The Concept of Coping

Flowers and children

There are many theoretical perspectives on coping but the skills that are fostered in Zippy’s Friends are universally accepted as important. One of the most influential approaches was developed by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman , who said that coping “refers to changing cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage specific demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person.”

When we encounter a difficult or stressful life situation, we react in various ways - to try to make the situation better or to decrease the stress and difficult feelings that the situation has created. All of these reactions may be called ‘coping.’

Different people react in different ways. For example, some people who have an upsetting argument with a close friend or relative will distract themselves by thinking about something else, going shopping, reading a book or otherwise avoiding dealing with the situation. Others may do things to physically calm themselves, such as taking a relaxing bath, drinking alcohol, taking a tranquiliser or going for a run. Others seek help or advice from friends about how to handle the situation, or actively try to resolve the conflict.

Obviously, some of these coping behaviours are more effective than others. For example, going to the cinema or getting drunk after an argument may make a person feel better for a short time, but are unlikely to improve the situation in the long run. However, it is not possible to simply categorise ways of coping as intrinsically good or bad. For example, although denying the reality of a situation is often seen as a poor way to cope, in some situations it may be very effective. Research has found that people facing life-threatening surgery for cardiovascular problems who deny the importance of the surgery tend to be less anxious and have a better likelihood of a positive outcome than people who face up to the risks of the operation.

Coping strategies have been the topic of hundreds of studies in recent years. The research indicates that children and adults who have a larger repertoire of coping strategies experience fewer negative consequences, in the short and long terms, after experiencing difficult or stressful life situations. The ability to evaluate whether specific coping strategies are useful in certain circumstances and, consequently, to choose ‘better’ strategies is related to successful adaptation at many stages in life.

The Zippy’s Friends programme is based upon a number of research studies that have shown that the effects of problems experienced by children, adolescents and young adults are related to coping skills. If children are able to expand their coping options and be more aware of using coping skills - particularly seeking and accepting help from others - these abilities will stay with them and help them deal with stressful situations in adolescence and adulthood.

The interest in teaching coping skills very early in life is based upon research studies which have shown that children as young as four and five are able to generate alternative solutions to cope with everyday problems. Studies of young children’s abilities to resolve interpersonal problems have found that these abilities are related to behavioural adjustment in children and adolescents. Furthermore, children who are capable of thinking of more alternative coping solutions are able to use those solutions more often in real life situations.

We are all exposed to problems and stresses in life, ranging from everyday hassles to intensely stressful events such as a divorce or the death of a close relative. Our reactions to these events are part of a constant process and change over time - we do things to adapt, then evaluate the effects of our efforts, experience the consequences (our efforts can be helpful or not helpful), and then re-evaluate the situation and, if necessary, try to adapt in new ways.

Faced with any situation, we first appraise what it means to us. In many circumstances, we perceive a stressful event as something that is upsetting or which is going to harm or hurt us, but other people may perceive the same situation as a challenge. For example, jumping out of an aeroplane with a parachute would be very stressful for some people, but others see it as a fun recreational activity. If our primary evaluation or appraisal of an event indicates that it is something that is going to be harmful or threatening, we automatically engage in a process of determining how to cope with the situation.

Studies on coping often distinguish between strategies which focus on decreasing the negative feelings a person has after experiencing a difficult or stressful situation (‘emotion-focused coping’) and strategies which involve attempting to improve or change the situation (‘behaviour-focused coping’).

Emotion-focused coping strategies involve anything a person does to feel better or less stressed. These strategies do not change the reality of the situation, and are used simply to avoid painful or difficult feelings or to help the person feel better. Emotion-focused coping strategies include: expressing feelings to an empathetic friend, getting drunk, going to the movies, going shopping, going for a run, transcendental meditation, taking drugs to reduce anxiety, and anything else we may try in order to feel better or less distressed.

Behaviour-focused coping strategies include all the things we do to try to change and improve a situation. They include: asking friends for help or advice, investing in new activities or relationships, and actively trying to resolve the conflict or problem (for example, by making a compromise, suggesting arbitration, trying to convince the other person, giving a gift or getting help from someone else).

Coping involves a constant process of trying out different ways of dealing with a situation, in order to feel better or to improve the situation. This is usually an automatic process - we do not think about it - and we often try out several different strategies until we feel better. However, we can learn to actively think about, and discuss how best to cope with, specific situations. Obviously, strategies vary depending upon the type of situation and the individual person’s habits and resources. Some people cope less well because they simply do not know how to use more effective strategies. Others simply choose an ineffective strategy for a specific situation. People who experience more stress and distress in their life often feel stuck in a situation and powerless to change their circumstances, either because they do not know how to cope or because they use ineffective coping strategies.

Experience has shown that children can understand the concept of having a choice of coping options and can expand their ways of coping. Working with the material in Zippy’s Friends has shown that children generally enjoy participating in activities where they learn about coping, and that they often experience an improvement in the quality of their life and their relationships after participating in the programme.

It is important to note that teaching children how to cope does not involve teaching that there are good and bad coping strategies. The goal is to help children consider many different ways of dealing with different situations and then to evaluate for themselves what may happen if they cope in certain ways. This experience of thinking about coping, coupled with exposure to many ways of coping, should increase a child’s range of possibilities for dealing with problematic situations.

By seeing how characters in the stories cope in different ways, and by experiencing this for themselves in role plays and other activities, children become better equipped to choose more effective coping strategies. When children successfully handle one difficult situation, they increase their abilities to adapt to future situations, and this can improve their self-esteem, feelings of competence and general well-being.

Brian L. Mishara, Ph.D.
Director, Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia
Professor, Psychology Department, University of Quebec at Montreal

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