What exactly is stress?

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Today I’d like to talk about stress. I’ve been mentioning stress more and more frequently in the MudRoom, we’ve been talking about stress A LOT in ParentAbility, and it’s starting to come up more frequently in the Posse, too, so I think it’s time we discuss it here- because I too am starting to realize what a HUGE role this plays for parents. You know, I’m always learning- I am constantly reading books and articles and research papers and taking professional development classes and watching seminars. I will NEVER stop learning.
One of those books I read in 2016 when it first came out was Self-Reg by Dr. Stuart Shanker. I’ve read it about four times since because it kind of blew my mind. It’s taken multiple re-readings to really grasp all of it, and even then- I’m currently taking a certification course with Dr. Shanker that he introduced last year and I’m lucky to be able to be participating in it RIGHT NOW. Every week my mind is being re-blown. This is a deep topic that is just really starting to be understood. But, I think the concept of stress is so vital for parents to wrap their heads around because- we talk about skills here. Critical thinking skills, executive functioning skills- but neither of those can be accessed if you don’t have self-regulation skills. Without self-regulation skills, your brain literally turns off your executive skills- they become physically impossible to use. So that’s why this has become such a hot topic in Brain Skills Play Blueprint because we’re focusing on executive functioning skills, and that’s not going to do any good if you can’t access them!
We’ve talked about stress behaviour vs. misbehaviour before- and how children will get stressed when the demands on them outstrip their ability to meet that demand. But what determines their ability to meet that demand? Why can kids do something sometimes and not other times? Why can they stay calm at the park when another child grabs their toy, but at daycare they bite? Or why can they keep track of their shoes at daycare but at home they throw them willy nilly and then every morning is like a bad reenactment of the Amazing Race trying to hunt down shoes? WHAT IS STRESS?! And can there be good stress?
The definition of stress that Dr. Shanker uses is that stress is energy expenditure. Anything that causes you to expend mental or physical energy is stress. Now, as adults, we tend to expend a lot of energy on worry. Especially us Moms. We spend SO much energy worrying- often about things we have no control over. So as adults we tend to conflate the concept of stress with worry. Which is why when I suggest to a parent that their child is stressed- they often get very defensive. A beautiful example was the other week one of my admins in the Posse answered a post stating that it didn’t sound like misbehaviour but like stress. And the poster immediately replied with “My daughter has nothing to be stressed about, she’s loved, she has a stable home, she’s got everything she could ever want, but thanks.” Stress and worry are not the same things. Saying that your child is stressed doesn’t mean that they have something to worry about. It simply means that the demands for their energy outstrips the energy they have to expend. 
Being asked to eat food you don’t know if you like or not is biological stressful. Brushing your teeth is a cognitive and biological stress. The tag in your t-shirt that’s rubbing funny? That’s a biological stressor. Your friend looking at you in a way you can’t interpret? Stress- prosocial stress, to be precise. Making a decision- emotional and cognitive stress. Doing a puzzle? Cognitive stress. Putting your outdoor gear on? Biological, prosocial and cognitive stress. 
EVERYTHING we do is a stressor because we need to expend energy on it. Now there are things that refill our tank so to speak- things we find relaxing and calming. Sleep is pretty much the only universal one, though. What one person finds calming another might find stressful. Which is where we start to see problems because parents often THINK something should be calming to a child, and it’s actually very stressful. Or they look at something their child is doing and think that that activity is stressful but in reality, it’s very calming for the child. A classic example of this is introverts vs extroverts. Introverts find being alone very calming, very relaxing. Interacting with people takes a LOT of energy for them so they can’t do it for a long time- they need alone time to recharge. Extroverts, on the other hand, find being alone very stressful. The silence is deafening for them. They don’t enjoy it. Being around people is calming and relaxing for them. So they arrange their lives in a way that they are rarely alone. These are the people who actually enjoy living with 20 other people in university. Then there are ambiverts who need a good balance of both- if they spend TOO much time alone it becomes stressful, but also if they spend too much time with people that begins to become stressful too. Another example would be teenagers who enjoy listening to very loud music. For their parents- that’s generally very stressful, but for the teen whose blasting it- it’s very calming. It’s rejuvenating. So this is where the pickle is. There is NO one size fits all.  What your child finds rejuvenating won’t always be what you think it should be. 
So can there be good stress? YES! Of course- there is productive stress. Doing this for me is productive stress. I LOVE doing these posts! However, public speaking also really makes me nervous- I have a lot of “stage fright”…so I won’t lie, once I am done, I am WIPED. It’s positive stress, I enjoy doing it, but it’s still stress. My son- he LOVES playing with other kids, he’s very outgoing- but he is an introvert at heart and at the end of the day he needs solitude. He enjoys school, he loves his friends…but if I try and interact with him much after he gets home- he’ll get angry, cry, hit, scream…what we’d typically label as misbehaviour. But he’s not misbehaving, he’s attempting to distance himself from more stress than he can handle. So I don’t talk to him for a good hour after he walks in the door. In fact, lately I don’t even greet him- I watch out the window to make sure he gets in the door but I leave him alone for a good long while after he’s in the house. He needs that time to refill his tank so that he can eat dinner with us and talk about his day. Took me a while to figure that out, too! Even saying “Hey welcome home, how was your day?” was more stress than he had the energy for after being “on” all day at school. So it’s not always obvious. Figuring this out takes a LOT of observation and time, don’t get me wrong, but if you can identify the source of the stress, and remove it or teach them to cope with it- then you’re going to see much lower incidences of challenging behaviour.
When we look at behaviour that way- as I described in the post on stress behaviour vs misbehaviour- it’s a lot easier to problem solve because then it’s not a matter of “What is WRONG with you?!” which is a question nobody can answer, it’s a matter of “Why is this demanding too much energy from you?” That gets us curious rather than angry. And we’re pretty sharp, we can generally figure it out. I see it all the time in the Posse- I’ll ask what was happening right before the behaviour and parents will say “Oh she’d had a long day, she woke up early, then they were at school for 10 hours, then they came home and we were having dinner but she didn’t like the green beans and flipped out.” So…what was demanding more energy than they had to give right then? Eating the beans. Are the beans going to make or break them? No. Can we mitigate that stress? Heck yeah. Can we maybe introduce beans at a meal where she isn’t extremely tired? Maybe she eats her beans at those meals with no issues. Maybe we can move dinner up so that they aren’t quite so tired. Maybe- like my son- if we just give them 30 minutes of decompression before dinner they’ll have the energy to get through eating something that they aren’t 100% on. Maybe we can just be conscious of not planning meals introducing new foods on days where they’re at school for 10 hours. Maybe we only introduce new foods on weekends. Or maybe it was the quantity! If we just give them a couple of beans it won’t seem so overwhelming. Maybe if we just tell them on the way home from daycare that we’re having beans so it won’t a surprise. It can be any of those things- it can be ALL of those things, but that’s where we come in as curious parents. 
I know, I know! This sounds like it takes a lot of time, but it really doesn’t. When you factor in all the time you’re spending punishing if you spent that time detecting and mitigating stress rather than punishing, it becomes automatic. It’s a habit, just like punishment is a habit. The more we do it, the easier it gets. The more familiar you become with your child’s stressors and your own, the less time you spend punishing. That’s why the Time Timer works so well for so many kids- being surprised by transitions is a stressor! Time concepts are a stressor! The time timer makes that concrete, takes away the element of surprise, and boom- the transition becomes a much less stressful event because they have the ability to access their executive functions, and therefore use them. 
The other thing parents often object to is that- isn’t this catering to them? Isn’t this the lawnmower parent phenomenon- removing all obstacles in their way? No. Children learn to regulate by being regulated. As children they need us to be the regulators because the blue brain- the neocortex- develops last. So they can’t generally mitigate their own stress. They learn to do it by watching us. And “mitigating” their stress doesn’t mean removing demands or expectations. It would be lawnmower parenting if you noticed your child flips at dinner about vegetables and said: “Okay, we just won’t serve veggies.” That’s removing the obstacle, not mitigating it. It’s not teaching your child to handle the stress or to reduce the stress- it’s just avoiding the stress altogether. There’s a big difference. If you warn your child of what vegetables are being served with dinner every night, eventually- generally once they hit 6/7…they start to learn to ask. They begin to imitate how you manage their stress for themselves. So if they’re going to a friend’s house for a sleepover- they might ask “Hey, wants being served for dinner?” when they get there! Children learn to regulate by being regulated. 
So…does stress make a bit more sense now? Do you maybe have some ideas of your child’s acute stressors and how you might teach them to navigate them? Have you had a reframing of stress?! Tell me in the comments. This is just…really scratching the surface of the whole stress topic- but I wanted to get that out there for y’all so hopefully it begins to get the wheels turning. If you want to learn more about this, we’re going to be focusing on this more and more in the Brain Skills Play Blueprint so make sure you get on the waitlist for that- we’ll be opening up again at the end of April. Also, my Scripts for Managing Crazy-Making Behaviour are designed to mitigate stress! They’re designed to change your response to the 10 behaviours they target so that it causes your child less stress while still maintaining your expectations, and therefore giving your child more energy to meet them. Those are totally free!
Thanks so much for being here with me! Have a great week and I’ll see you soon with the next post! 

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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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