April 10, 2017, Vol. 62, No. 15, Article 8
© 2017 American Psychological Association
A Review of The Development of Coping: Stress, Neurophysiology, Social
Relationships, and Resilience During Childhood and Adolescence
by Ellen A. Skinner and Melanie J. Zimmer-Gembeck
Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2016. 336 pp.
ISBN 978-3-319-41738-7. $119.00
Carol Drucker , Brittany Friedrich
Coping is a complex issue that involves many moving and changing parts. In The
Development of Coping: Stress, Neurophysiology, Social Relationships, and Resilience
During Childhood and Adolescence, Ellen A. Skinner and Melanie J. Zimmer-Gembeck
compile their work and expertise on the topic of coping, which separately and together
began more than 20 years ago. The authors have conceptualized their own theory regarding the nature and development of coping, which comprises considerations such as coping at different early life stages, the neurophysiological developmental effects on coping, and ways of coping that are proactive versus those that are not. They have created a transactional model (theory) that synthesizes the multiple regulatory subsystems of stress and weaves them into a developmentally friendly theory about how, where, and when coping is created. They define coping as “when a living system is challenged, threatened or harmed, it ‘fights back,’ attempting to resist personal damage and struggling to remain intact” (p. 3). “Coping incorporates stress physiology and temperament and involves the coordination of emotion, behavior, attention, motivation and cognition” (p.3.).
One of the first pieces Skinner and Zimmer-Gemback consider in an effort to understand coping is the role of stress on regulatory systems, such as emotional, cognitive, and behavioral. Each stress episode has the potential to build learning and increase future coping, as well as the possibility of creating stagnation and less desirable adaptation. “The adaptive function of coping is to detect and respond to dangers and opportunities. Its raison d’être is survival” (p. 274). The authors identify 12 high-order families of coping that encompass clear and comprehensive categories such as problem solving, information seeking, and escape (p. 36). They suggest that these differentiated coping strategy categories are inclusive enough to allow for the study of coping mechanisms and learning specific to age and development. They believe this allows for a scaffold in which the study of adaptive and maladaptive coping processes and strategies may occur.
The strength of the book is the way in which Skinner and Zimmer-Gembeck understand and present the development of children’s coping systems from looking at neurophysiological functioning, adversity, attachment, to interactional issues, etc. The authors “think that these kinds of ‘bookends’ contain the processes most likely to shape the fundamental architecture of coping and so influence the direction of its development” (p. 215). They consider different aspects of neurophysiological functioning and dynamics with caregivers from neonatal exchanges to adolescent reactivity as they outline the adaptive transformations from one stage to the next. Each preceding stage must be successfully developed to ensure that each subsequent stage has a foundation and framework from which to draw.
The authors successfully display the importance of relational based issues, such as
attachment and its impact on the child’s overall ability to develop an adaptive coping
system. This system is dependent upon the regulatory systems of both caregiver and child and the interaction between the two systems. The authors show that this interaction is best supported when “good enough” parenting is present; the caregiver must be attuned and responsive to the child’s needs. The authors establish that secure attachment best buttresses the developing coping system, for when an infant experiences insecure or disorganized relationships, their coping systems learn that the world is dangerous and unpredictable; neither they nor others can be relied upon for help. These early attachments influence the maladaptive coping systems that will then be present (and become more obvious) as the child navigates the increasingly complex stressors of adolescence (pp. 232–238). Therefore, the more solid an attachment a child has with her caregiver, the more adaptive her coping. They also make a good case that “histories of early life stress not only contribute to the creation of a repertoire of coping in which reliance on maladaptive strategies predominate, but are also likely to interfere with the development of more adaptive modes of coping” (p. 221; Tolan & Grant 2009).
Attachment and its impact on coping is complemented when considering ego development and internal belief structures. Although the authors do not speak directly to the development of either, it is clear their work is supported by theorists who have researched them. In his commentary, Joseph Weiss (1997) notes that children strive to survive, and this survival can only be obtained through a secure relationship with his caregivers. “If he experiences his parents as neglectful and rejecting, he may develop the beliefs that he is unimportant, that life is painful, and that he is not likely to get what he wants.. . .[These beliefs] are likely to handicap him in his adult life and hence be maladaptive” (pp. 427–428). Furthermore, child learning experts Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl (1999) describe the direct impact on the internal self by the external environment: “We survive by being able to learn how to behave in almost any ecological niche, and by being able to construct our own niches” (p. 9).
The authors briefly explore further influences in the formation of maladaptive coping:
namely, temperament and broader family stressors, such as war and poverty. However,
what seems to be a glaringly omitted factor in this developmental theory is the impact of
culture on a child’s adaptive and maladaptive coping. The book leaves room to wonder
about the influence of ethnicity and cultural ideation on children’s coping abilities and
capacities. How might ethnic identity and cultural influence impact the growing and
developing child, and her thoughts about her caregivers and herself that contribute to the outcome of a developing coping system? Furthermore, would this influence the way in which the authors defined and explored maladaptive versus adaptive coping?
Overall, The Development of Coping is extremely informative, and offers a thoughtfully
presented western theory of the development of coping. Skinner and Zimmer-Gembeck are leading experts within the field of coping and have over time developed their theories well. The book’s eloquent descriptions and detailed chapters make strong arguments that are logical and include comprehensive reviews of current literature in the field. This book could easily become the seminal book in the field of coping and will be of particular interest for academics as well as for anyone working with children and adolescents.
Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: Minds, brains, and how children learn. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Tolan, P., & Grant, K. (2009). How social and cultural contexts shape the development of
coping: Youth in the inner city as an example. In E. A. Skinner & M. J. Zimmer-Gembeck
(Eds.), Coping and the development of regulation (pp. 61–74). San Francisco, CA:
Weiss, J. (1997). The role of pathogenic beliefs in psychic reality. Psychoanalytic
Psychology, 14, 427–434. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0079734