I don’t know about you, but I am split on what I think about stress in kids’ lives in modern times.
One the one hand, they have way too much destructive, traumatic and uncontrolled stress from serious situations like bullying, dealing with divorced parents, endless irrelevant testing at school and parents who engage in addictive behaviors to cope with their own stress and mental health challenges. The list of these types of stress seems to go on and on and on.
On the other hand, kids today don’t seem to get near enough of the constructive, controlled and helpful stress that comes from high expectations, high standards, tough schedules and extensive access to daily, difficult chores at home. Many would say that kids today are lazy, spoiled and entitled. For me, the jury is still out on this issue because I think it’s not a black and white distinction.
Of course, modern society is right when it suggests kids today get too much bad stress, but this lamentation often encompasses stress in its entirety and then good stress seems to gets overshadowed and forgotten all together. And when we forget the benefits of good stress, it’s like trying to raise kids with one hand tied behind your back.
For several years now, as a parent, my goal has been to keep the two types of stress separate. For my kids, I have always tried very hard to limit and even prevent destructive, traumatic, uncontrolled (BAD) stress as much as possible and to increase constructive, controlled, helpful (GOOD) stress also as much as possible.
It seems counter-intuitive, I know, but please, bear with me as I try to explain. I work hard to differentiate between the two types of stress because research shows that even a small amount of bad stress can cause lifelong brain damage; whereas, extensive amounts of good stress can go a long way to helping my kids achieve ALL their dreams.
Over the last several years of studying stress and stress management (since 2003), I have learned that kids need thousands of chances to practice dealing with GOOD stress so they can become stress-hardy and resilient. Hundreds of studies done since the start of the 1970’s have proven stress hardiness and resilience are the two MOST IMPORTANT factors in creating an adult life filled with health, happiness, self-motivation and success, and it seems this fact applies to every career field known to humankind.
Needless to say, I do whatever it takes to provide as many good stress situations as possible to help my kids become stress hardy and resilient. As for bad stress, I have tried to use a no-holds barred approach to stopping it dead in its tracks.
But, here’s the interesting part; every situation or occurrence in a child’s life can be a good stress experience or a bad stress experience depending on how it’s handled by the parents and other key adults, and depending on through what type of stress mindset filter (positive or negative) it is being viewed by the child.
And the difference is easy to see. Here are eleven examples of how different life situations can be bad or good, depending on how they are approached and supported by parents:
Physical harm from physical child abuse is a bad stressor, as we all know; however, physical harm from martial arts and contact sports is most often a good stressor.
Schoolwork (Memorization and Testing)
Extensive testing at school is often a bad stressor when children fear it or don’t know how to be successful at it; whereas memorizing lines for a fun school play or lines to favorite songs is a good stressor.
Of course, child exploitation is most often a very bad stressor, but having to do tons of regular, household chores in a supported, fun way is a very good stressor.
Taking the School Bus
A child who has regular, bad experiences on a school bus and who doesn’t feel safe on school buses will suffer chronic, daily bad stress, but a child who is given clearly defined routines, skills to cope with bullies, help with building confidence and who is given clear guidelines for the safe use of buses will benefit from the stress of riding the bus to school everyday.
Bullying is a bad stressor, but learning how to be successful in lots of difficult social relationships can create a lot of resiliency.
Violent & angry arguing and fighting in front of kids can be very traumatic, but witnessing strong, even loud, debate and argument, such as standing up for beliefs, can be very empowering to a child’s future.
Screaming at kids in an uncontrolled manner is destructive indeed, but shouting to call attention to a situation, to avoid danger or to show appreciation or congratulations is rarely problematic. Many families believe that noise is not a good thing, but the world is a noisy place and it’s far better to know how to deal with it than to run from it or be afraid of it.
Setting kids up to fail around food choices by having poor choices in the house and no feeding schedule and then nagging and criticizing kids endlessly for making bad eating decisions and for not wanting to eat at meal times is unfair and unkind, letting children participate is choosing and making food and setting kids up to succeed with good ingredients and healthy recipe choices is a great stressor for kids.
Allowing kids to get sick all the time and stay sick for long periods by eating too much sugar, which crashes the immune system, and not supporting good hygiene practices and good sleep practices have negative repercussions, but expecting and supporting kids to maintain good hygiene, strong immune systems, good housecleaning systems and sleep schedules will strengthen a child’s resiliency around dealing with illness and disease. Parents can even make this fun.
Pushing kids into sports to relive a parent’s lost childhood is a dangerous decision, but supporting and encouraging kids to choose and be successful at sports or other activities is useful and helpful.
If a child has no systems or structure for being successful at completing homework and no encouragement or support from parents or if parents put too much pressure on a child to be an extreme high achiever using endless nagging, criticism and discipline, then a child will suffer for sure under the weight of this very bad stressor; however, by providing support, encouragement, helpful systems, healthy food, water, non-monetary rewards for completion and help with setting goals will lead to homework stress being a very good stressor.
As you can see, stress is everywhere, but, every stressor can be good or bad depending on how it is handled. Unattended bad stress tends to produce brain damage and well-attended good stress produces stress hardiness and resilience.
Becoming stress hardy and resilient means the difference between surviving and thriving; between “just getting by” and flourishing in life; between “making ends meet” in adulthood and living your dreams. With stress-hardiness and resilience, modern children don’t have to grow up to just live “paycheck to paycheck.” They can easily achieve all their dreams instead.