Coping refers to the behavioural and cognitive efforts used by individuals to manage the demands of the person-environment relationship (Frydenberg, 2008; p22).
The transactional model of coping says that there are at least two different broad styles of coping: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Emotion-focused coping includes strategies aimed at reducing emotional distress, but which are not intended to directly solve the problem (Frydenberg, 2008; p23). The problem solving skills training covered in Elements C3i to C3vi can be understood as problem-focused coping skills.
Emotion-focused coping strategies may be necessary when the problem cannot be solved, or when the person is experiencing emotional overload. Under these conditions people will have difficulty implementing problem-focused coping strategies, even if they possess the relevant skills.
Before pro-active strategies for managing problems can be put in place, steps may need to be taken to stabilise the young person’s physical and emotional state and help them to cope with the pressures they are under.
The most fundamental emotion-focused coping strategies are basic self-care strategies such as getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and getting some regular gentle exercise.
Basic counselling should be provided to explore the extent to which these self-care strategies are in place and encourage the young person to employ them.
If self-care knowledge and skills are lacking then health education about these topics should be provided.
Relaxation skills are also often essential to emotional coping. A plethora of relaxation strategies have been developed and are appropriate to try. Individuals vary substantially in what works to help them relax. The role of the practitioner is to provide a range of ideas and explore them with the client until he or she finds one or more techniques that work best.
Make a start by asking the young person about the things that they already like to do to relax (e.g. listening to music, playing music, having a hot bath) and finding one or two things that they can do more of. If the young person cannot think of enough relaxing things prompt them with some ideas. More advanced relaxation skills such as visualisations and meditations and other self-soothing techniques can be explored and taught if necessary.
Another basic emotion-focused coping strategy is talking to a friend or other trusted confidante (such as a relative who is not directly involved in the difficulty) about ones experiences and feelings. Even if the other person cannot help solve the problem, many people find relief from distress in simply expressing their feelings and being listened to. Help the young person to identify a person who is likely to be a good listener. If there is no-one they can identify, then it may be important for you (the practitioner) to allocate additional time to foundational counselling or person-centred listening.
Social and environmental factors such as violence and upheaval in the home or living situation can present insurmountable barriers to individual problem solving. Casework interventions aimed at immediate and direct problem-solving around the living situation may be necessary.
Cognitive distortions can contribute to overly negative assessment of the severity of problems and and overly pessimistic assessment of a person’s ability to solve their problems. Here it is helpful to raise the young person’s awareness of how negative thinking may be inhibiting problem-solving (and conversely how positive thinking may promote problem solving) (Frydenberg, 2008; p252).
Practice elements involving cognitive restructuring may be helpful when catastrophising and hopelessness are present.
Emotion-focused strategies vary in their effectiveness, productivity or level of adaptation to the context. Emotion-focused strategies may become less productive or adaptive if they are maintained at the expense of problem-focused strategies when the problem is amenable to change. It is important to monitor the situation and encourage the young person to use or learn problem-focused coping strategies if and when they are emotionally able.
Be aware of the less adaptive or non-productive emotion-focused coping strategies. Some strategies that are almost always maladaptive include avoidance, worry, self-blame, ruminating, sleeping too much, over-eating, drinking, and taking illicit drugs.