This month, accomplished author and co-founder of The Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, Barbara C. Unell, writes about how parents can help their children cope with stress to be more resilient.
Sources of Stress In Children’s Lives
Children get stressed when they experience simple frustrations, such as getting a bad grade on a test or not wanting to clean their rooms. They also get stressed when big things happen, like when someone they love dies or when they are put down consistently. As parents, we know we can’t prevent our children from experiencing stress, but we can be a buffer from stress rather than a creator or cause of stress.
How Children Learn To Respond To Stress
“Whew! I’m glad THEY’RE gone. They yelled at me and stress me out!” shouts 10-year-old Makela as friends of her family leave her house.
“Where did she get THAT?” her mom asks me, telling the story in disbelief. “How could our friends be stressful? They just didn’t like it when Makela spilled her milk, so they yelled at her. What’s the big deal?”
Where DO children get “that” and many other stress responses? From everyday life, of course. And sometimes that everyday life stress is created by adults in the way they respond to children.
In fact, the way adults respond to a child’s behavior (from infant crying onward) is as important as how they respond to a temperature. When children are frustrated, angry, sad or disappointed, they need adult caregivers to be empathic and teach them how and why to self-calm; follow rules, boundaries and limits; and problem-solve, all with unconditional love. That’s how caring, supportive and protective adults help prevent stress from becoming dangerous to children’s brains and bodies.
How can parents learn to teach children helpful coping skills to manage anxiety and anger and become friends with change? The positive teaching tools in our book, Discipline with Love and Limits, do just that. It gives readers specific “what to do’s” for building positive relationships with children and teaching them how to deal with the stress of life in over 100 common situations.
The One Factor That Can Help Prevent Stress From Becoming Toxic
Why is teaching coping skills so important to a child’s health and well-being? The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has shared groundbreaking research demonstrating that the one factor that can help prevent stress from becoming toxic—and therefore damaging to a child’s brain and body for life—is consistent caring, supportive and protective adults in a child’s life, as many as possible.
When our children are exposed to positive parenting by those adults, they learn:
- healthy coping skills
- good problem-solving strategies
- the ability to delay gratification
- how to handle mistakes
- the ability to self-regulate and to tolerate frustration
These all lead to positive outcomes in health, learning and behavior.
Putting A Plan Into Action
When we teach coping behaviors to our children, we reduce stress so it becomes a teachable moment leading to resilience. In short, we want to help all parents and everyone who cares for and about a child to be a buffer from stress, not a creator or cause of stress. This doesn’t mean that we can prevent our children from experiencing stress—that is impossible. Children get stressed when they experience simple frustrations, such as when they aren’t picked for the team or don’t want to go to bed. And they also get stressed when big things happen—when their parents get divorced, they are spanked, abused or ignored. This kind of stress can become toxic to our children (see Additional Information below).
We know that our good mental, physical and emotional health—both children’s and adults’—depends on not letting the adversity of all or just some of these experiences become toxic by building coping skills, resilience, and tolerance. When our children get upset, they need to be taught how to get back a sense of hope, gratitude, possibility. Caring, supportive and protective parenting does just that.
When we use caring, supportive, protective parenting, we allow our children to fail and then help them develop tools to avoid that same failure in the future. Above all, we:
- Care about our children’s learning to cope with life’s difficulties with optimism.
- Support our children’s efforts to succeed, even if that effort may lead to failure.
- Protect them from dangers of life, while allowing them the freedom to explore their world, make mistakes and learn from them.
Every child deserves nothing less. In this way, every parent has the opportunity to discipline with love and limits…and that is the secret sauce of de-stressing that’s healthy for all.
© 2019 Barbara C. Unell
Barbara C. Unell is a grateful mother, grandmother, parent-educator, journalist and social entrepreneur, whose latest book, Discipline with Love and Limits, has sold over 1 million copies. The co-author of over 15 books on parenting, Barbara is the co-founder of the nonprofit organization, The Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, dedicated to preventing toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences. Together with teachers, healthcare practitioners and all who champion kindness, compassion and empathy, she is passionate about translating science into practical, proven, positive, and sustainable solutions of change that lead to optimum health, learning and behavior for us all.
The American Academy of Pediatrics
The landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study was conducted with over 17,000 middle and upper-middle class adults from 1995 to 1997 by researchers from Kaiser Permanente and The Centers for Disease Control. The stunning results of the study, and other groundbreaking neurological and follow-up biological, as well as behavioral research, has led leaders of The American Academy of Pediatrics to release a new Policy Statement in December 2018 recommending that primary care pediatrics meet its fundamental responsibility to help parents teach their child acceptable behavior and protect them from harm.
Three Kinds of Responses to Stress
According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, “It’s important to distinguish among three kinds of responses to stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. As described below, these three terms refer to the stress response systems’ effects on the body, not to the stressful event or experience itself:
- Positive stress response is a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.
- Tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.
- Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”