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6 “Mental” Participation of Social Partners and Coping Coaching

6 “Mental” Participation of Social Partners and Coping Coaching

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Development of Coping during Middle Childhood …

emotions, or to give up, that is, to “fail.” Children need lots of practice with

mistakes and setbacks in order to get better at coping, that is, to learn how to

re-energize, recover, bounce back, and profit from obstacles and failures (Skinner

and Pitzer 2012). Over time, supportive adults can help children learn powerful

lessons: to figure out how to tolerate and even benefit from the negative emotions

that stressful experiences generate (e.g., appreciating that guilt is a respectable

reaction to transgressions) while discovering that such emotions eventually dissipate, to view failures as inevitable and informative (i.e., as opportunities for

learning more), to discover how to persist productively in the face of shame,

anxiety, disappointment, or frustration, and to hold oneself accountable for mistakes

and to be willing to repair them (e.g., through apologies and restorative actions).

When parents (and other adults) continue to provide high levels of support,

including warmth, structure, and autonomy support, as children learn how to fail,

feel bad, and recover, out of these stressful transactions can emerge ever more

autonomous regulation during coping, in which children successively internalize

and integrate these lessons with their authentic selves (Mesquita and Albert 2007;

Ryan 1992). This allows children, over middle childhood, to become increasingly

able to use moral principles and socio-cultural rules as guides to organize their

coping actions even in the absence of external monitors. It is important to note that,

although children become increasingly capable of autonomous self-regulation

across middle childhood, it can still be challenging for them to act on their prosocial

and moral principles under stressful conditions, for example, in conditions of

“temptation,” when strong prepotent action tendencies are activated (Metcalfe and

Mischel 1999). If parents detect and deal with them constructively, such “lapses”

can be used as important object lessons about the factors that make it challenging to

cope well with moral dilemmas and other situations in which a child experiences

conflicting urges.


Summary of Transformations of the Coping System

during Middle Childhood

In many ways, middle childhood can be considered the “golden age” of coping. New

capacities emerge and are consolidated that allow children to intentionally reappraise

stressful events in ways that shape their emotional reactions and coping choices, to

differentiate and deploy a wider range of ways of coping including a host of mental

means (such as mental distraction), and to more deliberately and flexibly coordinate

these ways of coping with changing internal and external conditions, such as the

demands and resources available in specific situations. Together, these new capacities enable children to use a wide range of strategies for dealing efficiently and

effectively with obstacles, difficulties, and setbacks in ways that both constructively

manage instrumental and interpersonal problems, while at the same time listening to

internal experiences and helping to restore emotional well-being.

9.7 Summary of Transformations of the Coping System …


These coping experiences, when supported by the judicious participation of

caring adults, contribute to the development of pragmatic and constructive

self-systems that will serve as anchors in future attempts to deal with obstacles and

problems. These core self-perceptions, which build on the implicit appraisals that

emerged as internal working models during infancy, and were crystalized as explicit

self-appraisals during toddlerhood and early childhood, are likely to continue to be

organized around fundamental needs. These include feelings of mastery and

self-efficacy that are calibrated to actual competence in multiple domains and that

promote challenge appraisals and growth-oriented responses to problems and

obstacles. Self-systems also incorporate a sense of belonging and security aligned

with the cooperative actions of the self and the actual trustworthiness of different

social partners. Such appraisals foster both self-reliance and appropriate

support-seeking. Finally, feelings of self-determination and ownership are integrated with the authentic self, and together they encourage both accommodation to

reasonable demands and self-assertive cooperative negotiation in service of one’s

own needs.

Researchers agree that, if all goes well, middle childhood is a time during which

coping becomes remarkably “sturdy” (Compas et al. 2001; Skinner and

Zimmer-Gembeck 2007), which may be one reason why this developmental phase

is seen as a particularly resilient period—during which children can withstand and

sometimes even flourish under conditions of adversity (Masten 2001). This kind of

coping system, which is the product of more than a decade of experience in coping

successfully with increasingly challenging demands, can be considered a bookend

to the processes of nurturing stress resistance and resilience (Fleshner et al. 2011)

that started with the relational micro-stressors of infancy (DiCorcia and Tronick

2011) and now extend to the range of everyday stressors that characterize childhood

(Wolchik and Sandler 1997). As discussed in detail in Chap. 6, and as demonstrated

in the lab and in studies with non-human animals, two ingredients seem to be

essential to the development of such stress resilience: exposure to stressful events

and the experience of coping efficacy. As has been illustrated in the several chapters

between Chap. 6 and the current one, a major task of caregivers (and others

invested in children’s development) is to help children spend considerable time in

such a zone of “just manageable challenge.” It turns out that creating this zone is

both a dynamic process and a moving target. As adults participate in and monitor

children’s coping, they come to learn that it is a multi-level integrated system in

whose functioning they play a major role. And, as children develop, the participation of adults changes as well, requiring continual readjustment to keep coping

systems in the “green zone”—tipping toward experiences of challenge and away

from experiences of threat. Its construction, however, is a worthy goal. Such a

coping system is an important asset for children to take with them into early

adolescence, where challenges brought on by physiological, cognitive, and social

changes await.

Chapter 10

Development of Coping

during Adolescence: Heightened

Reactivity, Pro-active Regulation,

and Increased Coping Flexibility

When all goes well, children arrive at the end of middle childhood with powerful

coping capacities, including appraisal systems that are complex and elaborated, and

that are now able, through children’s intentional cognitive reappraisal, to influence

their own bottom-up stress reactivity, both physiological and psychological (emotions, motivations, and goals). Improvements in problem-focused coping are also

enabled by developments in multiple aspects of executive functions (EF), especially

working memory and shifting, which allow problem-solving efforts to incorporate

information generated by previous coping strategies and their consequences.

Although children maintain access to the repertoire of coping actions that they

consolidated during early childhood, their expanding representational capacities

enable them to successively reconstruct these strategies as mental actions. When

this is accomplished, all of the components of coping can meet each other on the

mental plane of “hot” representations for the first time, allowing children to

internally and intentionally negotiate the competing claims and tensions among the

components that are exacerbated during stressful transactions—and so bring into

conscious awareness conflicts that were previously resolved implicitly at the level

of action.

By the end of middle childhood, histories of prosocial and constructive coping

episodes, supported by attuned and insightful adults, consolidate habits of mind and

heart that promote increasing stress resistance and resilience. Children should have

sturdy coping systems that enable most stressors to be viewed as challenges rather

than threats, most episodes to be navigated with compassion and determination

rather than hostility and helplessness, and most outcomes, whether failures or

successes, to be seen as productive learning experiences. Reviews of age differences

and age changes in ways of coping during childhood and adolescence tend to

corroborate this portrayal of middle childhood as a time of progress and growth. In

general, productive ways of coping (such as support-seeking and distraction)

continue to be used to great advantage, become more sophisticated in form, and are

increasingly matched to the stressor context between the ages of 3 and 12, while

other constructive ways of coping (such as problem-solving, negotiation, and

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

E.A. Skinner and M.J. Zimmer-Gembeck, The Development of Coping,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41740-0_10




Development of Coping during Adolescence …

accommodation) steadily increase in use during the same period (Compas et al.

2001; Fields and Prinz 1997; Zimmer-Gembeck and Skinner 2011).

Unfortunately for adolescents (and the people who love them), this pattern of

steady, continuous improvements in coping does not always carry forward into the

first years of adolescence. Instead, at the onset of puberty and during the pubertal

transition (i.e., the early adolescent years), studies reveal heightened stress reactivity

and more problems with adaptive coping and regulation, as registered, for example,

in physiological indicators (Casey et al. 2010; Dahl and Gunnar 2009; Josephs et al.

2006; Stroud et al. 2009; Somerville 2013) and in adolescents’ own self-reports

(Grant et al. 2006; Seiffige-Krenke 2006). During this same period, there are

noticeable upticks in reliance on more maladaptive coping strategies and impulsive

actions (e.g., aggression, Pellegrini and Bartini, 2001; for a review see Casey 2015).

Moreover, perhaps based in part on adolescents’ striving for greater autonomy from

parents and desire for closer connections to peers (Zimmer-Gembeck et al. 2011),

youth show an increasing reluctance to seek help or other forms of support from

adults when dealing with stress (Allen and Miga 2010; Newman et al. 2001).

In this chapter, we focus on three important developments that underlie transformations in the stress and coping system during adolescence. First, neurophysiological threat detection and stress reactivity systems are recalibrated to incorporate

greater sensitivity to emotionally distressing and stressful experiences. Second,

improvements in emotional understanding and affective theory of mind, also called

mentalizing (Somerville 2013), allow more attuned insight and interpersonal perspective taking. And third, the burgeoning complex of skills that assist with

self-control, especially EF when in emotionally salient (hot) contexts, begin to

integrate complex cognitive and emotional information, including signals of danger

and loss, when guiding action under increasingly demanding conditions, such as

when risks and rewards are at stake. As teenagers complete physical maturation,

these developments better enable them to reflect on their entire coping systems from

a meta-perspective. This creates one more functional top-down layer within which

multiple sources of information (both hot and cool) about the meaning of threatening and stressful experiences can be appraised. Within these processes, multiple

means of coping (neurophysiological, interpersonal, action, and mental) can be

consulted in creating and revising action plans, and supervising long-term learning

from stressful transactions, whether they are seen as “successes” or “failures” in the

short term.

In reaching these potentials, however, young adolescents seem to normatively go

through a period of “becoming” or imbalance, during which the developing neural

and cognitive systems that will eventually be used to accommodate and incorporate

emotional, motivational, and self-evaluative information are not yet fully mature,

and so need time and experience in order to be able to accomplish these important

and difficult tasks for the coping system. Hence, theoretical models of this age

period must account both for marked improvements in cognitive, motivational, and

emotional capacities and for marked (if temporary) increases in potentially dangerous decisions and actions. As has been well-documented, young adolescents are


Development of Coping during Adolescence …


more likely to engage in attractive but sometimes risky, reckless, or impulsive

behavior in multiple domains, especially in socially and emotionally charged situations involving peers and rewards (e.g., truancy, reckless driving, delinquency,

substance abuse, and unprotected sexual activity; Albert et al. 2013; Michels et al.

2005; Reyna and Farley 2006; Somerville et al. 2010; Steinberg and Morris 2001;

Zimmer-Gembeck and Helfand 2008; Zimmer-Gembeck et al. 2004). Following

leading researchers in this area, we do not view “the adolescent brain” as deficient

or defective, but instead agree that it is important to consider “adolescent-specific

changes in self-control and underlying brain circuitry … in terms of how evolutionarily based biological constraints and experiences shape the brain to adapt to the

unique intellectual, physical, sexual, and social challenges of adolescence” (Casey

2015, p. 295).


Enhanced Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity:

Recalibrating Neurophysiological Systems

As described in the chapter on neurophysiological developments, early adolescence

seems to be a time during which the hormonal changes of puberty recalibrate the

stress reactivity systems governed by the sympathetic–adrenal–medullary

(SAM) and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) systems, so that they

become increasingly sensitive both to rewards and to aversive events such as

stressors; increasing sensitivity seems to become especially focused on social

rewards and threats, such as peer evaluation and standing or status (Dahl and

Gunnar 2009; Forbes and Dahl 2010; Moore et al. 2012; Nelson et al. 2005; Stroud

et al. 2009; Spear 2009; Somerville 2013, van den Bos et al. 2014). The period of

hyporesponsivity of these systems, which started at about the age of 3 months and

continued all throughout childhood, draws to a close during early adolescence.

In normally developing children, the hormonal changes of puberty co-occur with

continued maturation of many areas of the brain that are central to stress responding

(i.e., the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala; Gee et al. 2014). Just as the

highly reactive stress detection systems of the newborn were successively adapted

to the caregiving context the newborn encountered, it is as if the hormonal and other

physiological changes of early adolescence signal that independence and reproduction are emerging organismic priorities; and so stress reactivity systems are

encouraged to again check the local “weather” conditions created by current social

and physical contexts in order to explore the range of novelty, rewards, and threats

that characterize the environments to which the increasingly independent organism’s underlying neurophysiological coping subsystems will now be required to


For these reasons, many stress researchers consider early adolescence to be a

“sensitive period”—one during which the effects of previous exposure to early life

stress may become apparent or during which exposure to concurrent stressful life



Development of Coping during Adolescence …

events may shape neural programming, and so have marked effects on long-term

psychological and behavioral development (Blakemore and Mills 2014; Hostinar

et al. 2014; Lupien et al. 2009; Nelson et al. 2014; Romeo 2013, 2015). As will be

discussed in Part IV, because of the many neurophysiological reorganizations

taking place, adolescence is also a time during which incubation effects that were

set up by early life stress experienced during infancy or early childhood often

become visible in the functioning of youth (Lupien at al. 2009).

Heightened stress and distress. Although findings are not consistent across all

studies (e.g., Silvers et al. 2012) and seem to depend on many factors, such as the

stressor domain, past history, and the type of measure used to assess stress reactions

(Spear 2009), the transition to puberty seems to mark the beginning of a period of

more intense emotional and motivational activation of the bottom-up reactivity

systems (Albert et al. 2013; Burnett et al. 2011; Dahl 2004; Gunnar and Quevedo

2007; Lewis and Todd 2007; Somerville 2013; Spear 2004; van den Bos et al.

2014). Early adolescents show greater mood variability and emotional reactivity,

compared to prepubescent children or older adults (Larson et al. 2002); and

self-reports of stressful experiences peak at the same time, showing levels higher

than in the immediately prior years of late childhood or during the immediately

following years of middle and later adolescence (Allen and Miga 2010; Ge et al.

1994; Silver et al. 2012; Seiffge-Krenke 2011). Much of this heightened reactivity

seems to be focused on social threats and interpersonal stressors. As argued by

Nelson et al. (2005), the hormones of puberty seem to result in an enhanced

sensitivity to socioemotional threats and rewards, resulting in a social reorientation,

during which adolescents shift their focus, turning more toward friends and peers.

As pointed out by other researchers, these higher levels of experienced and

perceived stress should not be blamed solely on adolescent hormones, but actually

have a much more complex origin in neurobiological, psychological, and social

factors (Compas 2006; Casey et al. 2010; Dahl and Gunnar 2009; Silvers et al.

2012; Spear 2009). First, adolescence does typically introduce a particularly intense

period of objectively challenging and stressful events. Simultaneous biological,

psychological, and social changes result in exposure to an increasing number of

novel and demanding events across all of these domains of development, especially

interpersonal stressors (Ahmed et al. 2015; Ge et al. 1994; Hamilton et al. 2014;

Seiffge-Krenke 2011; Silvers et al. 2012; Somerville 2013), although academic

pressures increase as well (Ang and Huan 2006).

Second, these changes and experiences surface as recognizable thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in adolescents. Structural and functional brain changes,

heightened emotionality, and greater responsiveness to stress hormones (Albert et al.

2013; Romeo 2015), combined with increases in self-consciousness (Somerville

2013), color these actual stressful experiences, giving them personal significance and

meanings that could be appraised as potentially threatening, a process that, when it

becomes exaggerated, is referred to in the coping literature as “catastrophizing”

(Garnefski and Kraaij 2014; Skinner et al. 2013; Smith and Alloy 2009).


Enhanced Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity …


A third factor that may contribute to heightened distress during this period, about

which less is known, has been discussed in research on “stress generation” (Conway

et al. 2012; Hamilton et al. 2014; Liu 2013; Rudolph 2008; Zimmer-Gembeck 2015,

2016), in which adolescents (or other individuals) actually create additional stressful

episodes for themselves via their own responses; for example, they react to interpersonal stressors in ways that are socially unskilled, use coping strategies that are a

bad match for the stressor condition, or show impulsive risky behavior that creates

subsequent problems. For adolescents, risky or impulsive behaviors could include

the initiation of social encounters that they are not yet prepared to handle (like

starting a fight or initiating a sexual relationship), academic behaviors that create

stressful consequences (like talking back to a teacher or not studying for an exam),

or even engaging in behaviors that disrupt homeostatic functioning (like skipping

meals or sleeping very little). The general idea is that it is the mixture of higher

actual stressful events (both normative and self-generated), combined with more

reactive neurophysiological and appraisal systems that magnify their significance,

that together create conditions under which adolescents experience increases in

objective stress or report elevated levels of psychological stress, echoed by findings

of increased neurophysiological reactivity (Hostinar and Gunnar 2013; Gunnar et al.

2009; Lupien et al., 2009; Stroud et al. 2012; Silk et al. 2009; Sommerville 2013).


Development of Appraisals: Affective Theory

of Mind and a Two-Level Emotion Theory

The waves of more intense emotional and social experience that characterize early

adolescence, although very uncomfortable and troubling at times, may also contribute to important advances in the integration of cognitive, emotion, and social

systems during this developmental period. This can be seen, for example, in continued improvement and refinement of affective theories of mind (Vetter et al.

2013), social cognition (Burnett et al. 2011), the construction of a two-level theory

of emotion (Stegge and Meerum Terwogt 2007), and, in general, in the many ways

that reading and incorporating emotions becomes more other-oriented, empathic,

and automatic with age (Nelson et al. 2014).

Mentalizing and the social brain. Building on accomplishments described in

previous chapters, notable progress accrues all throughout the adolescent period in

developing richer and more sophisticated mental models of the thoughts and

feelings of others. During childhood, these capacities are studied under the moniker

of theory of mind, but in research with adolescents or adults, these faculties are

called “mentalizing,” which refers to individuals’ developing understandings of the

nature and role of mental states in motivation and behavior (Frith and Frith 2003).

Parallel to distinctions in the early childhood literatures on cognitive versus

affective theory of mind, researchers have investigated two aspects of mentalizing

among adolescents: cognitive mentalizing, which involves the nature and role of



Development of Coping during Adolescence …

beliefs and intentions, versus affective mentalizing, which focuses on the more

complex functioning of emotions.

Few studies have examined theory of mind after early childhood, and fewer still

have examined affective, rather than cognitive, aspects of theory of mind (Pfeifer

and Blakemore 2012). Nevertheless, a small group of studies have recently traced

the continued development of affective mentalizing across adolescence (Vetter et al.

2013a, b). Patterns are not completely clear but, so far, this work suggests that

performances on tasks that tap affective mentalizing lag behind those on tasks

tapping cognitive mentalizing during adolescence, and each capacity seems to be

supported by a different neural network (Blakemore 2008; Burnett et al. 2011;

Shamay-Tsoory et al. 2006).

Normatively, adolescents improve in their capacity to recognize and label more

complex and subtle emotions in others all across adolescence (and into early

adulthood; Nelson et al. 2014). At the same time, however, the neural networks

adolescents use to accomplish these tasks differ from the ones that they will

eventually use as adults; adolescents seem to depend more on the ventromedial

prefrontal cortex (vmPFC; Burnett et al. 2011; Vetter et al. 2013a, b). In fact, some

researchers suggest that affective “mind reading” builds on two separate sets of

developments—advances in perspective taking and other cognitive skills that

enable cognitive mentalizing, on the one hand, and advances in “emotion”

understanding and empathy, on the other hand. This implies that it is the increasing

integration of these skills that underlies improvements in affective mentalizing

during adolescence (Shamay-Tsoory et al. 2006).

In general, these advances are supported by changing activation of regions that

have been referred to together as “the social brain” (Blakemore 2008, 2010). The

social brain includes the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), temporoparietal

junction, and superior temporal sulcus, among other regions (Somerville 2013).

These regions are active during tasks in which social stimuli are salient, that is,

tasks that involve reading others’ thoughts and feelings (van den Bos et al. 2009),

invoke social emotions, such as embarrassment (Burnett et al. 2009), or call for

moral reasoning (Blakemore et al. 2007). In multiple fMRI studies, adolescents

have been found to engage the DMPFC more than adults during these tasks

(Blakemore 2008, 2010; Gunther Moor et al. 2010). In fact, the general pattern of

age differences in brain activation observed during mentalizing tasks has led Pfeifer

and Blakemore (2012) to refer to this as an anterior-to-posterior shift with age. Such

a shift suggests that improvements in mentalizing capacity may be supported by

structural brain development during adolescence. Others have argued, however, that

age differences might instead (or also) reflect the fact that compared to adults,

adolescents are more focused on and concerned about the thoughts and feelings of

others (Somerville, 2013).

A two-level theory of emotion: Emotional understanding and regulation. The

increases found in performance on tasks tapping mentalizing in the affective domain

parallel developments in “emotion” understanding, processing, and regulation that

also unfold during adolescence (Casey 2015; Nelson et al. 2014; Pfeifer and

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