What to teach and when

Coping competencies: what to teach and when

Erica Frydenberg

What we know about coping–the theory, conceptual framework, what is good and bad coping, and how we learn to cope–has important implications for how we deal with life circumstances and, in particular, how we manage conflict. This article outlines how we conceptualize coping as a response to stress and as a means to develop resilience. The measurement of the construct and the insights that research has provided have enabled us to develop programs to teach young people how to cope. One such program, the Best of Coping, is detailed and evaluated in a number of school settings in Australia and Italy. The implications of using a language of coping in educational contexts provides a promising mechanism for equipping young people to deal with the conflicts and difficulties that may arise in their lives, within and beyond school settings.


Conflict is an important and pervasive aspect of life; in fact, a case can be made that it should be enjoyed (Opotow & Deutsch, 1999). Over the years many clinicians and social scientists have given conflict a bad name and associated it with dysfunction. However, if there are coping strategies that enable an individual to deal effectively with conflict, there is a likelihood of achieving a productive outcome. Effective coping strategies can transform a conflict into a problem that can be solved mutually; conversely, destructive coping strategies can transform conflict in negative ways to lead to conflict escalation and negative outcomes (Opotow & Deutsch, 1999). For a whole host of reasons, including the inability to deal with conflict situations at an interpersonal and global situational level, depression is being experienced in epidemic proportions in many Western communities, and in particular among young people. The search for effective ways to reverse this trend has resulted in a significant shift in psychological approach, from a focus on helplessness and pathology, to a more positive orientation that emphasizes health and well-being and the ability to reframe problems as challenges.

There are many challenges to be faced in contemporary society, including the stresses of everyday living in the technological age, changes in family life, and the complexities inherent in relationships. How we respond to these challenges, much of which involves dealing with conflict, is of major interest. Conflicts do occur as part of everyday living and they need to be managed constructively. Although there are clear-cut procedures for managing conflict (Johnson & Johnson, 2002; Opotow & Deutsch, 1999), an understanding of coping theory and the ability to employ a range of productive coping strategies contributes to a reduction in stress. Thus, the fostering of personal agency is an important component in inoculating young people against depression and equipping them with life management skills.

We know a lot about managing conflict through the vast body of literature in that field and, similarly, we know a great deal about stress and coping, arguably the most widely researched area in contemporary psychology. However, these two bodies of knowledge to date have not been brought together. While key researchers in the field such as Deutsch and Johnson have detailed the approach that is most helpful in dealing with conflict, the insights gained from coping self-analysis offer ways to enhance coping in all facets of our lives, particularly in coping with stresses and conflicts. This article provides an introduction to the theory of coping, the key conceptual areas, the relevant findings, and how coping skills can be developed in the context of life-skills training in school settings.

Defining Stress

The term stress had its origins in physics rather than in psychology or physiology. Essentially, it was a term used in engineering to describe the effect of a mechanical force that placed strain or pressure on an object. The physiological theories of stress focus on the arousal that occurs when an organism is under threat and there is a response to the stress that may be adaptive (i.e., there is an attempt to “fight or flee” the stress). If the stress persists, there is likely to be a harmful outcome for the organism (Cannon, 1932). Illness is often a result of the exertion or demand that is made on a particular physiological system, although it is acknowledged that biological or genetic predisposition may play an important part in illness. Selye (1991) described stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demands placed upon it” (p. 472).

Selye makes the distinction between stress that mobilizes the individual to effective performance (eustress), such as when there is heightened performance in a debate, and stress that is more negative (distress). Stresses can be physical, such as those pertaining to the environment (e.g., extreme heat or cold); psychosocial, such as those experienced when relationships are not working; and daily hassles, such as having a quarrel with a friend. Conflicts can be energizing, in that they stimulate discussion and thought, or they can contribute to distress when individuals don’t feel they have the resources to cope.

Defining Coping

Since the mid 1960s, and particularly in the last decade, there has been a concerted effort to determine how individuals deal with stress. We define these efforts as coping. Coping is a function of the situational determinants and the individual’s characteristics, perception of the situation, and coping intentions. The individual brings a host of biological, dispositional, personal, and family characteristics to the encounter. It is how these impact the perception of the situation and the response to the stress or concern that is of interest.

Following an appraisal of the situation, the individual assesses the likely impact of the stress-whether the consequences are likely to lead to loss, harm, threat, or challenge–and what resources are available to deal with it. The intent of the action, along with the action itself, determines the outcome. Following a response, the outcome is reviewed or reappraised, and another response may follow. There is a circular mechanism, or feedback loop, which determines whether the strategies are likely to be tried again or rejected for future use. Which of these two approaches are used is dependent on the effectiveness of the outcome after the deployment of a strategy, as judged by an individual. Coping intentions and beliefs about the self are important elements in the coping process. In turn, effective coping is likely to enhance beliefs about the self and one’s own capacity to cope with difficult situations. Thus, appraisal of the situation, the coping actions, and the evaluation of the outcome determine what strategies will become part of an individual’s coping repertoire.

Measurement of coping

Assessment of coping through the use of psychometric tools has led to the development of a growing number of instruments for use with young people. The Adolescent Coping Scale (ACS) (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993a) is one such measure developed in the Australian context and used by thousands of young people both in Australia and many other countries (Frydenberg, Lewis, Ardila, Cairns, & Kennedy, 2001; Frydenberg et al., 2003). The instrument provides a way of assessing how an individual copes and provides a language of coping. It is used both as a clinical tool, to help people cope in difficult circumstances, and as a proactive tool, so young people can have a conceptual map and language with which to cope.

The 79 items of the ACS are categorized into 18 scales with labels that reflect the construct inherent in the items. They are shown in Figure 1, along with an exemplar that represents the most generic of the items on each respective scale. There is a both a general and a specific form of the instrument. The latter enables the measurement of responses to a particular self-nominated (or administrator-nominated) concern, such as dealing with conflict.

In addition to providing an assessment of 18 coping strategies, the ACS also allows for combining scales to produce measures of three empirically defensible coping domains:

1. Solving the Problem, which comprises eight coping strategies (seek social support, focus on solving the problem, work hard and achieve, invest in close friends, seek to belong, focus on the positive, seek relaxing diversions, and physical recreation), represents a style of coping characterized by working at a problem while remaining optimistic, fit, relaxed, and socially connected.

2. Reference to Others, which contains four strategies (social action, seek social support, seek spiritual support, and seek professional help), can be characterized by turning to others for support–whether they be peers, professionals, or deities.

3. Nonproductive Coping, which comprises seven strategies (worry, wishful thinking, tension reduction, not cope, ignore the problem, self-blame, and keep to self), primarily reflects a combination of what has been termed nonproductive, avoidance strategies that are empirically associated with an inability to cope. These are known as coping styles and have good reliability (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1996).

What we know about how people cope

Because coping has become a widely researched phenomenon, various models and instruments have made it possible to establish some key principles. Coping is predicated on the appraisal of an event and the interplay between the person and the situational factors. For example, events that are harmful or loss-inducing are perceived by children as most stressful (Muldoon, 1997). Conflict, like many other circumstances, may be perceived as either a threat (harmful) or a challenge.

It has been reported in the adult and child/ adolescent literature that there are both problem-and emotion-directed aspects of coping (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Muldoon, 1997; Stark, Spirito, Williams, & Guevremont, 1989), and these are both person- and situation-related. The Muldoon study (1997) demonstrated that events, such as getting lost, elicited an active problem-solving strategy; while being ignored by friends is more likely to be associated with emotion-focused coping from children. In a conflict situation, it may be either the problem-focused or the emotion-focused strategies that come to the fore. However, it is the problem-solving strategies that are highly productive. Those things that are perceived as changeable (i.e., within the scope of an individual’s resources and control) are more likely to be dealt with through the use of problem-focused rather than emotion-focused strategies.

Because coping represents the dynamic person/environment interaction, it is never the selfsame episode that is being assessed moment by moment. That is, in the context of dealing with a conflict, it is a different aspect of the episode that is being dealt with at each phase of the conflict (e.g., the initial phase, the negotiation phase, and the resolution phase). It is possible to examine both the inter- and intra-individual aspects of coping along with situational determinants that represent ways of coping with different problems in different contexts.

Gender and age-related differences have been reported consistently. Girls are more inclined to turn to others, think hopefully, and resort to tension-releasing strategies, and they are more likely to do this as they get older (Band & Weisz, 1988; Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993b, 1999b, 2000; Seiffge-Krenke, 1995). There is some evidence that functional coping decreases with age and emotional coping increases with age. For example, older adolescents generally use more tension-reducing strategies than do younger adolescents (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993b, 1999a, 1999b).

A study conducted between 1991 and 1995 (Frydenberg & Lewis, 2000) tracked 168 students on three occasions over a 5-year period using the ACS. It found that where both boys and girls remain relatively stable in their declared inability to cope between the years spanning age 12 to 14, boys report much the same low level 2 years later, although the girls report significantly increased inability to cope by the time they are 16. Therefore, boys remain relatively stable in their declared inability to cope between age 12 to 16; girls show a significant trend in having more difficulty in coping by the time they are 16 and are more likely to declare their helplessness than are boys. It is the use of tension-reducing strategies, self-blame, and keeping to self that are of the most concern. Additionally, there are troughs in coping, such as between the ages of 13 to 15, which prove to be downturns or what might be called critical points. For example, the involvement in social action, turning to spiritual support, and the use of physical recreation decrease in use between the ages of 12 and 14. Reference to professionals is significantly less at 15 than it is at ages 13 and 17. Thus, by the age of 16 it is important to equip young people with the strategies to cope.

Adolescent coping resources are important underpinnings for well-being. We know, for example, that there is a positive relationship between the use of productive coping and the reduced use of nonproductive coping in relationship to self-efficacy (i.e., belief in one’s capacity to cope with situations), academic well-being, and achievement (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1999a, 1999b). From our research there are clear implications that preventive interventions should focus more on the reduction of maladaptive coping strategies, in particular the reduction of self-blame (Frydenberg & Lewis, 2002a), rather than focusing only on the more common goal of increasing problem-focused coping.

Developing Resilience

The goal of a coping skills program is to develop resilience. Resilience can be defined as the capacity to bounce back in the face of adversity, to deal with conflict situations. It has generally been accepted that there is a triad of resiliency factors associated with positive personality disposition, supportive family milieu, and external societal agency that functions as a support system (Frydenberg, 1997). The promotion of resilience does not lie in the avoidance of stress or conflict, but the encountering of stress allows self-confidence to build up and competence to increase through a sense of mastery (Seligman, 1995). The qualities are not constitutional but can be modified; young people can be helped to develop adaptive capacities.

Appraisal is an important first step in the coping process. Any program that attempts to develop young people’s coping skills through the development of positive cognitions needs to teach skills of positive cognitive appraisal; that is, how to see an event as a challenge rather than one of threat or harm. Measurement also plays a critical part in advancing theoretical understanding of the coping process, in describing population trends, and providing guidelines for educational programming or for individual change. In this largely cognitive process, self-awareness can be raised through individuals examining their own coping profiles. Individuals can then choose to change the strategies that are not productive in particular encounters and expand coping repertoires as a resource for the future. Changing from “stress talk” to “health talk” is a helpful way to establish a positive mood set and, as such, it is useful as a precursor to developing positive cognitions.

Adolescents’ psychological health and well-being are related to the development of psychosocial competence, an area within which schools are increasingly called upon to be active. Although schools need to be able to respond to the 10-20% of young people who exhibit pathological symptoms and offer direct services to adolescents, their families and teachers, there are many ways schools can improve the social emotional competence of all students. Developing coping skills is one way to facilitate young people’s resilience. The growing awareness of the long-term negative consequences of psychosocial factors on children’s development has resulted in governments increasingly looking to schools as settings for promoting resilience in young people, yet relatively few programs addressing emotional well-being are available for implementation in school settings (Roberts, 1999).

School-based programs provide an example of how psychology theory can be translated into practice so that young people can be helped to deal with a multitude of problems. However, in the main such programs are not well evaluated. Ideally, these programs need to be embedded in the organization within which the target group is located (Reiss & Price, 1996). There is a growing recognition of the need for such programs in the secondary school system because as reported earlier, there is clear-cut evidence that young people’s nonproductive coping strategies increase with age, particularly in the middle adolescent years.

Rosenman (1998) has argued that concentrating prevention programs only on high-risk individuals is ineffective, and what is urgently needed is a set of programs that reduce overall risk in the whole population. Thus, there is a growing interest in the development of direct instruction programs provided to all young people in a school setting to prevent or alleviate depression by focussing on coping skills. To date, programs have generally focused on children who are at risk rather than general prevention programs for all children (Roberts, 1999). The resources for developing coping skills often rely on the clinician or instructor to compile a program (Forman, 1993). However, the benefit of coping skills programs that are fully scripted to facilitate implementation is increasingly being recognized.

Health and well-being and the effective management of conflict are related to the development of psychosocial competence, aspects of which include optimistic thinking skills, utilization of productive coping strategies, and reduced reliance on maladaptive coping responses. Moreover student welfare is the responsibility of all staff working in a school context. Each teacher has a vital role to play as a source of support and as a determinant of success for students. The most significant amount of students’ time, apart from family, is spent with teachers, who are often the most important adult connection for a young person and the first contact point for many issues and services. Teachers know that the social and emotional issues of students that emerge during the course of their schooling have great impact on the community and can create serious, ongoing problems. While a program can directly address the management of conflict, the benefits of equipping young people to cope in a general sense will enhance all aspects of life-functioning. Thus, any school-based program that can contribute to social and emotional well-being is desirable. However, careful consideration needs to be given to the delivery of such programs.

Furthermore, there are indications that in order to avert the development of nonproductive strategies we need to consider both the gender and age of the person for whom the program is being developed. For example, there are indications that it is useful to intervene in the psychosocial development of adolescents 14 to 16 years of age in order to attract their interest and commitment, and to capitalize on the particular developmental stage that they are traversing. This is suggested because the greatest shift in coping occurs during these years. This would, therefore, appear to be the optimum time to engage adolescents in reflection on their coping behavior and in discussion about the benefits of using particular strategies. Such an approach would appear to be particularly relevant for girls, who not only exhibit a greater shift in coping than do boys during the ages of 12 to 16, but whose expressed inability to cope increases significantly during that period.

The Best of Coping Program

One coping skills program, the Best of Coping (Frydenberg & Brandon, 2002), has been developed for adolescents and evaluated in a number of school settings in and outside of Australia. The principle that underscores the Best of Coping Program is that we can all do what we do better. If we do not like how we cope in certain contexts, we can learn new strategies. It is possible to enhance and develop one’s coping if we have a framework within which to do that. The ACS, with its 18 conceptual areas of coping, provides a framework and language with which individuals and groups can obtain their coping profile and make changes in their coping practices. It provides the underpinning of this coping skills program. Comprised of 10 sessions, the program begins with a discussion of the meaning of coping and the different styles and strategies used to cope. Students are encouraged to think of strategies that are not helpful and find alternative strategies. Other topics that are addressed include thinking optimistically, effective communication skills, steps to take to achieve effective problem solving, decision making, goal setting, and time management. The program also includes a session for the practical building of those coping skills that have been learned throughout previous sessions.

More specifically, Session 1 provides an introduction to the theoretical framework and language of coping that is first introduced by the ACS and which is utilized in many of the subsequent sessions. Session 2 (Good Thinking) helps young people become aware of how they can change the way they think and, subsequently, how they appraise events (positively or negatively), and how they cope. Session 3 emphasizes what not to do. We now have evidence that when it comes to coping, it is important to teach young people what not to do as much as what to do. It is the use of the nonproductive coping strategies such as worry, self-blame, and tension reduction that are most readily associated with depression (Cunningham & Walker, 1999). Session 4 emphasizes communication skills, which play an important part in effective interactions. Asking for help depends on the capacity to communicate effectively. The next six sessions, Problem Solving, Making Decisions, Goal Setting, Aiming High, and Time Management, provide an essential set of skills for high school students. Each of the sessions can be focused on a particular topic, such as dealing with both internal and external conflict.

Evaluation of coping skills

Evaluations of the Best of Coping Program, in two settings in Australia and one in Italy, have been reported. In the first setting (Study 1 and 2) the program was conducted at a metropolitan high school. The sample consisted of 83 students (39 males, 44 females) in Year 10 (aged 16-17). Results showed a significant increase in Reference to Others coping post program for all groups. The “at-risk” group also appeared to show a decrease in the use of nonproductive coping post program, in comparison to the “resilient group.” Reference to Others is a strategy that is important in seeing things from the perspective of others, especially when dealing with conflict.

In the second setting, a total of 323 adolescents in Year 7 (aged 11-13) were recruited from a Melbourne high school and divided into treatment and control groups, with the treatment group receiving the program through collaboration between school staff and either a school psychologist or school counselor. In Study 3, results showed significant decreases in nonproductive coping for the treatment group post program (as well as a trend indicating increases in productive coping). In particular, a decrease was noted in adolescents’ use of worry, seek to belong, wishful thinking, not cope, keep to self, spiritual support, and, self-blame. In contrast, the control group showed a significant increase in self-blame, though there were decreases on work hard, and also for social action.

In summary, the program appears successful in reducing reliance on strategies generally labeled elsewhere as maladaptive, and prevents a decrease in at least one strategy considered helpful. In contrast, the results of Study 4 indicate no significant impact of the same program in the same school 2 years later. But when the results are examined class by class, there were clearly some classes who benefited and others who did not, indicating the importance of implementation. That is, both the training of instructors and the choice of instructors are likely to impact the outcome.

A study conducted in a largely rural community in northern Italy implemented a 12-session adaptation of the Best of Coping Program to 26 participants, selected from a group of 183 students who exhibited low levels of self-efficacy and problem-solving abilities. The students who participated in the program improved their coping and problem-solving abilities with an increase in their focus on the positive and a reduction in wishful thinking and tension reduction.

In sum, the Best of Coping Program has been found to be effective with adolescents at risk in the 16-year-old age group and with 11- to 13-year-olds when the program was implemented by well-trained instructors or school counselors. The results of Study 4 appear to indicate a potential problem related to the implementation of the program. In Study 3, where the psychologist/counselor was actively involved in teaching the program together with the classroom teachers, and in which all teachers conducting the program were trained by the psychologist/counselor, the program appears to have had maximum impact. In contrast, in Study 4 only 3 of the 13 pastoral care teachers conducting the program were trained by the psychologist. They, in turn, trained the remaining 10 pastoral care teachers. A further difference can be noted between the training offered to teachers in Studies 3 and 4. In the former, all teachers received 2 days of training; in the latter, three teachers received one day in-service and the remaining 10 received approximately a half day. Evaluation of this program also notes that participants’ self-efficacy increases significantly when compared to nonparticipants (Bugalski & Frydenberg, 2000). This finding suggests that the program is useful in developing a sense of psychological control for participants. A belief in one’s sense of psychological control will direct whether one will attempt to cope with a situation or not. Once individuals have a sense of their own capabilities, it is more likely they will approach their problems with the aim of solving them rather than avoiding them. In addition, self-efficacy has also been associated with a reduction in depressive symptoms and improvements in academic performance and health (Burger, 1985). As a result, program participants with higher levels of self-efficacy would be expected to utilize more productive coping strategies and use less avoidant strategies. In the Italian study, there was a most interesting finding regarding problem-solving skills: if conflicts are construed as problems to be solved, the increase in problem-solving skills is useful for managing conflict and, thus, a highly desirable outcome.


The findings show promise for the value of the Best of Coping Program for students in general and more so for those at-risk. At-risk students are often the ones who manage conflict least satisfactorily. The studies clearly indicate that when teachers together with psychologists/counselors are involved, the program was more successful, as it was where the instructors received more substantial training. Every teacher can play an important role in prevention and early intervention programs and activities that strengthen the resilience of students as they learn and develop. However, it would seem that there is a need for good training of instructors and ongoing support if the benefits are to be maximized.

Overall, the studies highlight the value of teaching adolescents cognitive-based skills in coping in order to facilitate the use of interpersonal and intrapersonal resources. However, factors that contribute to resilience over and above coping skills need to be acknowledged. Some exposure to stress and conflict, rather than the avoidance of these, is likely to promote healthy development. Family, peer, and school supports also play an important part. Additionally, the building of resources such as coping skills that are perceived to be of value to young people in the management of their everyday lives is beneficial.

In order to foster healthy social and emotional development and equip young people with life skills, we need to change the language of despair to a language of optimism and ability. Talking about coping is a step in the right direction. How people think determines to a large extent how they feel. A greater capacity to reflect on a situation and assess or develop the appropriate responses to particular circumstances that are stressful or conflict-ridden is most important. The development of coping language along with coping skills holds promise for the future.

Figure 1. The conceptual areas of coping (Adolescent Coping Scale;

Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993a)

Adolescent Coping Scale

Scale Example

Seek Social Support Represented by items that indicate an

inclination to share the problem with others

and enlist support in its management (e.g.,

Talk to other people to help me sort it out.)

Focus on Solving A problem-focused strategy that tackles the

the Problem problem systematically by learning about it

and takes into account different points of

view or options (e.g., Work at solving the

problem to the best of my ability.)

Work Hard and Achieve A strategy describing commitment, ambition

(achieve well), and industry (e.g.,

Work hard.)

Worry Characterized by items that indicate a

concern about the future in general terms or,

more specifically, concern with happiness in

the future (e.g., Worry about what is


Invest in Close Engaging in a particular intimate relationship

Friends (e.g., Spend more time with boy/girl friend.)

Seek to Belong Indicates a caring and concern for one’s

relationship with others in general and, more

specifically, concern with what others think

(e.g., Improve my relationship with others.)

Wishful Thinking Characterized by items based on hope and

anticipation of a positive outcome (e.g.,

Hope for the best.)

Social Action Letting others know what is of concern and

enlisting support by writing petitions or

organizing an activity, such as a meeting or

a rally (e.g., Join with people who have

the same concern.)

Tension Reduction Characterized by items that reflect an attempt

to make oneself feel better by releasing

tension (e.g., Make myself feel better by

taking alcohol, cigarettes, or other drugs.)

Not Cope Consists of items that reflect the

individual’s inability to deal with the

problem and the development of psychosomatic

symptoms (e.g., I have no way of dealing with

the situation.)

Ignore the Problem Characterized by items that reflect a

conscious blocking out of the problem, and

resignation coupled with an acceptance that

there is no way of dealing with it

(e.g., Ignore the problem.)

Self-Blame Indicates that an individual sees themselves

as responsible for the concern or worry (e.g.,

Accept that I am responsible for the problem.)

Keep to Self Characterized by items that reflect the

individual’s withdrawal from others and the

wish to keep others from knowing about

concerns (e.g., Keep my feelings to myself.)

Seek Spiritual Characterized by items that reflect prayer

Support and belief in the assistance of a spiritual

leader (e.g., Pray for help and guidance so

that everything will be all right.)

Focus on the Represented by items that indicate a positive

Positive and cheerful outlook on the current situation,

including seeing oneself as fortunate (e.g.,

Look on the bright side of things and think

of all that is good.)

Seek Professional Denotes the use of a professional adviser,

Help such as a teacher or counselor (e.g., Discuss

the problem with qualified people.)

Seek Relaxing Characterized by items that describe leisure

Diversions activities such as reading and painting rather

than sports (e.g., Find a way to relax, such

as listening to music, reading a book, playing

a musical instrument, watching TV.)

Physical Recreation Characterized by items that relate to playing

sports and keeping fit (e.g., Keep fit and



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Erica Frydenberg is an associate professor in the Department of Learning and Educational Development at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

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