Unpacking Stress

Building self-awareness and emotional resilience  

“Of course my children are not stressed. What’s there for them to be stressed about? They have food on the table, a roof over their heads. They have nothing to worry about…” Like many, I have been guilty of making statements like this.

If we ask grown-ups to define stress, they would probably describe it as being overwhelmed by responsibility, working outside a comfort zone, juggling multiple responsibilities or dealing with deadlines or managing personality conflicts. But what does feeling stressed mean? Psychologist Richard Lazarus’ states stress occurs when “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” Put simply, stress is a feeling or reaction that arises when one feels unable to handle a situation, task or challenge.

There are some events that are monumentally stressful for children such as loss, illness, separation, abuse or poverty. However as parents we may dismiss our children’s daily challenges as being “normal” and over time we may underestimate this anxiety and its opaque impact. Navigating friendship groups, dealing with siblings, coping with parental expectations, managing academic, sports or music curriculum does cause stress among children.

Anxiety manifests differently for each child. I have learnt not to make judgements. Instead I stay alert to indications, in order to help them define the emotions they are experiencing and guide them in managing these feelings. For one of my children, having her father out of the country on work trips triggers anxiety and personal insecurity. We did not initially make the connection, but there seemed to be a noticeable change in her behaviour during his absence. She would be uncharacteristically irritable, ridiculously intolerant, highly sensitive and have restless nights of sleep. Initially, when I tried to find out what was behind all the unhappiness, I met with a scowling face, folded arms and throwaway declaration of “everyone’s just being so mean to me!”. I could not fully accept her dismissive explanations or finger pointing, blaming others for making her upset. It took some persistent yet gentle inquiry and during one of our discussions around her behaviour, she described experiencing an overall sense of anger. When I asked her why she felt angry, she shrugged her shoulders hopelessly and said she felt out of sorts, uncertain. “I don’t know why. I just feel sad.” she said. After some minutes of us both sitting in silence, she blurted out that she missed her dad terribly and was anxious about his personal safety. Her tantrums and “blaming the world” attitude was masking her inability to deal with vulnerability, insecurity and stress. It was not easy for her to articulate these emotions but the realisation liberated her. Being able to notice that discomfort and unease can occasionally spark a chain of emotions and actions has not only helped her during her father’s absence but when she has had to deal with tension triggered by experiences of loss or friendship issues.

While we know that experiencing some level of stress can be motivator as it gets the adrenaline working, prolonged stress has been shown to impact physical functioning, brain development and emotional growth. As grown-ups, we occasionally forget to put ourselves in the shoes of our child, instead we judge their experience and situation as trivial. Emotional resilience can be taught and like most skills, develops with practice. Just as we have learnt to deal with varying degrees of stress through years of self-discovery, I hope to equip my children with a better understanding of their own nature. From there, they can learn how to untangle the web of overwhelming emotions that life will bring up. I want to encourage them to have a curiosity about their own emotions, decipher the range of sentiments being experienced and to notice when they arise.

When it comes to feelings there is no place for judgement, only realisations. From greater self-discovery and emotional understanding we can be guided towards compassion and kindness. This in turn will bear self-love and self-forgiveness, the invisible sentinels that protect us against lingering stress and anxiety.

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