When stressors threaten to overwhelm our spouses and children, they're often left in an uncomfortable emotional state. They need to find a way to calm down and be cheerful about an event that can't change. This could be when a family friend dies, or when your teenage daughter gets her heart broken. Other times, there may be a more tangible problem that requires a course of action to make it go away, like when your son's car breaks down. Psychologists call our responses to these types of events emotion-focused coping vs. problem-focused coping. The more aware we are of which we are dealing with, the more appropriate our coping mechanisms will be. Read on to find out how to accomplish this effectively in your own home.

Identifying the issue

We need to help our loved ones match coping mechanisms to the situation. My husband and I have been working hard to figure this out. As a graduate student, he is in an almost perpetual state of overwhelm. This often leads him to read articles on his smartphone as a way to relax. However, it doesn't matter how at-ease he is about having a ton of homework it still has to get done.

As for me, I try to fix problems before I have addressed the emotions that come with them. This means that my problem-solving techniques are impulsive rather than wise, and I'm easily frustrated when they don't work. This also means that I tend to blame my husband for things and try to fix him rather than acknowledging my immature reactions and try to fix myself.

In short, our family members can't resolve problems just by mitigating the emotions that come with them. Conversely, some problems are centered on emotions. For these, we can help soothe our loved ones rather than focusing on a problem neither of us can control. If we are going to help our children and spouse cope, we must know the real issue.

Problem-oriented coping

If you and your spouse or child have identified the stressor and decided it's more problem-oriented, the first step is figure out what's at stake. After you figure this out, it's time to determine what resources your family member has for resolving the issue. For example, if your primary breadwinner has lost his job, your family's income and standard of living is at stake. Your family may be able to resolve this by withdrawing from your savings account, moving in with your parents, or finding another job. With enough resources, the resolution is fairly cut and dry.

But what about when our resources are insufficient to resolve our problems? That is when we employ the next step: create a plan for getting more resources. For instance, my husband really wanted to buy new speakers for our computer, but I didn't think we had the money for it. Our plan? Eat at home two times that we had planned to eat out. Problem solved. This same principle still works for "problems" as big as graduate school and "resources" as basic as life skills. Humans have an incredible capacity for problem-solving and learning. Don't underestimate it.

However, if your child or spouse is struggling again, re-examine the plan. They may have successfully completed the first step and are ready to move on. If so, hooray! If not, it may be that he or she forgot about the problem-solving plan. That is completely normal, so don't get discouraged. Just try again. The third possibility is that your plan isn't a good fit. Make sure that your spouse or child has set strength-appropriate expectations. If weight is stressing out your husband, it's a good idea to make a plan to eat better and get more exercise. However, if he really struggles with getting to the gym, it's simply not realistic for him to have high expectations for his workout routine. Help him play to his strengths, like his deep love of spinach. This will make the plan to cope with the stress of weight gain much more effective.

Emotion-oriented coping

On the other hand, your child or spouse's stressor may be much more emotionally-oriented. How do you cope with those? Of course, there are negative ways of dealing with stress such as overeating, hours of video games, taking our frustrations at work out on our spouse, or accusing children of weaknesses that are, in fact, our own.

However, there are plenty of appropriate courses of action, as well. There's nothing wrong with browsing articles on the internet as a way to hit your emotional reset button. Personally, I favor reading a book or cuddling with my husband. What is important is helping your child or spouse find ways of cheering up that suit his or her individual tastes and preferences. Of course, moderation is encouraged since the human brain can make an addiction out of anything. Simply be understanding of your loved ones and how each of you has your own personalities and interests. I read fairy-tale retellings; my husband reads technology reports. Nothing is wrong with either one, even if they are very different.

As members of a family, we have a responsibility to help each other succeed, including helping them deal with stress in appropriate and effective ways. Once we know the source of the stress, we can soothe them, or help them tackle the problem head-on. Whichever the case, the overarching goal is to help our families feel loved. After all, wouldn't we want them to do the same for us?

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