, or a coach who is understanding. You can start with them and then they can help you talk to your parents if you need to.
Often parents wish they’d known what a hard time their kid was having in the past. They may not always say the right thing, but over time it usually helps for them to know you’re facing challenges.
Then they can be more understanding if you have problems with friends, school, or work.
If your parents are the ones who are causing you problems or making them worse, talk to a counselor or a support line. They may be able to help you work through it with your parents, or get to a safer place if that’s what’s best.
9. Make a gift
Have you ever gotten caught up with a project and found that you feel better about life in general? Doing something creative can change your brain chemistry! It can be fun and make you feel more confident.
To give your creativity a purpose, think about making a gift. It could be for a teacher, parent, grandparent, friend, or even your pet (as long as it’s a safe gift for them)!
Plan out the steps, what supplies you’ll need, and set up the space to make the present. Here are some ideas for gifts you could make:
Drawings or paintings
10. Play with puppets
What do you think about puppets? Some people find them silly or fun. They can also be a way to express your emotions.
Use a puppet you already have or create your own. You can use an old sock or pieces of cardboard and construction paper.
Create a character for your puppet. It can be a version of you or a person or animal you make up. Create a story with multiple puppets–you can even write out a script!
Make your play fun and silly, or make it about what is bothering you if you want. It can be an easier way to voice what’s going on than just saying it. If there’s someone else you want to witness your play invite them to the event!
11. Shake out your body
Have you ever seen a dog shake out their body after they go for a swim? It actually feels pretty good for humans to shake too.
Start by shrugging your shoulders and then shake your whole body. If you want you can let out a big loud noise while you do it.
You can also start with one part of your body at a time. Shake out one arm, then the other, then each leg. Scrunch up your face a couple of times and then relax it – it’s like shaking out your face too!
Then pat down any parts of your body, like your shoulder blades and stomach that you can’t shake as easily. It makes your whole body feel better, and you might feel better too.
Another way to make your body feel better is by exercising. It releases feel-good chemicals that make you feel more relaxed and energized over time. It can also be a way to get strong emotions such as anger out without harming yourself or others.
Exercise can be any activity that involves movement. For example, one of the most fun ways for kids to use exercise as a coping skill is to dance. Here’s a list that includes more examples:
Walk in nature
Do jumping jacks
See how fast you can safely clean your room
Climb at the playground
Time yourself while you race and try to beat your last record
Play with your pet
This is a short list of many, many activities that involve exercise! You might notice that they overlap with some of the other coping skills for kids, and that’s great. Combining skills makes them even more effective.
13. Write a letter
Do you have things you want to talk about but aren’t sure how to say them? Or is there someone who you haven’t talked to in a while?
How about writing an old-fashioned letter? You can type it or write it out. If you like, you can write the letter just to yourself. Say everything you’d like to say, and then rip it up if you don’t want to keep it. That way you won’t hold back about your feelings.
If the person you want to share with is a safe and supportive person, then you might choose to show them the letter. You could write to a parent, your teacher, or another friend you trust. Even if you don’t want to share your feelings, writing a fun letter can be a nice distraction.
14. Read a book
Do you like reading? If you do, books are the perfect way to cope as a kid. You can get lost in a story that’s nothing like your life. Or, you can find stories that have kids or teens just like you who are going through similar problems.
That can make you feel better, so you know you’re not alone. No matter what you’re going through, other kids or teens have probably been through something similar.
You can also learn new things from a book. Maybe you want to learn how to talk about your feelings, or how to do science experiments. There are all kinds of ways books can be fun and helpful.
You can find free books at your school or town library, as well as online through apps like Kindle.
15. Watch a movie
Almost everyone has enjoyed watching a movie, and for some people it’s their favorite hobby. It can be comforting to watch a movie you’ve already seen. Choose one that matches your emotions, or one that usually makes you feel better.
I find that uplifting movies where people overcome challenges are particularly helpful as a coping skill. Here are some suggestions, depending on your age and what things you like to watch.
Inspirational movies for kids:
Adults and teens may love any of the movies above as well. Here are some other movies that may not work as well for kids but can be inspirational for teens. Some of these may work best for older teens, so ask your parents first if it’s okay.
Good Will Hunting
The Fault in our Stars
Little Miss Sunshine
Pursuit of Happyness
School of Rock
These are just a few of many movies that can be cathartic and inspiring. If these don’t sound like you or your child, research other movies that may speak to them.
Perhaps there’s a character that’s going through something similar, which can be validating for a child. Or, it may just be a fun, positive movie that helps you feel better.
Coping skills cards
If you’re looking for a fun and easy way to remember how to deal with stress in the moment, try our coping skills cards for kids. They include 50 skills along with fun artwork that can be great reminders.
Types of coping skills for kids include:
And since all of the skills on the list are universal, they can work for teens and adults too! Visit here to learn more.