Stress and children: What's the right balance?

I watch my daughter spend so much time and energy protecting her kids from disappointment. My mom always said challenge was good for me! Should we really shield our kids so much?

Miranda, A concerned grandma from Oklahoma


It's not easy to watch our kids experience stress and disappointment. Resisting the urge to swoop in and "fix" things for our kids can take every ounce of self control that we have. This instinct is important since prolonged stress can be damaging and traumatic for kids. Chronic or intense stress can negatively impact memory, learning, and physical and mental health. Sometimes it is absolutely critical that we intervene.

But this doesn't mean that all stress is bad. Good stress can be energizing and motivating. Unfortunately, our ideas about stress and children have gotten so skewed that ANY stress has gotten a bad rap. This has led too many parents down the wrong path. As opposed to equipping children with the tools to navigate and negotiate stress, many parents have focused all of their energy shielding them from it.

All of us adults know that life can deliver a fair amount of stress and disappointment. How can we expect our kids to ultimately be able to handle this if they have never had any practice? Kids need some stress to develop their psychological muscles of resilience, stamina, determination, commitment, and perseverance. These are all qualities they need to succeed in their schools and relationships and, ultimately, in their communities and careers. If they don't build up these psychological muscles, they'll end up being emotionally flabby.

We want our kids to be able to handle adversity and to grow into adults who can bounce back from difficult times, challenges, and even tragedy. Resilience is the quality that enables them to do that. The catch is that kids don't develop this quality automatically, we have to teach them. Bonnie Benard's book Resiliency: What We Have Learned provides a powerful roadmap for parents who want to learn more about stress and children and raise resilient kids.

Essential ingredients of resiliency:

  1. Support and connection. 
  2. High expectations.
  3. Compassion.
  4. Autonomy and resourcefulness.
  5. Optimism.
  6. Determination.
  7. Flexibility and patience.

For many of us it is easier to swoop in or lower the expectations than to raise our kids' discomfort level. Keeping our eye on the 7 essential ingredients of resiliency though, we would be wiser to learn when we need to encourage, when to help, and when to stay out, step back and let our kids' flex their emotional muscles.

Here are some practical tips for how to nurture resilience in children.





Dr. Dave

** If you are looking for more practical tools and tips check out my book No, Why Kids - of All Ages - Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It. I am not interested in shameless promotion, it's just that parents have told me it was helpful!