parents with their three toddlers

Why It’s Not Too Early to Teach Your Toddlers How to Manage Stress

Stress can be positive and healthy—even for toddlers. An article from the University of Oregon’s Starting Strong conference of early learning and K-12 educators emphasized this.

Most of us view all types of stress as bad, even though science tells us otherwise. If parents can correct their mindset and attitude towards healthy stress, they may be able to save the little ones from unnecessary stress in life.

Tolerable, toxic, and positive stress

The UO paper presents three kinds of stress — tolerable, toxic, and positive. Tolerable stress is something a child can surpass with adult support. Losing a loved one and getting a frightening injury are examples. Toxic stress is destructive and caused by intense, repeated, or long-lasting difficulty, such as emotional abuse or exposure to violence.

Positive stress, however, can be healthy and beneficial. It involves events that a child can handle, such as their first day with a new babysitter, or a visit to the doctor for a vaccine shot. It can increase their heart rate for a moment and elevate hormone levels, but it’s a normal and essential part of any child’s life.

Nevertheless, positive stress can become negative if parents or guardians don’t teach the child to recognize its benefits and use these to their advantage. Teaching the child the benefits of positive stress helps them develop resilience for greater difficulties in the future.

Stress during a child’s formative years

The best time to teach your child the right attitude towards stress is within the age of 0 to 5. During these years of early childhood, a child’s brain creates 90 percent of its architecture, and it forms more than a million neural connections per second. The skills they develop during this time—including their attitude towards stress—will directly influence their future success academically, financially, and socially.

Because of the pivotal role of early childhood education in individuals, the U.S. government has funded preschool programs like UPSTART for Salt Lake City and other cities in Utah. Other states are lobbying for their own preschool education programs as well.

You don’t need to wait for your little ones to enter kindergarten, however. You can and should begin training at home.

little boy holding his mom's hand

Creating a positive attitude towards stress

For your children to be able to harness positive stress to their advantage, you should stop communicating (through words and actions) that stress is bad and scary. If they adopt this attitude, they will learn to respond negatively to any stressful event and might worry excessively about it. Instead, you should help your children to deal with stressful events objectively, optimistically, and confidently.

Have you observed a toddler who is just learning to walk, and how they react when they fall on their butt? If the caregiver responds with fear and panic, the toddler will cry. But if the adult remains calm and encourages the toddler to rise on their own, the child will do so without a hint of drama.

Unless they’re seriously hurt, the toddler won’t cry at all. It’s usually the adult’s response that triggers stress or tears. Children during this stage are forming their view of the world based on how the adult responds to situations, whether intentionally or not. As such, you should be careful about how you react in front of the child.

If adults refrain from associating stressful events with negative emotions and, instead, show the child that they can deal with these events calmly and confidently, they will develop an empowered attitude towards coping with challenges later in life.

Dealing with mistakes constructively

You should not send the message across that you expect your child to do everything right all the time. Let them know that you expect them to have accountability for their mistakes by, say, fixing something if she broke them or making amends if she did something bad.

When you communicate to a child that mistakes are inherently bad, she develops the fear of making mistakes. This can keep her from taking reasonable risks later in life. Let’s say your toddler tried to pull out a book from the shelf and other books fell in the process. She would probably feel guilty seeing the books scattered all over and would be tempted to deny responsibility for what happened – even though there’s nothing wrong with pulling a book from a shelf.

Instead of scolding your little ones, why not teach them to fix the mess they made? You may also explain the reason why the accident made you angry, that you feared they would hurt themselves if they didn’t ask your help. This way, your child won’t associate the stress of making a mistake with something she cannot fix or make amends for.

Teach them the purpose of stress

Stress is a survival instinct that warns you of danger. In primitive times, it protected us from predators by eliciting a fight or flight response. Today, it can pump us up to respond with urgency and increased focus when faced with problems. In short, stress can help us avoid danger if we learn how to respond with confidence instead of fear.

Teach your child to use stress to their advantage and not let fear cripple them. For example, when a stranger insists on talking to them, instead of crying, they can call you or their teacher in a loud voice. When they bruise their knee but are still strong enough to walk, they can go to the school nurse for assistance instead of sulking in a corner unattended.

As early as age 5 or below, you should teach your children to acknowledge that stress can be a good thing because it develops resilience, perseverance, and confidence in them. With such an empowered attitude towards stress, adult challenges will not intimidate them easily. In fact, they might even welcome them.

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