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#14 - What does "positive stress" look like?
A week after the I published “Not all stress is harmful”, a post that highlighted the importance of “positive stress”, a close friend of mine reached out with the below message:
Please give an example of positive stress. How to let it pan out for the child and the role of the parent there. It is vague as I read it.
And that’s what this post is all about.
A quick reminder of what “positive stress” is
Positive stress is characterised by one or more of the below features:
It is short-term
Is perceived as within our coping capabilities
Such forms of stress are a normal part of life. Learning to cope with such stress is an essential part of development. It is characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels.
And some new terminology to make it more interesting (or more confusing?):
Positive stress is also called “eustress”, and it is the opposite of distress.
The term was coined in 1974 by Hans Selye, a Hungarian researcher, by combining the Greek prefix “Eu” (meaning “good”) with “stress.”
How does the child perceive it?
In most cases, children are probably asking one of these three questions:
“Am I capable of handling this?”
Children may not succeed at every navigating every challenge, but it is important for them to go through this experience. (Ex: Solving a puzzle)
“What is this new thing I’m seeing?”
The child is made to enter unchartered territory. During this phase, children are made to apply their existing knowledge to a completely new scenario. (Ex: Receiving an injection for the first time, the first day at school, learning a new instrument etc..)
“Will this be better than what I already had?”
The child is exposed to experiencing change. Let’s take the case of adults in this case. We almost always resist change. We like to get comfortable with our jobs, our home and our routines. But one day, we make that shift to another job, something that’s more meaningful and close to our hearts. The transition to the new job may not be smooth but could end up being rewarding in the long run, despite all the challenges we faced along the way.
Navigating these challenging and tricky questions can eventually help children to develop a growth mindset.
Role of the ‘parent’ in such scenarios
Let us first rephrase the word ‘parent’ with ‘caregiver’.
The first and the most important role of the caregiver in these scenarios is just “being there”.
“Being there” is contextual and could look like any of the below:
Offering physical support to the child, such as holding hands, hugging or helping the child to balance when required
Offering a positive reassurance that “It is going to be fine” (using verbal cues or by displaying an encouraging body-language)
Being a patient and an able listener
Remaining silent when the situation warrants it (ex: not offering unnecessary support when the child is visibly stressed but is so close to the finish line). This takes away the joy and pride of “I did it!”.
Being ‘the’ adult who offers predictable and nurturing responses to situations over time
The tricky part for the caregiver is differentiating between eustress and distress. The same situation can spark eustress for one child and distress for another.
Here is an example of how a parent felt in a similar situation (quoted as-is from her blog):
“The stress my daughter experienced with her piano performance was eustress flirting with the boundary of distress. If I had stood over her and yelled at her while she practised or thrown my hands up in frustration, her stress surely would have turned negative. But I supported her in a positive way, and she put in the work necessary. For her, the experience, though nerve-wracking, was positive and affirming.”
That is why, you need to go back to one of the most important and fundamental tools available to caregivers.
Any caregiver who understands the importance of the “Serve & Return” framework and strives to emulate it to the best of their abilities, is rest assured to gauge and lend support to the child in such a way they are “eustressed”, more often than not. Serve & Return also helps you anticipate scenarios that can escalate quickly and diffuse them even before they take a serious turn. More than anything, it helps you understand the child in more depth! This in turn helps you, as the caregiver, to identify what scenarios could spark eustress in your child and what could result in distress!
The literature on eustress (or positive stress) is considerably less as compared to it’s more famous cousin “DISTRESS”, but I hope this post brings out the key elements of what positive stress (eustress) looks like, how it can pan out for children, and most importantly, how caregivers can support the children during this phase.
Next week, let us confront this evil cousin of eustress. But for now, goodbye!
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Picture courtesy: freepik.com