When bad things happen

This information is aimed at young people, and is about how to cope when bad things happen.

Disclaimer

This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

Bad things happen to everyone. They can make us feel sad, worried, angry or stressed. Life often becomes tough for a while, but learning how to cope is an important skill we all need to have.

If life was always perfect then we’d never develop coping skills or learn what makes us feel better.

So dealing with one problem can help us learn how to manage other problems as they crop up, as we then know what works for us.

Having a friend to talk to, having an interest that can distract us from our worries, chilling out by listening to music or watching TV can all be ways of coping. 

There are lots of things that can make life tough, often things that are not in our control.

Usually, the difficulty will involve your family, friends, neighbourhood or school, as these are the people and places that have the most effect on you as you are growing up.

Below is a list of the sorts of problems we're talking about:

  • Having an ill parent.
  • Parents who fight and argue a lot.
  • Losing a parent.
  • Parents divorcing.
  • Parents who drink a lot of alcohol or take street drugs.
  • Parents who are in trouble with the police.
  • Friends who are in trouble with the police.
  • Friends who take street drugs.
  • Your family not having enough money and struggling to manage.
  • Living in an area where you don't feel safe.
  • Living away from your parents e.g. in foster care or a children's home.
  • Being bullied.
  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

Several of these problems can happen together, which understandably makes it more difficult to cope. 

There are some things specific to you that will affect how you manage in these situations. These are not always things you can change, but they may explain why you might find your situation more difficult than other young people do.

For example, you might have an illness yourself, such as asthma or diabetes, which adds to your stress. Or you might tend to be a ‘worrier’ rather than someone who is more ‘easy going’.

Having an illness or being someone who worries a lot aren’t bad things, but they might mean you feel more affected by things that happen in your life.

Things that make life difficult are often completely out of your control. But there are things you can do to make them have less of an effect on you.

  • Hobbies spend more time doing something you enjoy and are good at. This may be something you do at school, for example, your favourite subject. Or it may be a sport such as football, swimming or dancing, or another activity like music.
  • Speak to an adult – speak to an adult outside of your close family, such as a teacher, a youth worker, a grandparent or a social worker for support. If you can't think of anyone, your school or local area may be able to provide a mentor.
  • Family time – if you can, encourage your family to keep doing the things that make you have a happy time together, even if you are all struggling through a difficult situation. This will help you to feel closer to each other.
  • After-school activities – think about joining an after-school activity club in your neighbourhood. This will let you have fun safely, and may give you time away from stress at home or with friends. You might also make different friends who can support you.

If you try these ways of helping yourself and you still don't feel any better, or your situation doesn't improve, it may be that it's just too much for you to manage on your own.

Or it could be that your difficulties are so stressful that they have triggered a mental health condition like depression or anxiety.

Coping with the problems we have mentioned is not easy. It is in no way a sign of weakness if you feel you can't manage on your own. It is more a sign of strength that you know when to ask for help.

The best people to ask for help will be other adults you know. This could mean:

  • a teacher
  • a school nurse
  • a school counsellor or youth worker
  • a family member
  • a family friend.

The adult you confide in should listen to your problems and help you to work out whether other people might be able to help. This might mean getting help for you, help for your parents, or for your whole family. The people who may become involved include:

  • your GP or a nurse
  • a local counselling service, who might be able to provide mental health support
  • your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) – a team of professionals specially trained to work with young people
  • a family social worker.

These people work in different ways to each other, but all will aim to support you and improve the situation for you and your family.

"Everything changed in my life when Sven got sick. We were fine, me, Mum, Sven. Then next thing, he’s in hospital and Mum’s all over the place. He got some sort of cancer. He was only 8.

“Suddenly, I had to sort everything out at home. Mum was hardly ever around early on, and even when she was, she wasn’t really. She was really worried. She’d cry a lot too. I did loads more at home to try to help. Washing, buying food and stuff. But it was tough. I was worried too.

“At school, they knew something was up. I was late a lot and didn’t get my work done on time. I didn’t get to football practice. Mr Hutchins, my Head of Year, called me in for a chat. He was really helpful. I told him what was going on with Sven. He knew Dad wasn’t around anymore and asked if anyone else could help out a bit. I told him after Nan died, we didn’t really have anyone else. So he saw I had a lot on my plate.

“He phoned Mum. He wasn’t interfering, just trying to help. He said they were missing me at football and told her how good I was. Then he said it’d be good for me to go to homework club more; so I could get my work done and she could stay at the hospital with Sven for longer.

“They were only little things when you think about it, but they really helped. I could be myself again, playing football, even if it was just for a few hours a week. I wasn’t as behind with my work either. And Mr Hutchins kept an eye on me. I went to see him if I was having a rough day. It was good he knew about Sven; I didn’t have to keep explaining.

“Sven's home now. He’s not better yet, but he’s getting there. And he’s so brave about it all, he makes me feel stronger just being with him."
  • Childline - Provides a 24-hour free and confidential telephone, email and chat service for children and young people. Helpline: 0800 1111.
  • Epic Friends - Mental health problems are common. This website is all about helping you to help your friends who might be struggling emotionally.
  • Kings College London, Keep Cool – a series of educational videos from King’s College London designed to help young people learn about and cope with strong emotions.
  • MindEd, trauma and coping - information for parents and carers to help them respond if their child has had a traumatic experience
  • Samaritans - Offer confidential emotional support to anyone in a crisis. Help lines (24hrs): 08457 909090 (UK), and 1850 609090 (ROI); email: jo@samaritans.org
  • U Can Cope! How to cope when life is difficult - information for young people, produced by RCPsych, on how to cope when you feel emotionally overwhelmed.

Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB).

Expert authors: Dr Alan Cooklin, Dr Virginia Davies, Dr Vasu Balaguru, Dr Aneesa Karim, and Professor Andrea Danese.

This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.

Full references are available upon request.

© August 2022 Royal College of Psychiatrists