Good Stress by Carol Tolonen

Good Stress by Carol Tolonen


On May 5th and again on May 12th a number of parents gathered at Putnam Indian Field School to discuss issues prompted by the book Mindful Parenting by Kristen Race. Most of the discussion centered on ways in which parents can be mindful of the effects of the stressors in our overstimulating and over-programmed 21st century environment and can make changes in their home environments to reduce stress.

While no one questions the pervasive unhealthy effects of most of the stressors in our high pressure, rush, rush lives, we found ourselves less clear about the concept of the importance of “good stress” for psychological growth and for the development of the inner resources that prompt children to try new things and to persist in the face of frustration. I would like to explore this concept further today.

Overwhelming stress “hijacks” the thinking brain, shutting down much of its capacity to reason and to think in terms of more than one possibility. One is then unable to see other points of view or creatively problem solve in the face of frustration. Stress, however, that comes in small doses allows the child to use his thinking brain to problem solve and to have successful experiences in dealing with frustration. He thus develops inner resources that make him eager to accept new challenges and to keep trying when he does not at first succeed. This is “good stress.”

How do we use this concept to guide us in knowing how much to push reluctant children to try new things and to stick it out when they try something and want to quit? There are many things to consider.

We live in a society where the value on success is so great that many times we are tempted to pressure children too early, making them feel overwhelmed. A certain moral attitude says it is important to be tough, independent, self reliant, and never give up. (After all, who wants their child to be a “wimp)?” Another moral position says, “When you make a commitment, you must keep it.”

On the other hand, this same value on success motivates parents to want to save their children from making mistakes, tempting them to swoop in with the helicopter rescue. When children are deprived of the opportunity to take risks, make mistakes, and learn that a mistake is not the end of the world, they are deprived of the opportunity to develop inner resources to deal with failure, to problem solve, and to subsequently have success experiences of their own making.

The ever-increasing focus of our society on safety also makes us less willing to let children take “safe risks” and to grow from meeting the challenges.

So how do we know how much to push a child in any given situation?

The first question for a parent is “What is my motivation? Are my own moral values or my value on success interfering with what is good for my child?” The real yardstick should be “Is this good stress that can lead the child to say, “I did it!” Or is it more overwhelming than he is able to handle given his developmental level, his personality, and other stressors in his life? (e.g. a recent move, a new baby, illness).

Another question to ask yourself, especially when you see the issue as following through on a commitment, is “Who chose this challenge?” Was it really the child’s idea or the parent’s? A self-chosen challenge is far more likely to lead to psychological growth and the development of inner resources than one imposed from the outside. We all know we work harder and more creatively on a project that is our own idea than on one assigned by the boss. Even if the child chose it, did he have any idea of what it would really be like? Is he old enough to make a commitment of that duration?

Since the idea of good stress is to avoid the experience of being overwhelmed and to make sure frustration comes in manageable doses, you might also ask yourself, “How can I alter the environment to try to mete out this challenge in small doses?” During our discussion, someone suggested that if a child isn’t ready to participate in an activity, you might suggest that you sit together and just watch.

The concept of “mindfulness” involves preparing oneself with specific responses to employ when things do become overwhelming. What mindful skills does your child have ready to use? Can he reflect on his own emotional response so that he is aware of anxiety or fear or anger before the emotion completely overwhelms him? Can he differentiate emotions so he knows if he is angry or hurt? Does he know how to get a handle on overwhelming emotions by taking deep breaths or allowing himself to take a break from a situation? What kind of conflict resolution skills does he possess? Can he speak his mind from an “I place” rather than focus on the other for “being mean?” Can he listen to the other’s point of view? These are all skills that can be taught at home and at school to prepare children to deal with stressors by themselves.

But what if none of this works? Are you prepared to be the secure base your child needs to return to when he is truly overwhelmed? And the question underlying that: Do you believe in him? Do you believe that every child has in him an inborn motive to grow and to challenge himself when he is ready? When his behavior says, “No, today I am not ready,” can you accept his self-assessment, give him the unconditional love he needs, and be patient? Can you analyze the situation through his eyes and make some changes so that next time it will provide just the right balance of challenge and safety?

And finally: What do you do to model risk taking and the creation of challenges that are good stress in your life?

Carol Tolonen is a developmental psychologist and parenting coach. She is trained as a psychotherapist and as a spiritual counselor. She has 26 years experience teaching science and outdoor education to the children at Putnam Indian Field School.