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Comfort and Challenge: The Key to Healthy Stress

Friday, August 30, 2019

Whether a child is stressed by everyday demands or an unexpected change, parents play a critical role in creating balance and modeling healthy coping.

Stress to some degree can be healthy. It alerts us to danger, motivates us to take action, and encourages us to work through difficult situations. When your child is challenged by something and works through it, they are building coping muscles. For example, when your child is learning new material at school or having a disagreement with a friend, they may have a mixture of emotions. If you provide both comfort and encouragement, they will feel a sense of accomplishment when they have finally mastered that math equation or resolved that disagreement. Having appropriate expectations, offering comfort, and challenging them to work it out create the perfect climate for growth.

Children also experience stress when faced with situations not in their control such as divorce, moving, deployment, loss of a job, or an ill family member. When dealing with changes and uncertainties, your child needs you – their foundation for safety and security – to be present and engaged. Although it is difficult to watch your child struggle, simply being with your child during times of stress can help make it more manageable for them.  

Stress becomes distress when demands and pressures overwhelm a child’s capacity to cope, and they do not have a trusted adult to buffer that stress. When a child turns to a parent for support and is ignored, criticized, or punished, the child may experience high levels of distress. Not having an adult to help mitigate stressful situations leaves a child vulnerable to unhealthy coping. When children do not have an opportunity to strengthen their coping muscles, they are at a greater risk for anxiety, depression, and aggression when faced with subsequent life challenges.

Here are some ways to provide both comfort and an opportunity to learn:

  • Know that some stress is okay. It builds coping. Don’t take over every time your child gets frustrated or apprehensive.
  • Know that all behavior is communication. Children show us with behavior what they cannot express in words. Watch for symptoms of stress like withdrawal or aggression.
  • Maintain routines. Predictability helps a child feel safe and reduces stress.
  • Model a calm response to stressful situations by taking a deep breath and keeping your composure.
  • Give your child age-appropriate information about stressful situations affecting your family or community. Be sure to listen and support problem solving.
  • Allow your child to work through a range of emotions, if necessary. Assure them that what they are feeling is okay and manageable.
  • Don’t ignore or minimize your child’s struggles. Search for solutions together. Avoid criticism or punishment.
  • Connect with your child. Redirect or correct their behavior by showing them what to do, or by helping them troubleshoot potential solutions to a challenging situation.
  • Model healthy eating, exercise, and how to balance work and play.

To learn more parenting strategies, attend the Independent School Fair at Virginia Wesleyan University on Saturday, September 21 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Parents will have the opportunity to meet with representatives from local VAIS-accredited independent schools and attend free workshops focused on helping your child enjoy a healthy life and investing in your child’s education. Learn more at VAIS.org/HRSchoolFair.

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