The 3 types of stress and how to cope

In today’s post-Covid world, stress has become an everyday part of life, even for young children. In the excellent book, The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud, Phd, and Ned Johnson, the authors write about the stress that kids experience. In fact, all stress is not equal.  Some stress can be useful or even helpful. The authors identify three kinds of stress:

Positive stress motivates us to grow, take risks and perform at a high level.

Tolerable stress occurs for relatively brief periods and can also build resilience if there are supportive adults and time to cope and recover.  This could include situations such as divorce or a death in the family.

Toxic  stress occurs when there is frequent or prolonged activation of the stress system in the absence of supportive adults for example when kids witness an assault or live in fear of their safety on a daily basis.

What is the key to managing stress for all of us? Recognizing and developing a sense of control. Kids especially live in world where they have little control. Just think about the many things in a typical day in the life of a child where they lack control: the school they attend, the class they are in, who their teacher is, the subjects they study, even the kids they may hang out with.

Studies show that a healthy sense of control goes hand in hand with virtually all the positive outcomes we want for children:  better physical health, less use of drugs and alcohol, a long productive life, lower anxiety and emotional well-being. So how can we as the adults in our children’s lives help them develop a sense of control? Here are a few ideas from the book:

  • Dialogue with kids about where they have control now and make a list: what they wear? what they eat? who their friends are?
  • Next consult with them about areas where they think they could assert more control: when or how they do their homework? when or how they practice a sport or musical instrument? what extracurricular activities they engage in? what else?
  • Create a plan for them to establish increasing control over as many areas of their lives as possible. Determine where to start and how to tell if they are successful. Identify what it looks like when someone manages their choices well. Identify and prepare for the results when bad choices are made.
  • Talk about (and mean it) how failure is how we all learn. Expect some bad choices and be prepared to help kids learn from them.

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