Whether it’s moving to a new school, making friends, or deciding what clothes to wear, stress is an undeniable part of childhood. In fact, from infancy (think “I am tired, I am wet, I am cold, I am hungry, and I want my mommy/daddy!”) to adulthood, stress is a part of life. And though we often hear about the negative aspects of stress, you may be shocked to find out that some stress can be good for us, and this goes for our children as well.
If you are a parent, this fun-fact about the upside of stress might come as a relief, but at the same time, leave you wondering how you'll know the difference between “good” and “bad” stress.
Let’s take a closer look at this thing called stress and how we as parents, grandparents, educators, and caregivers might better assess formidable verses regrettable stressors in our children’s lives.
What Is Stress?
Stress is our body’s natural reaction to a challenging or adverse situation, whether real or imagined, which triggers the body’s fight-flight-or-freeze response. This response involves a rush of hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, along with a rise in blood pressure and heart rate.
And as mentioned above, stress can be beneficial, but when and how? Two critical differentiators between helpful and hurtful stressors are frequency and intensity, with stress becoming problematic when it becomes too intense or too frequent.
When Is Stress Good?
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, good stress—or positive stress—is a healthy and essential part of healthy development. This type of short-term stress is part of our natural survival instinct and can be quite useful.
Angela Grippo, Associate Professor of Psychology at Northern Illinois University, says this sort of stress helps us navigate everyday life, giving us the ability to 1) react quickly, 2) be accountable for our actions, and 3) feel motivated/get things done. For example, we have this constructive sort of stress to thank when it comes to looking both ways before we cross the street, or when we feel motivated to complete a project.
When Is Stress Bad?
How do we know when stress becomes toxic? Experiencing strong, frequent, or prolonged tension can wreak havoc on the body. With this sort of undesirable perceived threat, hormones surge throughout the body without allowing it to rest and recover, and this can understandably take a toll on our health and well-being, whether we are an infant, child or adult.
Possible symptoms may include headaches, stomachaches, aches and pains, dizziness, and a whole host of other issues. Toxic stress has also been shown to cause serious health problems like immune deficiencies, infections, heartdisease, and even cancer.
Unfortunately, stress that continues for months or years can also lead to mental health problems like anxiety and depression, which can be particularly detrimental, even debilitating, for a child's development if not addressed.
How Can Emotional Intelligence Help Children Manage Stress?
What’s fascinating about stress is that most of the time it results from a worry that we create ourselves by imagining something negative that could happen. Emotional Intelligence (EQ)—the ability to recognize, direct, and positively express our emotions—can be a powerful tool in combating both perceived and actual stress. According to Wendy Baron of the Chopra Center, children with higher EQ have less anxiety because they can respond rather than react to whatever might be triggering their stress.
By learning to express emotions, listen actively, and consider multiple perspectives, children and adults alike can learn to control stress more effectively, growing their EQ muscles with practice. Here are four simple ways you can nurture EQ and help children learn to manage stressful situations throughout their lives.
- From a young age, help your children identify emotions through games, activities, and reading books.
- Help your children understand what triggers their strong or negative emotions and encourage them to keep a stress diary.
- Identify ways for them to respond to stress by using creative calm-down strategies like meditation, breathing exercises, or visualization.
- Encourage open communication and active listening.
The science on childhood stressors is in and it's not all bad news. When we as adults understand how the body's stress response works and why --- it can help us "respond instead of react" to children and the stress they surely bring to life. One of the most profound tools for nurturing EQ in children is using these same skills ourselves to stay calm, even when they are stressed out monsters.