What exactly is stress?

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The concept of “stress” has been coming up a lot in discussions and conversations I’ve been having with parents lately ­– stress both in terms of the parent and the child. Stress plays a huge role in child behaviour and parenting, so it’s important to understand what stress really is and how it affects our kids, and us.

Understanding stress is so important because it’s linked to self-regulation skills. We’ve touched on the idea of stress behaviour vs. misbehaviour before – kids get stressed when we’re demanding something from them, and they can’t meet that demand. But why do they get stressed in some situations and stay calm in others? Why is another kid taking their toy at the park no big deal, but it causes a meltdown at daycare? This all comes down to stress – the cause of it and how they deal with that stress.

Stress Defined

So what is stress? Dr. Stuart Shanker, author of Self-Reg, defines stress as “energy expenditure.” Put simply, anything that causes you to expend mental or physical energy is stress.

Stress is not worry. It’s true, as adults we tend to spend a lot of energy on worry, so we tend to see stress and worry as the same thing. But kids don’t experience stress and worry in the same way. A stressed kid is not necessarily worried about something – it is just that the demands on their energy are outstripping the energy they have in reserve.

For a small child with very limited energy resources, pretty much anything can be a stressor. Trying a new food or encountering an itchy tag in their t-shirt? That’s biologically stressful. Doing a puzzle? Cognitive stress. Making a decision? Emotional and cognitive stress.

If you’re reading this and thinking “if this is the case, everything in my child’s life must be stressful”, you’re pretty much right at least to an extent. Almost everything in your child’s life has the potential to be stressful. However, there are things that can help your child to relax and calm down to “refill” their tank. Sleep is one. You can probably think of a few more, but beware – what you might think is calming for your child can actually cause stress. Moreover, what’s calming for one child may be stressful for another.

Think about the concept of introverts vs. extroverts. Introverts find being alone very relaxing and calming, but being with other people can be very stressful. Extroverts are the opposite. Being alone can actually be a huge stressor for them, and being around others has a calming effect.

I can’t recommend a list of calming activities for kids because they’re all different. What your child finds calming and stressful is largely down to personality, and may take a bit of experimentation to figure out.

The Difference Between Good and Bad Stress

So then we come to the difference between good stress vs. bad stress. Yes, there is such a thing as good stress!

Good stress is productive, but it depletes energy levels just like any other kind of stress. If your child is an introvert, it doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy playing with other kids or going to school, but they’re probably going to need some downtime in the evening, to replenish their energy and recover from the stress of being with others all day.

If you have an introverted child, you’ve probably experienced what you might call “misbehaviour” if you try and interact with them before they’ve refilled their tank. You might be met with crying, hitting, throwing things, or any other number of “bad” behaviours. While this may be puzzling to us as parents, just trying to talk to your child after school may be all takes to tip them over the edge and take more energy than they have to give.

Identifying causes of stress and figuring out how to help your child how to build their energy and recover from this stress are key for improving behaviour in these situations.

How to Help Kids Cope With Stress

We can’t always remove the source of stress, but there are usually steps you can take to mitigate it and to avoid stress behaviour.

Let’s say your child flips out at the suggestion of eating green beans at dinner. What is really going on here? Maybe they’re tired after a long day and the beans are the thing that tips them over the edge. Eating the beans at the end of a tiring and stressful day is just too much to ask.

So as a parent, what can you do to reduce this stress? Is eating the beans really that important? Probably not – in this case you can remove the source of stress pretty easily. However, removing the obstacle every time is not the answer. You can also think about ways you can help your child to cope with the stress.

Maybe you can introduce the beans to another meal when your child isn’t so tired. Beans at breakfast? Why not?! Or maybe moving dinner back half an hour is all it takes to avoid a meltdown. Sometimes it’s just the quantity of food that is a problem – try offering just a couple so it’s not as overwhelming. Or try talking about what’s for dinner on the way home from school or daycare so it won’t be a surprise.

As parents, there are many strategies we can try to help mitigate stressful situations for our kids. It may take some experimentation and time to figure out, but it’s much quicker and easier than the time you spend on discipline.

By trying some of these strategies to help kids cope with obstacles instead of removing them, we’re teaching the important skill of self-regulation. Soon you might find your child asking what’s for dinner, so they can learn how to manage the stress of vegetables by themselves!

We’ve just really scratched the surface of the topic of stress here, but I hope it’s been helpful for you to identify some of your child’s stressors and how you can help them to work through it.

If you’d like to learn more on this topic, make sure to sign up for ParentAbility and download my free Scripts for Managing Crazy-Making Behaviour, which are designed to reduce the stress on your child while still maintaining your expectations.

I’d love to hear more about any ideas this post has sparked for you. If you’ve thought of some strategies for helping your child work through stressful situations, please let me know in the comments.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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