The 3 Types of Stress: Not All Stress is Damaging!

The 3 Types of Stress: Not All Stress is Damaging!

Image: Photo by Sue Zeng on Unsplash

Not all stress is damaging. In fact, some stress with the right ingredients builds tolerance and self-esteem! As parents who want the best for our kids, sometimes just a bit of education from the research base on child development can soothe our anxious minds and give context. Because life is stressful, and shielding our kids from stress is a losing battle.

Also, it’s really nice to have a road map for how to help our children navigate today’s stressful lifestyle. So here goes:

  1. The education: There are 3 types of stress according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child:

Image from Harvard Center on the Developing Child

Image from Harvard Center on the Developing Child

Examples (if your child is neurotypical—see my post on how individual differences impact stress responses):

Positive: Brief elevated heart rate and quick calming, such as may occur when meeting a new person or starting the school day.

Tolerable: Alert system is activated for longer, can lead to behavior/mental health challenges. Death of a loved one, move to a new home, or change in the family system are examples.

Toxic: chronic neglect, abuse or exposure to violence. See the link in the image above for a comprehensive list.

The takeaway for parents and professionals: It is access to a reliable, safe caregiving figure in these stressful situations that predicts stress-tolerance and well being.

Learning how to cope with stress is an important part of development.
— Harvard University Center on the Developing Child

Recognizing how events are affecting your child can help you assess why they are behaving a certain way, and how you can be a support.

Or, if you are a professional such as a teacher or mental health clinician, it can help you understand the source of certain behaviors and give a starting place for providing more support for a child who is struggling!

Finally, now that we know that not all stress is damaging, use this research to your advantage! Provide your child with “manageable stress” or opportunities to deal with just the right amount of stress alongside a supportive grownup. This will stretch their ability to tolerate stress and teach a sense of self-efficacy as well as the belief that I can handle stress, and when it feels like too much there will be a trusted person I can rely on to help me!




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