School can make even the make even the most resilient kid feel stressed from time to time. Whether it's navigating friendships, learning new skills, pleasing their teachers or making their parents proud, it can be a challenging environment when you're still figuring a lot of stuff out.
No wonder a large scale study of more than 10,000 school kids found that 31% of students felt "very stressed", 40% said they worried too much and 40% reported that they had difficulties in staying calm. How can we help our children figure this out?
The good news is that not all stress is bad for kids.
Researchers suggest children can experience three different types of stress. Toxic stress is triggered by intense adverse experiences sustained over long periods of time where kids feel unable to effectively manage what's unfolding and negatively impact brain development, immune functioning and social relationships. Tolerable stress comes from a one-off intense event where the child has support and resources to heal and grow from the event. And positive stress is triggered by everyday adverse situations where the adversity is not extreme and is short-lived.
Professor Lea Waters at the Graduate School of Education at Melbourne University suggests that positive stress is a normal part of the developmental process that helps children to develop the essential life skills of coping with and adapting to new situations. And that as parents we can make a positive impact on our kids stress levels and play an important role in cultivating their wellbeing.
So how can we help our children positively navigate the everyday stresses that are part of school life? In Australia recently I partnered with back to school specialists, Officeworks, to find 8 ways you can help your kids let their amazing out by:
- Discovering Their Strengths: For younger kids, all you need to do is start looking for the times they 'light up' and try to name the strengths you can see them exercising. For kids 10+, the free VIA Youth Survey is a great tool to discover their character strengths. Visual cues are very useful for kids, so help them to create a strengths poster, strengths card or strengths cape highlighting the things they do best.
Praising Their Efforts: In a result-orientated world it's easy to focus only on the things our kids are achieving. We can miss celebrating the processes they are discovering and the efforts they are making to get these results. Studies suggest only praising children's intelligence and talent can harm their motivation and their performance. Instead try to praise their learning process -- what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies. For example: "I can see you've been practicing your drawing. What a great improvement." To reinforce the message further, parents could encourage the use of cognitive learning tools like the free Growing Minds app, which also rewards progress.
Making Emotions Manageable: The way we feel impacts the way our brain works. Negative emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness have been found to narrow our brain to focus on what's right in front of us and turn inwards. Positive emotions like joy, interest and gratitude tend to broaden our brain to see more possibilities. Help your child to name their emotions and become aware of how different feelings impact the way their brains work. Try creating a chart with the different feelings they have - this can make understanding and navigating emotions a far more manageable process.
Cultivating Heartfelt Positivity : In addition to broadening our minds, researchers suggest heartfelt positive emotions like awe, amusement and love help to build our emotional, physical, intellectual and social resources. They're like money in your child's bank of resilience for when the harder days fall in life. Create a jar of heartfelt positivity by asking your family to write down at least three ideas to put into the jar. As you plan for after school or weekend activities, grab an idea from the jar and put it into action.
Giving Them A Jolts Of Joy: When stress becomes overwhelming it helps to teach kids how to short circuit this feeling by creating a jolt of joy -- a burst of heartfelt positivity. It might be getting them to remember a funny movie scene, humming a favorite song, a great memory of time with friends. It will help to restore happy brain hormones like dopamine and serotonin so they can think more clearly, creatively and collaboratively.
Counting Kindnesses: Kindness has been found to help our brain experience pleasure, build trust and social connections. It triggers the hormone oxytocin in our bloodstream, which helps lower our levels of stress and improve our focus. Help your children discover kindness as a superpower by creating a 'Kindness Challenge' at home, awarding points for acts of kindness. After a challenged is completed, ask them how they felt pursuing these and help them to notice the impact it can have.
Growing Their Gratitude : Researchers define gratitude as experiencing a sense of wonder and appreciation for life. Studies have found that it helps us to savor the good things that happen, to feel more confident and to cope in times of stress or even jealousy. Help your children grow their gratitude by checking in each night at the dinner table for the best part of their day and why they're grateful for it.
Catching Their Stories: As we try to make sense of the world our brains are constantly creating stories about why things are happening and what might happen next. These stories shape the way we think, feel and act. The problem is our brain often focuses on the worst possible outcomes, so when your child is struggling, try to hear the stories they're telling themselves. You could help them write or draw this. Are there any other explanations for what's unfolding they might have missed? Add these to the page. How does this change the story and what do they want to do as a result?
What can you try today to help your make stress a more positive experience for your kids?