Stanley Kutcher, a professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says little bits of normal stress is good for everyone, but especially for children. “It’s necessary, adaptive and it builds their coping mechanisms. If we interfere in the natural growth and development that’s driven by normal stress, we screw kids up.”
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’s something telling us how to reduce stress and studies that link it to weight gain, heart attacks and even cancer. But some research, including a University of California study from 2013, shows brief episodes of stress can provide cognitive benefits, including improvements in memory and learning.
Kirstin Aschbacher, an author of the University of California study, likens these benefits of stress to exercise. “If we lift weights, there’s a certain amount of physiological stress we’re put- ting on our body in that moment. Then we take a break and we allow our tissues to recuperate and our bodies 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 be harmful. Small bursts of everyday stressors such as stress caused by homework, busy schedules and clashes with friends can be helpful to developing kids’ stress muscles. But chronic anxiety can be damaging, says Michele Kambolis, a counsellor and registered therapist, mental health specialist and author of Generation Stressed. It’s the only type of stress that we need to worry about managing, since it can makes us more vulnerable to illness.
Describing stress in a healthy way
One way to do this, says Kambolis, is to relabel the sensations we feel. While some kids might say they feel “jumpy” or “antsy,” suggesting they find different words to describe their feelings can help them pay closer attention to what the feeling is telling them. Is it saying it’s time to perform? Is it giving you more energy so you can focus? “Our stress response is an essential and empowering part of being human,” Kambolis says. “The sensations that go with stress can motivate us, protect us and help us perform when the stakes are high.”
Break down their problems
Manageable pieces are easier to deal with than one whopper of an issue. If they’re stressed about the number of words on an upcoming spelling test, ask them to choose three words to look over during breakfast each day. If it’s homework that’s getting to them, ask how they might be able to better manage their time so they can get their work done efficiently.
Be a good role model
Instead of: “I’m so stressed about hosting Christmas this year—I never should have offered to do it,” talk about how you’re going to manage your stress. “I’m really stressed about hosting Christmas. Maybe I should make a list of the things to do to help me focus.” Modelling positive coping skills can help children understand that the stressful situations that come up in their lives can be dealt with, too.
Originally published in the Winter 2018 issue.