The tossing and turning the night before a big exam or presentation. The slight nausea on the way to an important interview. The tears after less-than-positive feedback. We’ve all felt stress to varying degrees at different points in our lives, and it can be downright uncomfortable. Now, as parents, many of us are programmed to help our children avoid painful situations at all costs… but avoiding stress is not only impossible, it’s unhelpful. Here are a few of the ways a bit of stress actually helps your kiddo in the long run, and how parents can reframe it.
It means they’re getting out of their comfort zone.
Consider every time you’ve had stress. Maybe you were pursuing a competitive job opportunity. Maybe you were anxious about doing well on term paper. Maybe you were trying your hand at a new hobby or going to a brand-new social event. Often times, stress means that we are stretching beyond our comfort zones and pursuing a goal, whether academic, social, professional, spiritual – whatever. Sometimes, stress is simply a growing pain. Avoid stress and you avoid growth.
It can improve their performance on tasks.
When you’re stressed about doing a good job on something, you’re probably not going to slack off or phone it in. Some stress can light the fire under your child’s rear and ensure they give that extra bit of effort. In fact, research has shown that the human stress response can get “the brain and body in an optimal position to perform.” While too much performance anxiety can be counterproductive, there is a healthy level of stress that helps us stay motivated, get prepared, and do our best.
It cultivates resilience.
When we exercise, we experience momentary discomfort that builds our endurance and strength. In many ways, this is also how we can think about stress. When we overcome discomfort and anxiety to try something new, when we overcome a stressful situation, and when we push through a nerve-wracking experience, we become more resilient. Researchers have discovered that, on average, individuals who experience and overcome stressful circumstances ultimately have higher resilience levels than individuals who haven’t. When you go above and beyond to protect your child from experiencing any stress or hardship, you may unintentionally make future situations harder on them.
So, what can you do with this information? Lead by example and reframe how you view stress.
Studies have shown that when two individuals experience a similar level of stress, the individual with an overall positive view of that stress experiences more performance-enhancing effects and increased levels of resilience after the fact. By handling your own personal stress from a more positive perspective, you have the opportunity to show your children how it’s done.
Similarly, don’t jump into the role of rescuer when your child is experiencing a stressful situation. Rather than helping them run from the stress, teach them coping skills to navigate the stress in a healthy way. Remind them of the benefits of a healthy dose of stress. Once they’ve completed the task, finished the exam, or defeated the stressor in another way, reflect with them on how they feel – Do they feel accomplished? Do they feel stronger? Do they feel proud? Remind them of the rewards that lie on the other side of stress.
There are healthy levels of stress, and there are unhealthy levels of stress. Trust your gut when it seems like the anxiety and overwhelm is getting to be too much – such as when executive functioning seems to be taking a hit. If your gut is telling you that their stress level is too high or disproportionate to the stressor, it may be time to have a candid discussion about options, such as reducing their workload or seeing a counselor. Additionally, our academic coaches can help your child improve their study and time management skills – two things that can work to minimize their stress levels.