Unpacking Child Stress

by John Hoffman

child-830725_1280I haven’t talked about children’s stress for a while.  It’s a topic I want to keep coming back to because it’s so important and there is a lot to talk about.

We all know something about stress and that stress can cause problems. But I’m going to offer some ideas about stress that might be new to you. They come from Dr. Stuart Shanker, whose new book, Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, is about kids, parents, and stress.

Not all stress is bad

We usually think of stress as something bad, something that causes difficulty or hardship. But the original and most useful definition of stress is basically our body and brain’s response to any demand that is placed on it. Any demand. That’s pretty broad. That means playing a game or sport you enjoy is a stressor. For a child, having an exciting birthday party and opening lots of great presents, or having a fun wrestle with Dad are stressful. Those situations put demands on the child, even when things are going well. So in other words there is good stress as well as “bad” stress.

The problem with bad stress is the way it burns up energy

The main difference between “good” stress and “bad” stress is that bad stress just burns up energy. Good stress uses energy but it also gives us energy and helps us grow. Think of how energized you feel when you finish something that is difficult, but enjoyable and important to you.

That means good stress management is not just about being able to cope. Coping is necessary at times, but it uses up lots of energy. The real keys to stress management are to become aware of what stressors sap our energy, to figure out how to avoid some of that “bad” stress, and to know how to recover your energy after stress.

This idea of recovery is really important. Shanker is one of the few stress experts who talks about it. How do you restore energy? Different people do it in different ways. Taking care of yourself – eating a healthy diet, exercising and getting enough rest – is a good start. It helps you get back your energy faster. Sharing good times and getting support from people you like and love helps create positive energy as well. Doing things you enjoy also works. (Fun and laughter are good stress management tools!). For young children, free unstructured play is a great energy booster and stress recovery method. Which leads me to my next point.

Stress and kids

Now take those ideas about burning up energy and apply them to children. Their brains are still immature. They have less ability to deal with negative emotions. They don’t always understand why they feel stressed (or even that they feel stressed). So, what happens when children burn up all of their energy dealing with stress? First, they have less energy (or none at all) to put towards positive things like learning, getting along with people, paying attention, cooperating, and listening. Excessive stress literally reduces a child’s ability to process what we’re saying to them. It also weakens children’s ability to control their behaviour. You already know this, right? We’ve all seen people (including ourselves) make bad “behaviour choices” when they are stressed out. It’s happened to me and it happens to kids all the time.

A lot of what we think of as misbehaviour, is actually stress behaviour

Tantrums are the classic stress behaviour. Years before I’d ever heard of Stuart Shanker, I rejected the idea that tantrums were manipulative. The more time I spent around young kids the more I could see that tantrums were almost always a stress response. Take the classic example of the preschooler who melts down because Dad won’t buy candy at the grocery checkout counter. Let’s think about the stressors that child might be dealing with. Maybe it’s a long shopping trip, one the child didn’t choose to go on. She didn’t get to do anything fun. She saw all this cool stuff that she’s not allowed to touch. She gets tired and probably hungry. All those are stressors.

Sometimes kids can cope with that kind of stress. But when they can’t the result is often a meltdown. It’s not that the child chooses to behave badly. It’s that their ability to control their behaviour was taken away by stress. A tantrum is a fairly extreme stress behaviour. But there are smaller ones. Even things like low-level disobedience, back talk, and sibling rivalry can be caused, or made worse, by stress.

Give it some thought. Because, when you start thinking about kids’ behaviour in terms of the stress that might be behind it, you start to see your kid differently.

Not all kids are affected by the same stressors and some stressors are “hidden”

The things that cause stress can be quite different from one child to the next. For one child the midway at a fair is fun and exciting. Another might find the noise, crowds and lineups very stressful. Other stressors are hidden – things that cause stress without the child even being aware of it. For example, Dr. Shanker and his colleagues have found that too much screen time, too much of some kinds of artificial light, the sound of a school’s HVAC system – even too much stuff on classroom walls (artwork, posters etc.) – set off a stress response in some kids.

It takes time to learn to read your child’s behaviour in terms of stress. Sometimes the stressor will be fairly obvious. Other times it will take some careful thinking and observing to figure out what might be stressing your child in situations where there are no obvious stressors. Dr. Shanker calls that being a “stress detective.” He has a five-step method for how to do this. I can’t explain it all here. But I hope I’ve gotten you interested. If you want to learn more about all of this visit Dr. Shanker’s website: www.self-reg.ca or check out his book.


Disclosure: John Hoffman has worked with Stuart Shanker on several projects, including Dad Central Ontario’s Daddy I Need You booklet and currently works part-time as a communications officer for Dr. Shanker’s organization The MEHRIT Centre.


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