Most humans perform best in a Goldilocks zone of a little but not too much stress. That makes sense; stress puts some pep in your step, but too much can bury you. You can see this Goldilocks zone in a classic study of Pennsylvania small-business owners in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Researchers interviewed 102 of these small-business owners and found that on the Subjective Stress Scale, which runs from 0 to 100, a level of perceived stress between 40 and 48 predicted the highest performance–business owners in this Goldilocks range of moderate stress got the most done, repairing their stores, dealing with insurance companies, getting back to work.
The question is how to help your kids stay in the productive, manageable, moderate zone of stress, even when school, friends, activities, and life make the porridge too hot.
The answer comes from another interesting point in the Pennsylvania study. See, business owners’ perceived level of stress had nothing to do with how much they lost in the storm. The level of stress they felt was completely independent of whether they had lost 5 percent or 100 percent of their business in the flood. What this means is that stress, and the ability to keep stress in the productive Goldilocks zone, depends less on what you have to deal with than on how you deal with it.
This flood study also found three general styles of coping with stress: people who deal with the stressful situation, people who deal with the emotional experience of stress, and people who use both coping strategies. For example, if your child is stressed out about a homework project, he or she could work on the project (deal with the stressful situation), or chill out with an Asimov novel in a hot bath (deal with the emotional experience of stress).
First, the obvious: people who deal with both the situation and with their emotional response to stress perform the best under pressure. But check this out: people who cope with the emotional experience of stress perform terribly until the going gets really tough, at which point they’re better off than people who just try to deal with the situation. And people who deal with the situation are strong until stress gets high and the situation finally overwhelms them.
Taken together, here is one powerful secret to helping your stressed-out kids cope: help him or her pick the best coping strategy based on the level of stress he/she feels. If a stressful situation is manageable, manage it. But as a stressful situation grows past the point where your child can reasonably heal the situation itself, it becomes more and more important for him or her to control the emotional experience of the stressful situation.
Some stress is motivating–can you help your child reframe meaningless situations to be at least moderately stressful so that he or she can harvest the motivation that comes with a little stress? On the other hand, can you help your child cope with situation and emotions to bring overwhelming stress back into that Goldilocks zone of motivating but manageable? If so, you help your child stay not-too-hot, not-too-cold even when the world seems to be heating up around them.
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