Why it's OK if your child gets stressed out

By Lisa Evans on August 24, 2016


When your child comes home complaining her homework is stressing her out, do you run to her teacher and tell him to stop giving out homework? Some psychologists say you may be hindering your child’s ability to learn to cope with stress.

Stanley Kutcher, professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University, for example, says small amounts of normal stress is good for everyone, but especially for children. “It’s necessary, it’s adaptive, it builds their coping mechanisms,” he says. “If we interfere in that natural growth and development that is driven by normal stress, we screw kids up.” Children who are never exposed to stress, Stanley says, grow up to lack the coping mechanisms to deal with the stressors of everyday life.

The argument that we should allow kids to experience stress may seem confusing, since we live in a world where the word stress is red-flagged as harmful to our well-being. Everywhere you turn, there are books telling you how to reduce stress and studies that link stress to weight gain, heart attacks and even cancer. It seems our society is focused on removing the stressors from our lives, not embracing them. But recent research, such as a University of California study in 2013, shows brief episodes of stress can provide cognitive benefits including improvements in memory and learning.

Kirstin Aschbacher, the study’s author, likens these benefits of stress to exercise. “If we lift weights, there’s a certain amount of physiological stress that we’re putting on our body in that moment. Then we take a break and we allow our tissues to recuperate and our bodies actually become stronger through that process.”

But just as overdoing it during your workout can cause your muscles to be sore the next day, too much stress can also be harmful. Small bursts of everyday stressors such as homework stress, schedule stress and friendship stress can be helpful to developing kids’ stress muscles. But chronic stress can be damaging, says Michele Kambolis, clinical therapist, mental health specialist and author of Generation Stressed. It is the only type of stress that we need to worry about managing, since this type of stress can make children more vulnerable to illness.

Although most adults consider childhood the best time of life, there are a number of factors that are causing our children to experience stress. “We live in a fast-paced world that places many expectations on children,” says Shelley Davidow, author of Raising Stress-Free Kids. Pressures to succeed – to know their ABCs by the time they’re three, for example – or pressures to get the best grades so as to be admitted to the best universities can cause kids to feel like they’re not good enough. “They feel they always fall short of what their parents want them to be,” says Shelley. Kids also worry about what they hear at home. Michele says 80 percent of children say what stresses them the most is their parents’ stress. “They worry about family finances,” she says, adult issues that kids don’t really understand but that they know are causing their parents to worry.

How kids experience stress

Kids experience stress in the same way adults do. The body is programmed to respond to stress with a fight or flight mechanism, the same mechanism that we relied on centuries ago to run when we were being chased by a bear. Our heart rate increases and our breathing becomes rapid, allowing the lungs to take in more oxygen. Blood fl ow increases to prime the muscles, lungs and brain for added demands. Adrenaline is released to increase alertness and give a sense of urgency. While adults may understand why their breathing is more rapid and their heart is pounding, Shelley says little ones aren’t cognitively aware of what’s happening to them, making the way they exhibit stress different than adult behaviour. They may complain of physical symptoms such as a headache or stomachache, have a tantrum, or exhibit developmental regression.

Shelley argues young children do not yet have the capacity to manage stress, saying children under age seven need to be protected so they develop a sense of trust and belief in themselves before being exposed to stress typical of homework and overscheduling.

Changing the stress conversation

While our protective instinct as parents may be to follow Shelley’s advice and remove the stressor, some psychologists say doing this will only teach children that stress is something negative that needs to be avoided, rather than confronted. They argue parents need to change the conversation around stress, treating stress as a positive bodily reaction that propels us into action.

Michele says one way to do this is to re-label the sensations we feel. “Some children might say they’re feeling jumpy or antsy,” says Michele. Finding different words to describe their feelings can help kids to pay closer attention to what that feeling is telling them. Is it saying that it’s time to perform? Is it giving you more energy so you can focus? “Our stress response is really essential and empowering part of being a human being,” says Michele. “The sensations that go hand in hand with stress can motivate us, protect us and help us perform when the stakes are high.”

Changing the way we talk about stress to our kids means being aware of how you think about your own stress. Rather than saying “Ugh, I’m so stressed out about hosting Christmas dinner this year, I never should have offered to do it,” talk about how you’re going to manage your stress: “I’m really stressed out about hosting Christmas dinner. Maybe I should make a list of the things I need to do to help me focus.” Modeling positive coping skills can help children to understand that the stressful situations that come up in their lives can be dealt with, too.

Help kids to manage their stress by breaking the problem down into small manageable pieces. If they’re stressed about the number of words on an upcoming spelling test, for example, ask them to choose three words that you’re going to look at over breakfast each day. If homework time is causing them stress, ask how they might be able to better manage their time so the homework will be successful.

Self-care is another important component to managing stress. Activating the sympathetic nervous system sends messages to our body that we’re safe and we can handle whatever we’re facing. Soothing activities such as yoga or listening to calming music can help to get through stressful situations.

Give kids a biology lesson on stress. When your child appears stressed, ask them to identify the things that are happening to their body. Is their heart racing? Breathing increasing? Discuss how these symptoms are the body’s way of preparing them to do their homework. Say, “Your heart is pounding faster because your body is sending more blood to your brain. Your brain is getting ready to do your homework.” Perhaps ask how you can help the brain to focus by turning off the television.

When stress is bad

Sure, stress may be good for our children, but this doesn’t mean we should allow kids to be stressed all the time, does it? Michele says absolutely not. Small amounts of stress, such as stress over a homework assignment or an exam, for example, may be good for kids to experience and overcome, but chronic stress can interfere with children’s well-being and development, negatively affecting memory, learning and mental health. Michele says parents need to be the judge of what is age appropriate stress for their child.

Unrelenting stress over major life changes such as divorcing parents, moving from a small town to a big city, or the death of a parent, may interfere with a child’s emotional or physical health and may require some other interventions to cope. Stanley calls this type of stress “tolerable stress” – that is, stress that causes difficulty in adaptation. But even this stress, he says, can be buffered by the presence of a caring, competent and consistent adult. Ensuring that children know that you’re there for them and giving them the space to express their thoughts and emotions can help them to overcome this chronic, debilitating stress.

Stress-reduction activities such as yoga can be good for little ones, so long as they’re not combined with talk of stress as a “toxin that needs to be eliminated”, but instead, talk about the skills kids need to manage their stress.

Parent to Parent - How do your kids handle stress?

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Burlington with her son, Nathan. She embraces the philosophy “appreciate the little things” to deal with the stressors of daily life.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2016.

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