“Everybody's going through a lot of stress these days, no matter how well off you are and how many advantages you have, it's a stressful time in everybody's lives.” Chris Frantz, drummer for the rock band The Talking Heads, described my life perfectly. We usually think of stress as being bad, though some people insist that stress can be good. Truthfully, stress can be divided into two broad categories: eustress and distress. How can I help my child have more of the stress that is helpful and less of the kind that is damaging?
Eustress literally means “good stress.” We experience this when we have a drive to accomplish something, and it helps us improve or enhance the work that we are doing, such as strength training, mental drills, or other challenging work (both physical and mental). With eustress, we feel ready and able to conquer the obstacles which block our progress to our goal. This encourages us to excel in ways we were unable to before and it results in achievements and positive feelings. This type of stress is fantastic, and should be encouraged in both adults and in children so they will want to strive for success in their goals.
Conversely, distress is what we call the bad stress. This results when we are unable to adjust to changing events for an extended period of time. In these settings, we feel out of control and unable to work toward improving a particular situation. Experiencing negative stress over a short period of time can be a way to learn difficult lessons, but it’s a different story when the situation continues over time with little or no sign that anything the person does can change the situation. Distress refers to stress over an extended period of time, and it can result in both physical and mental illness. Children enduring this type of stress demonstrate it though antisocial behavior and attitudes, including aggressiveness, passivity, or withdrawal from social situations. As a parent, we need to help our child going through distress to find positive methods of compensating with the situation around them and build steps so that the child knows he can affect (and improve) his circumstances.
So, which stress is in your home? If you are like most people, there is some of both. Eustress shows itself when our family feels empowered to accomplish the work which needs to be done to accomplish individual goals. Distress is found when we do not see results from our work for an extended period of time, or the results we see are not positive. If a child misses a birthday party because he has to finish his homework, what he feels is probably negative, but not necessarily distress. If this happens occasionally, it can act as a learning experience and end up with positive results in producing a good behavior in completing his work before the next social event. However, if a child always misses every party he is invited to, always needing to do work that does not produce results that are important to him, then this continual negative stress becomes distress and is not good. It can result in depression or the other antisocial behaviors listed above.
How can I affect the stress in my home? Doing activities in which we can see results helps increase our eustress. Things like housework (ugh! Yes, I did say that) produce positive results that we can see quickly. Physical exercise also encourages positive feelings which help us feel as though we are more able to handle the situations in which we find ourselves. Positive mental activities include challenging games in which a person must use a skill which he knows he either has or can develop with repetition. As parents, we should find ways to help our children develop skills they need so they can accomplish their goals, turning distress into eustress.
Eustress and distress can be used to strengthen or weaken us and our children. Doing activities which help us feel in control and that give us a feeling of accomplishment should be increased, while activities which make us feel out of control and not able to affect our situation should be limited. Learning to cope with stress in our lives, while difficult, determines our overall view of life, and as such, is worth the effort to manage.