Why stress is not always bad for our children

In a world that’s seemingly obsessed with protecting children from the worst of life, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all stress is bad for them.  

However, according to a 2015 Australian study, this might not be the case. 
 
Professor Lea Waters from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education found that stress for children can be a good thing as it teaches them coping strategies and resilience.  
 
Psychotherapist and parenting writer, Dr Karen Phillip, agrees. 
 
“Stress for children comes in a variety of forms but [it] is necessary to help them build the knowledge and skills to solve everyday challenges or problems,” she says. 
 
Here are some ways to help reshape your child’s stress into a positive experience.

Communication and patience

Phillip says that talking to your child about stress is important. 

“Let them know this [stress] is normal and affects everyone, including mummy and daddy, and even the teacher at school,” she says.  

By being patient and modeling the behaviour that you want them to emulate, children will begin to ‘feel the fear and yet do it anyway’.

However, Phillip advises that it’s important to allow your child to progress slowly and comfortably. 

“The child may just need you to take them to the front door and allow them to enter, knowing you’ll be close by for a while ‘just in case’,” she says. 

Recognising stress 

During stress, our body initiates a ‘fight or flight’ response, which is why we can experience symptoms such as sweating and a quickened heartbeat. Stress hormones released by the adrenal glands have an important role to play during this process.

That’s why it can help to teach your children to recognise these feelings of stress and to understand they relate to what their bodies are doing. 

“Explain what the adrenal glands are for and how they’re needed to help and protect us from harm or danger,” says Phillip.  
father talking to son

Prepare them for making mistakes

Making mistakes is a common reason for childhood stress and so it’s important to address it patiently. 

“Explain no one’s perfect and we all make mistakes,” says Phillip.  “When a mistake happens, simply discuss what could be done differently or better next time.”

“Make a suggestion or two and allow your child to choose, as it gives them ownership of the decision.”

When in that situation again, Phillip advises stepping back and allowing them to face it alone. “Intervening is removing the opportunity for them to build resilience and confidence,” she says. 

Focus on how they deal with things emotionally and socially

“If your child becomes withdrawn, talk to them, ask how they’re feeling and be curious,” says Phillip.  

Use this as an opportunity to gently guide them, teach them to look at things differently or reframe their thoughts to something more positive.

“If a child is timid, shy or fearful, ask them what may help them. The saying ‘Fake it till you make it” is wonderful and some children can use this for a short time to get through something.”

To help them control feelings of stress, Phillip suggests advising your child to close their eyes and take a few deep slow breaths. 

“As they exhale, get them to thank their body for preparing them for their fight or flight and let the body know they are safe and all is good.” 
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