Stress: it isn’t just for adults. Stress can be defined as the gap between expectations and resources. In other words, you need to determine what demands are being made and what resources are available to meet those demands. Stress can also be defined as the difference between the “ideal” and the “real.”
Children have a lot of external expectations relating to family, home, school and friends. They also have internal expectations in terms of skills, self-esteem and relationships. Stress can present itself as the difference between what children think they should do compared with what they can do. For example, when a child knows he or she needs to learn multiplication tables, the demand can motivate him or her to study. Therefore, stress can be a positive and motivating factor.
Stress can also be a negative and discouraging factor. If children do not have the resources available to meet the expectations, the stress experience can be overwhelming. Children can crush under this weight. Adults can help by building a child’s capacity to cope with stress. The first step is to make sure that expectations are realistic, choices are offered and a plan is created. For example, it is not realistic for a three year old to memorize multiplication tables, but it may be realistic for a third grader to be expected to do so.
Children also thrive in an environment of choices. Competence and confidence grow when a child is involved with selecting his or her challenges. Parental guidance is crucial in this process. Create a plan to address the challenges, and include clear action steps from A to Z.
When building coping skills, children need to learn how to talk positively and create opportunities. Coping uses mental effort in order to tolerate the emotional pressure of the demands through positive self-talk. Positive self-talk helps a child to continue to cope with stress. Talking positively is more than “I think I can; I think I can,” – it involves reviewing personal strengths that can be helpful in the challenging situation. Some resources may be underdeveloped. Adults can help children by teaching them to consider options and problem-solve by incorporating those new possibilities and options into their plan of action. Parental guidance is crucial in this process.
While stress has the potential to bring focus to the gap in between expectations and resources, building the capacity to cope is about filling that gap. Parents play an important role in bridging the divide.