Anxiety, Stress and How a Child Copes With it All

Coping can be described as the efforts needed to deal with difficult and often stressful situations by regulating one’s own emotions, behaviors and actions. There have been many studies surrounding this topic; however, few studies have been dedicated to the coping habits of younger children, often preferring to observe those of their caregivers. There are myriads of untapped potential in the study of a child’s coping patterns. For example, it has been seen that kids employ numerous different coping habits from their progenitors. A study dove into this subject in order to describe not only how preschoolers cope with stress based on parental observation in accordance to the “Children coping scale revised”, but also how children’s coping habits and abilities relate to their level of anxiety and the controllability of the stressor involved.

The researchers hypothesized that three things would happen. Firstly, kids with higher anxiety levels would be more likely to participate in negative forms of coping instead of positive ones. Secondly, children put in high control circumstances would lean towards positive forms of coping, whereas in low control situations, negative coping would be utilized. Finally, children with lower anxiety would be able to handle stressful situations of differing controllability more successfully than children with higher anxiety.

No actual children participated in the study directly. Instead, parents of preschool children ages four to five (registered in university programs in Melbourne, Australia) were asked to participate. There were a total of ninety-nine parents involved; however, five parents and their data were excluded due to their children being under-aged.

The researchers broke their data collection into three categories. First, general coping, in which parents were asked to rate how often their child used any of the twenty-nine coping strategies using a three-point system in the “Children’s coping scale revised”. Second, situation-specific coping, where parents were asked to do the same thing as in the general coping section, but for two specific situations: a low-control circumstance such as being separated from one’s parents, and a high control circumstance like doing something they did not want to do. The final category was anxiety, where the researchers implemented the Spence’s Preschool Anxiety Scale and had parents identify which of the thirty-four symptoms their child displayed in order to measure their anxiety levels. They then used these results and split the preschoolers up into high anxiety and low anxiety groups based on the median. The researchers used surveys to collect data from the parents, but it was up to the parents to use observational methods, naturalistic observation to be exact, to record their children’s behavior.

The results from this experiment were plentiful. The experimenters derived three coping dimensions. First, there is positive coping, which consists of both problem-focused (dealing with source of stress) and emotion-focused coping (managing emotions in relation to stress). Then, there is negative expression coping, which is letting out emotions like crying or screaming, and negative inhibition coping, keeping feelings internalized. In contrast to their hypothesis, it was found that children use more positive coping strategies in low control situations (being separated from parents) than in high control circumstances (doing something they don’t want to do). In turn, children will implement negative expression and inhibition styles of coping in low control situations; however, the data in relation to anxiety supported their thesis. Anxious children utilized more emotion based coping and expressed negative strategies like giving up in favor of positive strategies, such as problem solving. The experiment solidified the idea that less anxious children are more likely to use positive coping, whereas more anxious children will lean towards negative coping techniques. Controllability, which refers to the perceived amount of control a subject has on an event, was unable to be accurately observed due to its nature. We can’t ask a child to rate their controllability of a situation reliably, because they may not be able to judge a situation due to its complexity. The researchers were also unable to find a definite relationship between controllability and anxiety. The experimenters were able to highlight the many limitations of their experiment. For example, their inability to accurately measure controllability, the minimal sample size, and the less than diverse group of children chosen to participate.

Overall, the researchers involved have given us a greater understanding of the coping habits of young children, which can be used as a gateway to understanding the development of how and why we cope the way we do. Nevertheless, despite the leaps and bounds our researchers have made in respect to the psychology of children coping mechanisms, more research is always needed.

Image Source:

Taylorjade G. Layne

Originally Published in Bandersnatch Vol. 47 Issue 13 on April 25, 2018