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40 MAY 2002
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Learning to cope with stresses and strains

The second in a two-part series in which Gisela Konopka, one of the best known writers and practitioners in the fields of social work, child development and child care work, reflects in a classic paper on the essence of adolescence and the ways in which adolescents learn to cope with difficulties. (See part 1 here)

How do human beings in general cope with stresses and strains?
All human beings have to deal with the stresses and strains of life. The answers to life’s pain spontaneously range from withdrawal to violent attack on one’s self or others. “Coping" means “dealing with". It is more than a reflex; it includes thinking and doing.

When we talk about a person being able to cope with life’s events, we are not using the term in a neutral sense. We are giving it a value-connected meaning. We do mean the capacity to withstand, to resist, to live through adversity without damage to one’s own personality or to the personalities of others.

It is important that we are clearly talking about a value judgment. We can cope with stress by denying it and then finally breaking under it, or by blaming others for it and making them miserable, or by demanding incessant support, or by fleeing into drugs or alcohol. We see those ways of coping as negative.

We wish for people to have the capacity to accept stress and strain as an inevitable part of life, to be able to acknowledge it, and then to work their way through it.

We do not expect this of the infant though. The infant responds to pain and frustration simply by expressing the hurt, by screaming. Increasingly, children will learn to handle pain in various new ways, usually with the protective help of adults. This development of new ways, and the acknowledgement of what one can do about the stresses and strains, and accepting them as inevitable, is the real business of life, and the development of philosophy.

These adjustments never end. Only in old age is an added ingredient, perhaps reassurance, added to the coping process, namely the knowledge that “it will not be so long anymore."

Coping in adolescence
The coping process is most significant in adolescence. Because of the confrontation with many life stresses for the first time (a friend of mine said of youth: “They don’t have anything in the bank" – which means they have not yet experienced how to live through severe stress) and because of their intense life energy, adolescents often react to personal or institutional strain with extreme behaviour.

There are adolescents who throw off the frustration of unhappy love experience by totally denying it, by pretending that it never really happened. Teachers know the “shrug of the shoulder kid" who seems to be untouched by anything.

There are adolescents who respond to frustration with physical violence. Despair about life’s frustrating events leads to running away, drugs, and suicide. In our survey the second leading cause of death in adolescence in Minnesota was suicide. Drugs and alcohol are frequently taken because of a sense of rejection at home or by a close friend. A 17-year-old said: “I sniffed paint, glue, mainly paint ... I figure a lot of that happened when I was fighting with my parents." Another said, “I take drugs when I get depressed or when I get upset or when I feel I can’t handle a problem, or when I really got a bad problem on my mind."

When there has been no experience in dealing with serious life events, the doors seem closed and one cannot cope: “My boyfriend, he didn’t give me as much attention as I needed so I cut my wrists ..." And, “I am being pushed around from institution to foster home several times. What have you got to live for? No place to go – no place to stay where you are at? Nothing to want to get up in the morning for. I always feel lonely."

Loneliness is the curse of humans at any time in life. In adolescence, the need is very great to have peers who can confirm your own value, and at least one adult whom you can trust. Loneliness presents a desperate strain then. During our survey of needs of adolescent girls, we often heard them quote a verse:

"Loneliness is a silent jail,
Without cellmates, parole, or bail."

Four ways of positive coping
What are some of the positive ways of coping in adolescence? It rarely is a well thought out philosophy, but we can speak of four means: communication with contemporaries; talking with adults who understand, often of “the grandparent generation"; religion; and creative expressions of emotions, as in songs, poetry and painting. We should remember those positives in our work with young people.

1. Communication with contemporaries meant talking out one’s problems, but also holding each other, crying together, dancing, and sexual relationships. All of these represented some form of coping with problems.

2. The wish to find a willing ear in an adult and also to hear what the adult has to say (if he or she is not judgmental) is very great. Again and again, adolescents expressed a need to be listened to. Among the girls we interviewed, mothers were still the ones that they thought of most often as confidants and from whom they wanted help; if they could not get it from this source, the strain increased. Grandparents, or people of that age group, were often sought out because they seemed to be more patient and less judgmental. Adolescents seemed to understand well that one needs to talk about problems in order to deal with them. In fact, not communicating feelings to others was regarded by them as behaviour harmful to one’s health. In general, young people did not consider going to professionals for help, partly because of their own over-confidence and partly because they distrusted professionals. As one youth put it: “It’s hard to let everything out."

Adolescents often worried that doctors or nurses might not keep their problems confidential and might tell their parents.

The young person has a very specific problem in coping with serious problems for two reasons:

a) They feel that there are many expectations laid upon them and that they will let people down if they do not live up to them.

b) In spite of those expectations, they are treated as dependent children, and frequently cannot get services by themselves.

The wish, for instance, to get medical care without having to go with their parents was expressed very frequently. For instance, the girl who has to cope with a pregnancy out of wedlock deals with an extraordinarily severe life problem. Yet even today she faces not only the problem of how to deal with her own body and the future of her child, but with the hostility of the human environment. (I know there are exceptions, but this is still the rule.) As I mentioned earlier, a consistent philosophy of coping is rare. Occasionally, older adolescents have done a great deal of reading and thinking, but those are mostly very intellectual youngsters.

3. Religion as either a traditional way of dealing with stresses and strains or as a new emotional experience, is on the increase among adolescents. The revival of fundamentalist religion and the popularity of various new sects among youth, for example, express a need to deal with a life that is not always happy or satisfying. This renewal also represents an acceptance of authority, but from other sources than the ones with which they grew up.

A society which does not prepare children and young people early for thinking through, and making decisions, but considers obedience a higher value, is vulnerable to dangerous authoritarianism being embraced by their young.

4. The creative response seems to involve far more youth than we have ever assumed. Young people often keep this hidden. This may be due partly to the fact that art is considered so intellectual that they cannot believe they can produce anything worthwhile, and partly because of impossibly high expectations laid upon them. For example, I found excellent poetry written by girls in delinquency institutions, but they hesitated sharing this because the grammar and spelling were not perfect. Yet, whether they shared this writing with others or not, for the young people themselves it was a very positive means of coping with frustration and loneliness.

When adolescents deal with institutional frustrations (as, for instance, school or correctional institutions), another form of coping is to cheat – a method well known among adults. It is a way of circumventing the source of strain to prevent any further hurt and this is done by “playing the games" that adults expect of them. For instance, in institutions where constant group involvement or confrontation was the expected form of treatment, adolescents played the game of “involvement", “confrontation" or whatever was demanded – and did so superbly.

If individual “baring of the soul" was expected, they also know how to do this. Adolescents are good actors, and they can cope with hurt by pretending to live up to almost any expectations. They know what they are doing.

In one institution, a young man asked me cynically: “Well, what do you want me to be or to do, so you can have success?" Part of their response is based on the philosophy of retaliation which makes it possible to live through frustration:

"If teachers would treat us nicely and like adults, we would treat teachers the same way – with respect, etc ... A famous saying, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” That’s our philosophy for these questions, about teachers treating us and students treating teachers."

Many behaviour modification devices are handled that way by adolescents. The required result is obtained – while the powerful educator or therapist is present. Inside, the stress mounts and breaks out at some time:

I no longer use my mind,
Nor think of anything.
For I am just a puppet,
and my master pulls the strings.
There’s just one thing about it
I fear he doesn’t know:
Strings are easily broken
and then he’ll have to go.

Helping adolescents with coping
Those who work with adolescents are expected not only to understand, but to use their understanding to prevent illness or to enhance health. To prevent serious damage to the individual adolescent, and achieve the human interaction necessary for positive quality of life in our society, we must draw conclusions on how to help young people deal with stress and strain. We have to accept each specific stage of adolescence with its strength and its problems.

The vigorous life force, the wide mood swings, the sense of omnipotence as well as despair, all have to be taken as reality to which one must say “yes". We do not want people to become immune to stress. We want people to be sensitive to whatever life brings, but to be able to cope with it. We therefore do not want to give them drugs to dull their senses. We do not want to develop people who expect life to be “a rose garden" and therefore, are unable to accept imperfection.

We should create for adolescents an environment that allows them to be participating members of society so that they actively learn the reality of life. There are many tasks that they can fulfil. This will give them a sense of worth and accomplishment and strengthen them to work through stress. We must accept their mistakes and let them know that mistakes are human:

You are now on your way, so of course all the mistakes are ahead – all the wonderful mistakes that you must and will make. No matter what the mistakes are that you must make, do not be afraid of having made them or making more of them.

We adults should also admit mistakes in daily life as well as in clinical encounters with youth. The notion of maturity as a kind of perfection does not help adolescents to learn to cope with life. They must know that coping is a never-ending struggle, and that all of us at any time may fail to do it well. We must let young people know reality not only with its joys but also with its problems. The fiction of a “life of happiness" raises expectations that sap the strength of people.

Telling lies to the young is wrong. Proving to them that lies are true is wrong ... Tell them the difficulties can’t be counted, and let them see not only what will be, but see with clarity these present times. Say obstacles exist they must encounter, sorrow happens, hardship happens. The hell with it. Who never knew the price of happiness, will not be happy.

We have to consciously talk philosophy with young people from their earliest ages.

It was a five-year-old with whom I had to discuss death as part of life when my own husband died. It would not have helped this child to develop the capacity to work through other problems in his life if I had put him off with generalities. We had to talk about what it meant to be dead, and also what it meant to keep people alive in memory, and how one gains strength by thinking of other people. Someone else may have discussed this in somewhat different terms.

The major point I am making is that I had to work with this child on his level to talk through his own pain, and mine, as well as to learn about strength in human beings.

In adolescence one truly needs to develop a philosophy of life. It should become the basis of thinking, action, and feelings. The sentimental search for a comforting religion that makes no demands arises partially out of experience with an adult world that does not share its problems.

Some of us were still very young and comparatively close to adolescence when the unspeakable terror of the Nazi concentration camps came upon us. We could live through those experiences because we had arrived at a meaning in life. This was the basic help that made coping possible. An additional help for some came through their sense of inner creativity. I remember vividly the poetry I quoted in solitary confinement, poetry I had read and poetry I myself created, though there was no way of writing it down. Art and imagination are superb gifts for human beings, and we should develop them increasingly in young people.

Pain as part of life
And, finally, adults themselves will have to accept pain as an important part of life without glorifying it or purposely inflicting it.

Yet we cannot let young people grow up thinking that one must avoid it. John Steinbeck wrote beautifully in one of his letters:

”... we have learned no technique nor ingredient to take the place of anguish. If in some future mutation we are able to remove pain from our species, we will also have removed genius and set ourselves closer to the mushroom than to God."

I underline that I do not preach death, pain, and stress as ideals but I see them as necessary ingredients in life; ingredients which cannot be seen only as a catastrophe but rather, as an opportunity to grow. We will help young people cope if we form a truly supportive but not sentimental society.

A 17-year-old writes it better than I can say it:

I am growing world.
I am reaching and touching and
stretching and testing
And finding new things, new wonderful
New frightening things.
I’m just growing, world, just now.
I’m not tall, I’m not strong. I’m not
Right.I’m just trying to be.
I’m a person, I’m me!
Let me test, let me try, let me
Let me fly!

Push me out of my nest (but not too fast).
There is much I don’t know.
There are things that I want -
don’t hide me from the sight of the world.
Give me room, give me time. There are things I’m not frightened
To try.

Let me tumble and spring, let me go. Let me be. Wait and see “
I am growing, world.

Water me with wisdom of
Your tears.


Hedin, Diane; Howard Wolfe, Karen Garrison and Ferry Fruetel, Youth’s Views on Health, Minnesota Youth Poll #3, Center for Youth Development and Research, University of Minnesota, Fall 1977.

Hedin, Diane, A Poll of Eisenhower High School Students on their views of the school’s philosophy, Minnesota Youth Poll, Center for Youth Development and Research, University of Minnesota, March 1978.

Konopka, Gisela, Adolescent Girl in Conflict Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice Hall, 1966.

Konopka, Gisela, Young Girls: A Portrait of Adolescence, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice Hall, 1976.

Minnesota Health Statistics, Minnesota State Board of Health, 1975.

Saroyan, William, The Human Comedy, Pocket Books, Inc. 1943, New York

Steinbeck, John Steinbeck: A Life of Letters edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, New York: The Viking Press, 1975.

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny (Translated with an introduction by Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi, S.J.) Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1962.

Social Development Issues, 4.3. Fall 1980

This article was reprinted with the permission of the author in Child and Youth Care, Vol.15 (5 and 6), May and June 1977.

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