Sage Advice – Risk and coping factors

by Liz Schoeben

Healthy coping skills are especially important in the post-COVID world. As school-based therapists, we have seen many young people adversely affected during the pandemic years. Most kids and teens had limited exposure to in-person social interactions, both positive and negative. So they had limited peer conflicts and, as a result, less practice in developing healthy ways to cope and resolve conflicts.

Our job is to assess the potential risk students pose to themselves.

We do this by looking at their risk factors and their protective factors. The fewer the risk factors and the more the protective factors students have the better they are able to handle stressful  situations.

There are many factors that put one at higher risk. Some are within our control, but many are not. A few examples are: Negative attitudes, values, or beliefs; low self-esteem; drug, or alcohol abuse; and early and repeated antisocial behaviors.

There are also factors that help protect one from these risks. These are known as protective factors. Having a toolbox of healthy ways to cope is key to navigating a healthy adolescence.

Protective factors include community support, good parenting, and economic opportunities. We can divide protective factors into personal, family and community.

 Family includes: stability and predictability; rules, limits, monitoring, structure (age-appropriate); and supportive relationships with family members

School and Community includes: mentoring and support for development of skills and interests;     positive norms; and clear expectations for behavior 

The factors we have the most control over are personal. This is where having several positive coping skills is vital. These include: the ability to control one’s emotions; positive self-concept; and feeling connected with at least two areas outside of family.

 Part of our work as school-based therapists is to help students explore coping skills. This can include doing something you love, eating and sleeping well, exercising, using relaxation techniques, and engaging in positive self-talk. We encourage students to think of at least one physical activity as a way to cope. Much has been written about the positive effects physical activity has on mental well-being, improving stress resilience, and lowering the risk of anxiety, and depression. Through exercise, there is a reduction in the body’s levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Research also reveals an increase in the neurotransmitter serotonin, which contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. Examples of ways to cope physically include walking, running, weight training, dancing, school sports, doing yoga or deep breathing. Students often report playing video games or other online gaming to reduce stress. Done in moderation this can be a great way for some teens to relax and destress. And of course, eating dark chocolate in moderation may also have hidden health benefits. Chocolate contains psychoactive ingredients, including some that produce euphoric effects similar to those of cannabis. Chocolate also contains neurochemicals that play a role in the regulation of mood and depression and antioxidants that help fight inflammation, which may also factor into depression.

I would encourage families to make a list of healthy ways in which to cope. Some of mine include 1,000-piece puzzles, taking long baths, kickboxing and watching soap operas. What are yours? Pen



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