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Good Stress vs. Bad Stress for Kids

By Jerome Schultz, PhD

At a Glance

  • Not all stress is bad. There’s good stress, too.

  • Ongoing challenges and fears can create stress in kids.

  • Remembering past successes can help your child feel more confident and in control.

When someone says they’re stressed, it’s usually not a positive thing. But stress isn’t always bad. There’s good stress, too. And it can help kids rise to challenges, resolve problems, and build confidence.

Learn about the difference between good and bad stress, and how each can impact your child.

Types of Stress: Good, Tolerable, and Bad

Nature gave us the ability to spot danger and respond to it. When faced with dangerous situations, our bodies and brains kick into fight-or-flight mode. But we don’t like to stay in that state for long. We like to deal with danger quickly so we can feel safe again.

Our body’s ability to deal with stress helps us do just that. Our stress response system gets our brain and body ready to solve problems and tackle challenges. And when we overcome the problem, our brain “feels good” and remembers our successes.

Good stress happens when we confront a situation we believe we can manage or control. Here’s an example:

A child is coasting down a hill on a bike with just one hand on the handlebars. When she sees a pothole up ahead, she feels stress and instinctively puts her other hand on the bars.

In less than a second, her brain goes in to survival mode. It tells her heart to pump blood to her legs, her vision gets a little better because her pupils open to take in more light, and she’s ready for evasive action. She guides herself around the hole and continues safely down the slope.

In this case, she quickly handled the danger without a problem. It was good stress that helped her meet the challenge, because she believed she could do it.

The brain loves success and will store the memory of this event. The next time this child faces such a dangerous situation, this positive memory will help her deal with it. Good stress makes us stronger, ready to take on new challenges.

Soon, however, she’s faced with a new danger. It suddenly starts raining hard, and big puddles form on the bike path. She grips the handlebars tightly. This time she’s feeling a greater level of stress because the danger has increased and is lasting longer. Still, she believes she’ll make it home safely.

Why is that? She’s been in situations like this before and succeeded. She knows she has the skill to do it again, and that gives her confidence. She’s experiencing tolerable stress. And the next time she faces such a challenge, it’s more likely she’ll be ready for it.

But now, the situation changes again—for the worse. The rain is coming down harder now. Lightning is flashing, she’s having trouble seeing, and she takes a wrong turn.

She’s never ridden in such terrible conditions, so she’s never had the experience of getting through them. She doesn’t feel capable, and she doesn’t feel safe. In fact, she’s overwhelmed by fear.

This is bad stress—and it’s toxic. It happens when we’re in a threatening situation that goes on and on, and we don’t feel like we’re able to get through it.

Bad stress erodes confidence and makes us question our ability. At this point, the girl lets the bike drop in the mud and she runs, as fast as she can, toward her home.

How Bad Stress Affects Kids Who Struggle in School

Lots of kids face ongoing challenges they can’t quickly resolve. This is common for kids who struggle in school, for instance, and who don’t have the right support. Their fear of failure can go on and on. And that can put them at risk for bad stress.

Imagine a high school student who struggles with math. He’s required to take chemistry this year. But given his prior trouble with math, he feels it’s way beyond his ability.

Faced with this ongoing “danger,” he’s in a state of chronic stress. Instead of saying “I know I can” or “I think I can,” he’s saying “No WAY I can.”

This kind of situation can create a fear reaction that sets off all kinds of survival bells in the brain. Fear kicks in, kids get overwhelmed, and they try to escape. Like the girl who abandoned her muddy bike, this math student shuts down in class, stops doing his homework, and doesn’t ask for help.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

How to Go From Bad Stress to Good Stress

When kids believe they can handle a challenging task, it can be exciting for them. Take reading, for instance: A new book can be like an adventure. They may encounter new words, or the book may be longer than usual. But confident readers see these stressors as challenges that they can and will master.

But what about students who struggle with reading and have to take “Great Literature”? They know it’s probably going to be a long and challenging journey.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll experience bad stress. The level of stress they feel depends on past experience.

How can you help your child beat school stress? An expert suggests setting a “competence anchor.” Find out how.

If they had support and got through similar challenges, they might experience tolerable stress, instead of bad stress. They might think, “I’ve done this well before and I can do it again.”

These kids know from experience that they can go to the learning center teacher for help. They might be able to use recorded books, or even watch film versions of the books.

Having had supports that helped them through similar challenges, they’re pretty sure they’ll be able to get through this course and learn a lot. Maybe they can even enjoy it. And if they do, their success will carry over to the next challenge.

When kids have support and learn how to support themselves, they’re better equipped to handle challenges. The more success they have, the more confident and in-control they’ll feel. When kids are feeling successful, they don’t experience bad stress.

Here are some things you can do to help your child feel successful and avoid bad stress:

  • Help your child fill out a self-awareness worksheet. Being self-aware can help kids see the “potholes” in the road ahead and be ready for them. If they can describe their challenges, they can also say what they’ve learned they can do to be successful.

  • Understand common stress factors kids who struggle in school often face. Knowing where and how your child is struggling can help you anticipate what the challenges will be—and come up with strategies for handling them.

  • Learn how anxiety is different from stress. Chronic stress can lead to anxiety. Get to know signs of anxiety. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s health care provider if you have concerns.

You can also download lunchbox notes to boost your child’s confidence, and read about how to give praise that builds self-esteem. Confident kids don’t feel anxious about schoolwork. They get ready for it and say “bring it on!”

Key Takeaways

  • The more support kids have, the more they feel like they can handle challenges.

  • Bad stress happens when kids think they can’t figure out a problem and succeed.

  • Success breeds more success, and makes kids feel in-control.

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