Childhood and adolescence are stressful. Kids must weather developmental tasks, hormonal changes, tricky social situations, as well as the pressures of school and extracurricular activities. Empathetic and worrying parents incessantly grapple with how to best insulate children from the known effects of acute stress including compromised immune function and impaired brain development, which in turn may lead to long-term health problems like obesity, autoimmune conditions, high blood pressure, and mood disorders¹.
In recent decades, the resultant parenting trend has leaned in the direction of overprotection. Parents ardently seek to shield kids from all emotional and physical discomfort, fill kids’ schedules, limit unstructured play, supervise beyond children’s developmental needs, curate social lives, over-comfort, fix or excuse mistakes, and accommodate rather than promoting independence.
Despite parents’ extensive efforts and best intentions, the hovering approach correlates with children who are more stressed than ever. Between 2007 and 2017 the number of teens who reported recently experiencing depression increased by 59%². The use of prescription medication to treat mood disorders has increased by 68% among girls and 30% among boys over the past decade and teen suicides have quadrupled since the 1950s³.
This is not to say that parents’ coddling is entirely to blame for the uptick in stress among youth. Other factors like sensational news, a pandemic, cyber-bullying, and unrealistic beauty standards promoted by social media play a role, as well. Nonetheless, as authors William Stixrud and Ned Johnson convincingly argue in The Self-Driven Child, micromanaged children fail to develop a sense of control over their lives, discover what matters to them, and recover from mistakes on their own⁴. Taking over tasks as soon as kids get frustrated, removing them from complicated social dynamics, and allowing them to skip extracurricular classes, are just a few ways caregivers fail to foster distress tolerance and problem-solving skills among youth. Not surprisingly, the micromanagement parenting culture has coincided with the emergence of risk-averse individuals at high risk of mood disorders who question their capacity to “do life” on their own.
There’s no doubt kids need support and protection, but they also need to experience reasonable degrees of stress and take on age-appropriate risks to stretch their social, educational, and emotional competencies. In short, when kids cope, they feel and become more competent. In fact, coping with mild to moderate levels of stress in childhood expands brain regions responsible for resilience⁵. A study published in Psychiatry Research indicated that confronting limited stress helps protect against mood disorders and antisocial behavior and facilitates future coping in the face of adversity⁶.
The current challenge for caregivers, therefore, is to tread the line between over- and under-protection: to shield kids from excess stress while exposing them to the challenges and discomforts of everyday life. This way, kids gain a sense of mastery over their worlds and inner selves. Performing poorly in a music recital might prompt a child to consider how much effort they put into practices. Likewise, a child who feels left out might contemplate the ways they talk, play, and share with other kids. And withstanding the stress of preparing for a test stretches a child’s capacity to tolerate uncomfortable mental states.
So, how can caregivers facilitate kids’ personal growth by leaving them to tackle just the right amount of stress on their own? Here are a few ideas:
1. Allow children to take on age-appropriate challenges. For all.
Children learn and flourish when they feel challenged but not endangered. Younger kids should be given time to struggle with things like getting dressed, sharing, and schoolwork, while older kids must learn the consequences of poor organization and planning as well as inadequate conflict resolution skills. Discomfort motivates kids to adapt and find solutions. Coping with stress, too, improves with practice; allowing kids to handle what they can fosters self-regulation skills essential for ongoing growth. The more a child copes successfully with stress, the more they trust their ability to continue doing so. Parents can consult with trusted sources, such as teachers or counselors) about questions they may have about age-appropriate challenges, but in general, a challenge should be at the appropriate level that children struggle a bit to figure out the issue, but aren’t so challenging that they give up. Ideally, we want children to approach challenges using their strengths, which can actually lead to a state known as “flow” in which they are so engrossed in an activity that they even lose track of time.
2. Predict and Normalize Stressful Situations
Instinctively, kids want to avoid discomfort and parents want to insulate them from it. However, life is inherently stressful, so kids need to expect stress and know they can get through it. Further, regular exposure to the same stressors desensitizes children to them, reducing angst and avoidance. Simply normalizing stress as something everyone experiences also helps children understand what they’re going through is not uncommon. Consider educating children on the many ways stress manifests – physically, emotionally, and cognitively – so they feel less threatened by it.
3. Give Kids a Little Free Time
Having autonomy is key to developing the self-motivation that propels kids to pursue goals with enthusiasm and enjoy their triumphs. Many children feel overwhelmed by the extrinsic goals placed upon them, like getting good grades, and give little thought to what they genuinely care about. Unstructured time gives kids a chance to explore their intrinsic values and discover passions, giving them a sense of control over their own lives. Having a sense of self-control, in turn, is fundamental to managing stress.
4. Instill Healthful Lifestyle Habits
To feel settled, kids need a balanced lifestyle that includes adequate sleep, social engagement, exercise, and mindfulness. Sufficient exercise reduces levels of the brain’s stress hormone, cortisol, whereas sedentary children experience surges of cortisol in the face of everyday stress⁷. The brain also needs rest, however. Tired kids cope poorly with stress and experience a lowered sense of control, which can cause shame and further distress. Simple mindfulness activities for increasing children’s awareness of their emotional and physical sensations have been well-demonstrated as beneficial for stress reduction⁸. Finally, the research also indicates the power of regular social engagement in mitigating the effects of stress.⁹
5. Adopt a “Stress for Success” Mindset
Children’s adjustment to stressful events is not merely a matter of the events experienced, but also of kids’ interpretations of these events. For example, a child who experiences playing poorly at a sporting event as inspiration to practice harder will feel and behave differently from one who interprets it as proof of their inadequacies. Helping kids view disappointments as learning experiences and recognize they have the inner resources to cope with setbacks directly impact on how kids feel in the face of future and current stress¹⁰.
6. Model and teach effective self-regulation
Research suggests that how parents respond to emotions influences the development of distress tolerance in their children¹¹. Parents who display an acceptance of an array of emotions free children to express both positive and negative experiences. Kids feel less stress when they can understand and express what they feel. In addition, with practice, kids arrive at socially acceptable ways to convey emotions¹². Parents can further ease kids’ stress reactions by modeling and directly teaching emotional regulation strategies (eg, taking a walk or reappraising a stressful situation as a learning opportunity). In other words, demonstrating how and allowing kids to feel, express, and work through stress is an effective means of dampening it.
¹ Kuhlman KR, Horn SR, Chiang JJ, Bower JE. 2020. Early life adversity exposure and circulating markers of inflammation in children and adolescents: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Brain Behav Immun. 86:30
² Pew Research Center, JULY 12, 2019
³ Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds
⁴ Stixrud W, Johnson N. 2018. The Self-Driven Child. Penguin Random House.
⁵ Mild Early Life Stress Enhances Prefrontal-Dependent Response Inhibition in Monkeys Karen J. Parker, Christine L. Buckmaster, Katharine R. Justus, Alan F. Schatzberg, and David M. Lyons
⁶ Assaf Oshri, Zehua Cui, Cory Carvalho, Sihong Liu. Is perceived stress linked to enhanced cognitive functioning and reduced risk for psychopathology? Testing the hormesis hypothesis. Psychiatry Research, 2022; 314: 114644 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2022.114644
⁷ Silja Martikainen, Anu-Katriina Pesonen, Jari Lahti, Kati Heinonen, Kimmo Feldt, Riikka Pyhälä, Tuija Tammelin, Eero Kajantie, Johan G. Eriksson, Timo E. Strandberg, Katri Räikkönen, Higher Levels of Physical Activity Are Associated With Lower Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical Axis Reactivity to Psychosocial Stress in Children, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 98, Issue 4, 1 April 2013, Pages E619–E627, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2012-3745.
⁸ Juul, L., Frydenberg, M., Beck, M.S. et al. Stress-free Everyday LiFe for Children and Adolescents REsearch (SELFCARE): a protocol for a cluster randomised trial testing a school teacher training programme to teach mindfulness (“.b”). BMC Psychol 9, 31 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-021-00530-9
⁹ Ozbay F, Johnson DC, Dimoulas E, Morgan CA, Charney D, Southwick S. Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007 May;4(5):35-40. PMID: 20806028; PMCID: PMC2921311
¹⁰ Witvliet, C. van O., DeYoung NJ, Hofelich AJ, DeYoung PA (2011). Compassionate reappraisal and emotion suppression as alternatives to offense-focused rumination: implications for forgiveness and psychophysiological well-being. J. Pos. Psychol, 6, 286-299.
¹¹ Eisenberg N, Fabes RA, Murphy BC. Parents’ reactions to children’s negative emotions: relations to children’s social competence and comforting behavior. Child Development. 1996;67(5):2227–2247
¹² Frankel LA, Hughes SO, O’Connor TM, Power TG, Fisher JO, Hazen NL. Parental Influences on Children’s Self-Regulation of Energy Intake: Insights from Developmental Literature on Emotion Regulation. J Obes. 2012;2012:327259. doi: 10.1155/2012/327259. Epub 2012 Mar 28. PMID: 22545206; PMCID: PMC3321464