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Emotional Coping Skills for kids with autism

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Children on the autism spectrum often experience extreme emotions. This can lead to tantrums, periods of prolonged jubilee, or even extended periods of crying. Sometimes as service providers or parents to students with autism, we want to avoid those large emotions, but over time that is doing our students a disservice. We have to teach our students with autism emotional coping skills to process how they are feeling and for them to grow into successful adults.  

Have you thought to yourself, “Oh I can’t do that! I might fail and be sad?” Do you dodge phone calls with people who tend to make you angry? Or avoid things that you find scary?

If you answered yes to any of those questions then you have engaged in what my therapist and I call avoiding negative emotions.

It is a totally normal thing to do on occasion. I mean we all have days where we just can’t deal with the people who always get a large emotional reaction to us.

But it is not a good habit to get into and certainly not one we want to teach our children, especially not our students with autism. 

Instead, we need to invest in learning and teaching emotional coping skills to our students with disabilities and autism. In this post, I’m going to cover what emotional coping skills are, why they matter, and why you need to model them for and teach them to your students. 

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Coping skills are obviously the skills you have to cope with various obstacles. There are many different kinds of coping skills.

For instance, coping skills on being flexible can allow you to adapt to sudden changes. For more information see my blog post on Flexibility Versus Controlling Behavior.

Emotional Coping Skills are your ability to cope with emotions. Without emotional coping skills, certain emotions can make you feel out of control or be dysregulating. 

This skill set is particularly important for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders to learn, as, without them, they can find strong emotions dysregulating.

Oh, this question is so juicy I feel like I could write a book about it. 

In order to be functional human beings, we have to be able to experience a full range of emotions. Just look at what happened to Riley in Inside Out.

If someone does not have emotional coping skills, feeling a certain way can make them feel out of control. Since people don’t like to feel out of control they might take excessive steps to avoid putting themselves in situations that make them feel this way.

I was guilty of this for a long time. 

In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with OCD and would avoid a whole host of things, not just because I thought they would kill me but because they scared me or made me feel uncomfortable. 

I did not date because I was afraid of getting broken up with and feeling sad. I avoided working with people who irritated me because if I got mad I felt like I would explode. 

It took a while for me to develop emotional coping skills that would allow me to stop avoiding these perfectly normal human experiences. 

For more information on my journey with OCD click here to read my blog post, Teaching with OCD. 

Oddly enough the thing that really awakened me to how I needed to stop avoiding emotions came when my mother passed away. 

I told my therapist I wanted to up the dose of my medication because I was sad all the time. She put her pen down and looked at me with these sympathetic eyes, and said something that would forever change how I thought about emotions.

“Sarah, you’re supposed to be sad right now. Your mom just died.” 

That’s when it clicked. The goal was not to always be happy. Fighting emotions or avoiding emotions is the opposite of emotional coping skills. 

To truly have them, you need to be able to feel sad when you’re supposed to. Angry when something infuriating happens, and nervous when something scary happens.

But truly emotionally healthy people are supposed to be able to experience all these feelings and know it will be okay.

The goal was not to always be happy.

Lessons from My Therapist

Emotional Coping Skills matter because without them you will always be holding yourself back in life and in some ways, limiting your functioning. 

That is why we especially have to teach them to our students with autism, who often experience such large emotions. 

First, you have to be able to practice them yourself. 

I’m not saying you need to be perfect at it before you teach them, but you have to at least be trying it on your own. 

I always tell my kids, “I’m not asking you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.” 

(Side note: I stole that from the OCD Therapist’s handbook. Again see the blog post for more information on the treatment of OCD)

That means you have to do it yourself, and model doing it for your students. If you feel angry or sad you can say so. 

I normally follow it up with a simple saying, “I feel sad right now, but that’s okay because I’ll feel better later.” 

Model having an emotion and not letting it be paralyzing. 

From now on in your world all emotions are neutral. They are not good or bad.

Being sad has the same intrinsic value as being happy. 

I know it sounds strange, but hear me out. 

Sadness and happiness are both just feelings. They are both necessary parts of life, and won’t go away no matter how much you want them to. They’re basically the same, except we feel comfortable with one and uncomfortable with the other.

If we are accepting discomfort and that sadness is okay, and modeling that for our kids then sadness and happiness are both neutral and valuable parts of life. One is not better than the other.

This one might be hard to teach to your kiddos who have a hard time with abstract concepts but do your best to see where they are getting the idea that happiness is better and see how to address it. 

If your students understand abstract concepts, great! Feel free to explain this super confusing one. 

I love mantras for kids with autism and anxiety problems. They don’t help me at all (side note, mantras can actually make things worse for people with OCD), but are wonderful for most people.

A mantra is a simple piece of language you can teach a child the meaning of and prompt them to repeat in appropriate moments. 

My favorites for emotions is “It is safe to feel X.”

I once had a student who would be crying and insisting they weren’t sad. They couldn’t be sad. Sad was dangerous SARAH! How could I not understand?

When I taught them, “It is safe to feel sad.” It took a while to settle into their brain, but all I could do the next time they cried was let them ride it out while repeating “It is safe to feel sad,” whenever asked. 

Once that first crying spell with the mantra was over, my kiddo blinked and said “Thanks I feel much better now.”

This one is what Raun Kaufman calls in his book being the calm in the storm. Check it out because it is wonderful.

If your kid is freaking out and looks at you, and you’re freaking out too, they’re going to think that there is something to freak out about.

But if you’re calm and collected, it is soothing right away, because you aren’t reinforcing the wild emotional roller coaster they’re on, but giving them a safe place to land. 

It helps to reinforce the mantra, that emotions are safe because you’re going to be there when it’s over, no matter what.

Emotional Coping Skills might be the greatest tool we can teach our children. Fighting emotions is not healthy and can lead to difficulties later on in life. I can speak from experience, having not learned these skills till my late twenties, that adult life is much easier with them than without. 

Let’s do all our students a favor and teach them how to cope from the beginning. 

Make sure to be kind to yourself as you learn these new practices, as it can take time to master, but is ultimately so worth it. And be prepared to ride out some strong emotions.

Follow me on Instagram and send me DM about something you learned or your favorite technique to teach Emotional Coping Skills.

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