Caregivers of children with chronic illnesses experience elevated stress and reduced self-care. Although self-care can be beneficial, it is a form of disengagement coping, disengaging from the stressor to try and feel better, which has been characterized as a maladaptive coping strategy. In this study, we test the formulation that avoidance, avoiding the stressor and any thoughts related to it, is a maladaptive disengagement coping strategy, whereas distraction, taking a break from the stressor to do something pleasant, is an adaptive disengagement coping strategy. We assessed these strategies as well as psychosocial outcomes and trait predictors in caregivers of children with chronic illnesses. Results showed that those high in avoidance coping reported lower well-being, higher depression and higher stress. Alternatively, when controlling for avoidance, those high in distraction reported higher well-being, lower depression and lower stress. In addition, distraction exhibited strong relationships to increased positive emotions during caregiving situations and was associated with positive personality traits. These results suggest that not all disengagement coping strategies are equal; although avoidance may be a maladaptive strategy, distraction can be an effective positive emotional strategy for coping with the chronic stress of caregiving for a child with a chronic illness. © 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.