What if we told you that not all stress is the same? Or that it’s not all bad?
That might sound a little crazy. After all, everyone knows exactly what stress feels like.
The pounding heart.
The alert nerves.
The stomach tightness.
It feels the same in every stressful situation so isn’t it all identical?
The answer is no! There are actually 4 categories of stress: positive, negative, chronic, and traumatic.
As parents, it’s important to understand the difference between the types because most kids feel like their parents don’t recognize the true reason for their stress. When we look at the research, it shows a clear gap between what parents believe is stressing their kid and what their kid actually pinpoints as the stressor. Finding a way to bridge this disconnect is an important step if you want to strengthen the relationship with your kid (we sure do!).
So, let’s dive in and chat about the 4 types of stress!
1) Positive Stress
Yep, we said it. There is such a thing as good stress! How on earth could that be?
Healthy stress is created by a singular, positive event in your kid’s life.
Maybe it’s a test, a performance, a presentation, or a game. Your kid will still experience the pounding heart, the alert nerves, and the stomach tightness, but this is their natural physiological response kicking in.
Although they may feel uncomfortable in the moment, these stress symptoms mean your kid is feeling:
Focused on success
Motivated to prepare
Excited to try new things
Ready to go for their goals
Whatever they’re feeling, they’re gearing up to give their best and succeed against the challenge before them.
As parents, it’s important to let our kids experience this!
We know this goes against our instinct to protect them but trying to save our kids from positive stress hurts them in the long run. If they never experience healthy stress, they won’t build the skills they need to face challenges in life.
Rather than trying to shield them from the stressful situation altogether, help your kid by partnering with them through it by:
Checking in with compassionate questions
Encouraging them with thoughtful words
Reminding them your love doesn’t depend on their success
Don’t try to solve the problem for them. Instead, focus on becoming their biggest supporter as they navigate the challenge.
2) Negative Stress
We get it. We just covered positive stress, so it’s natural to wonder what the difference is between positive and negative stress.
Negative stress is caused by a major and painful life change.
Kids experience this when faced with situations like:
Moving to a new state
In other words, a stressful live event causes a major disruption in a kid's life, forcing them to face uncertainties in life and adjust to a significant new reality. During these times, it’s common for kids to feel overwhelmed and experience physical signs of stress like prolonged headaches or stomachaches.
As parents, it’s vital to jump in and offer extra care for your kid during these times. Although we can’t change the stressful situation they’re facing, we can help our kids as they go through it by:
Letting them know what to expect before it happens
Listening to their concerns and fears
Talking over healthy coping mechanisms
Reassuring them of your continued support
Planning how to establish new routines
Above all else, remember this one thing.
Don’t downplay your kid’s feelings.
Their emotions might show up in surprising ways but consistently showing them patience and understanding will strengthen your relationship during this stressful time.
3) Chronic Stress
If it’s tempting to lump this in with negative stress, we understand. They both cause significant emotional stress to your kid and worsen their quality of life. However, it’s important to note that these are actually NOT the same.
Chronic stress is caused by situations like:
Long-term exposure to bullying
Significant health conditions
Loss of a loved one
Unlike negative stress, the impact extends beyond a single situation.
When dealing with chronic stress, kids have to consistently face the source of stress over a long period of time.
They see the kid that bullies them in the hall every day at school.
They endure the suffering that comes with living with a chronic condition.
They face the loss of that loved one every single day.
When responding to chronic stress, the symptoms are more severe and disruptive. Your kid may be overwhelmed. They may feel constantly on edge and have consistent tension in the body. Without an end in sight, they may feel helpless to cope with their stress and ever find some relief.
As a parent, you can help your kid through these situations by:
Creating routines that help them feel safe, loved, and supported
Teaching meditation techniques like breathing exercises or other stress relievers
Setting special time aside to break away and just have fun
In the majority of chronic stress situations, it’s impossible to remove the stressor.
The most important thing you can do as a parent is to be a consistent shoulder for your kid to lean on.
4) Traumatic Stress
Out of all the others, this stress type might be the easiest to imagine but the hardest to assess. What do we mean? Traumatic stress is a multi-faceted problem.
There are a couple of examples that probably spring to mind when thinking about traumatic stressors:
A serious accident
A major injury
A near-death encounter
There is another side to traumatic stress that often goes overlooked because it doesn’t relate to one single event. It’s created by consistently experiencing situations like abuse or neglect. In these cases, the symptoms are often the same as those produced by a single horrible experience, but the cause is harder to pinpoint because it stems from a series of traumatic events.
When your kid is experiencing traumatic stress, they often display symptoms of:
Given the severity and impact of these symptoms, traumatic stress might have the greatest potential to harm your kid’s mental health if left untreated for long periods of time.
As a parent, it’s important to recognize when your kid is undergoing this kind of stress and respond quickly. Professional help is the best way to take care of your kid in this situation but you can also help them at home. By being aware of the symptoms of traumatic stress, you can provide your kid a safe and supportive environment at home as they learn to how to heal with healthy coping skills.
So, now you know about the 4 different types of stress and how to support your kid through each situation.
This essential knowledge arms you with the tools you need to cross the gap and help your kid feel supported during stressful moments. Rather than feeling misunderstood, they’ll have a foundation of trust that will encourage to consistently lean on you when facing challenges.