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.