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Q & A: Researcher Examines Young Students' 'Coping' Strategies

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While the "coping'' skills of adults have been the focus of many studies, less is known about coping mechanisms that work best for children.

Paul E. Jose, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola University of Chicago, headed a large-scale study of children in the Chicago area to systematically evaluate the coping strategies of elementary and early junior-high-school students. He discussed his findings with Assistant Editor Deborah L. Cohen.

Q. What was your hypothesis, and how did you go about testing it?

A. My hypothesis, simply stated, was that children probably possess some coping strategies similar to adults', and perhaps some coping strategies that are unique to their particular age group.

To test that, we collected data on about 500 children, aged 9 to 13, who would be considered normal children, in public and parochial schools in Chicago across a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnic groups. We gave them questionnaires assessing the amount of stress they experience in their own lives. Then we assessed their various coping strategies for constructive and for maladaptive, plus their willingness to use social supports defined as their access, ability, and willingness to turn to other individuals who can provide emotional and physical support.

Finally, we assessed various outcome measures such as depression, self-esteem, and something called internal/external locus of control, which has to do with the degree to which a child believes he can control his world.

Q. Which coping skills had the most beneficial effect on children?

A. The ability to use social support was probably the single best correlate of positive outcomes, such as lack of depression, high self-esteem, and internal locus of control--that is, the child believes he can control his own world to a reasonable extent. The ability to use a social support [was determined through responses to questions such as] how often does somebody cheer you up when you are sad, how often does someone say nice things when you do something well, how often do you find someone when you are in trouble, do you think your teachers care about you.

Another thing besides social support that seems to make a difference in terms of self-esteem is willingness to change something in the situation to make it better [or] to convince somebody to act differently. The key is that they're not blaming themselves, not just letting [a bad situation] go on.

Also, something we refer to as rejuvenation turns out to be very important. These are children who find a way to go off by themselves, do something they enjoy, something they have competence in. The kids who cope well are those who recognize that they need these moments of recharging batteries. Adults understand this, but you don't hear it discussed a lot about children.

Q. What negative coping strategies appeared most detrimental?

A. Maladaptive strategies included avoidance, aggression, and self-destructive behavior. Avoidance, [defined as] the tendency to avoid the problem or act as though nothing has happened ... is not a good strategy for a child to take, because it merely puts off the problem and allows it to get bigger. It is a sign that the child is overwhelmed and doesn't have the resources or skills to deal with the problem.

Aggression and self-destructive behavior both [demonstrate] an anger, a feeling of pain that children release either toward others, themselves, or both. There are many different reasons why this might happen: unsympathetic parents, conflictual situations with peers or siblings. But the key here is not being very strategic about dealing with the problem and releasing the tension and pain in a very unthinking and destructive way.

Q. How can these findings best be used by educators to help steer children to constructive behavior?

A. First, I think we have to be aware of the signs that children who are not coping well give off: kids who display frequent bouts of anger, who are anxious about a wide variety of things, who are uncooperative with parents and peers and siblings, who show signs of depression in terms of looking sad, reporting feeling sad, feeling unmotivated to do things.

At the very least, parents and teachers should help to provide social supports by sitting down and talking with the child, helping the child relieve anxiety and stress. If the problem is deep-seated or resistant to this approach, counseling or even therapy might be advised.

To provide kids with some pointers about how to deal with stress better, ... there is [also] a middle ground of workshops and large-scale counseling. This can be done by a school psychologist or a well-trained and sensitive teacher, or by counselors or clinical psychologists outside the school setting. Schools can [also] hold workshops for parents. There are a lot of parents out there who are concerned but don't know what resources they can use to help their child cope with stress. I also think you can go in and teach kids certain ways of dealing with their stress that they can do on their own, that may enable that child to go off and read, write, paint, shoot basketball, and feel good about that.

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