Good stress, bad stress: Teach your child to turn adversity into advantage

child stress

Stress is the body's reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. (Source: Getty Images)

By Neerja Birla

These days one finds plenty of articles on how to eliminate stress from one's life, but I for one, believe that we do need a certain amount and a certain kind of stress in our lives. You might have heard the saying that "meaningful growth requires challenge, stress and rest".

As a parent, I want my children to feel happy and fulfilled, I want them to grow and explore new things, chase new goals and push the bar higher when it comes to fulfilling their potential, which comes at the cost of certain amount of stress, but more importantly learning to harness the positive effects of stress. Can stress be good for you? That depends on the kind of stress.

Stress is the body's reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses, and it's a normal part of life.

There are three types of stress that one experiences: Good stress or eustress that we feel when we are excited, and it keeps us feeling alive and enthused about life. There's acute stress, which comes from quick surprises, and needs an immediate response. Acute stress triggers the body's stress responses like an increased heartbeat and the rush of adrenaline and other hormones. But this doesn't take a heavy toll if we find ways to relax quickly and return our bodies to a stress-free state. Then there's chronic stress or bad stress, when we repeatedly face stressors that take a heavy toll and we feel inescapable. Our bodies are not designed to function under chronic stress, and this is what takes a massive toll on mental and physical health, right from a young age.

When it comes to parenting, I know that our instinct is to try and protect our children from any and all kinds of stress, but I've learnt that it can do more harm than good. At every stage in life, right from childhood, one faces situations that cause stress - starting with the pressure of facing exams and homework, learning social skills and developing peer relationships and leading up to the stressors related to career, relationships, finances, and even parenting.

But when I look at my own life, these were some of the most challenging experiences but they were also the ones that led to the most growth - they made me stronger, more resilient and better prepared to face the next set of challenges. And that's the kind of growth that we want our children to have - academically, emotionally, and in the development of their personality - but how do we ensure that the experience of stress doesn't become dangerous for our children? Or it doesn't become acute stress?

The trick is not to push them to blindly embrace stress but to teach them to transform bad stress into good stress. The stress response gets triggered when we perceive something as a threat. If we can learn to perceive it as a challenge instead, the fear and stress response may turn into excitement, anticipation or even resolve. I've found that it helps to show children how to focus on the resources they have to meet said challenge, on seeing the possible benefits of the situation, on reminding them of their strengths and the support system they have, and on generally cultivating a positive, 'can-do' mindset. The earlier on we can start to teach our children to do this, the more it becomes a habit and then an inevitable part of their personality as they grow up.

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Of course, not all forms of bad stress can be transformed into good stress. For those, I guess we fall back on the tried and tested parenting method of teaching our children to take the 'NOs' and the difficult situations in their stride, to develop resilience and to learn to get back up when they get knocked down. This starts with acknowledging the fact that it's normal for them to feel stressed out and that they need recovery time in between bouts of intense stress. I find that it helps to talk to them about what they're going through, and how they can reduce the negative feelings of anxiety by planning tasks, managing time and taking regular breaks. It gives them a sense of control, helps them feel less overwhelmed and develop an understanding of their own limits - how much stress is too much for each individual child.

Integrating mental health into the regular curriculum is an essential step in calibrating the entire educational environment to ensure that students have the tools and opportunities they need to mitigate or recover from the effects of the stress.

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There's a saying that "A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there." Whether your kids are in school or heading off to college or even about to join their first job, they will be able to find maximum growth by regularly going out of their comfort zones. But, once you've taught them from a young age how to manage stress and how to use it to their advantage, you'll see that there's no challenge too big to deal with and no mountain too high for them to climb.

(The writer is Founder and Chairperson of Aditya Birla Education Trust.)