The Lessons of Stress

Ever notice that when things are going really well and you feel balanced, you are patient, flexible, empathic, and fun-loving with your children? And when you feel generally crummy, stressed, tired and hungry, your focus turns in on yourself and you get quite controlling? It’s natural when something triggers you and you feel out of control of something (a world-wide pandemic perhaps), you grab something in your reach that you think you can control. Your children are easily grabbable.

So if this happens to you under stress, what do you think might be going on with your child when you react to his behavior thinking, He’s trying to control me?

He’s not trying to control you. He’s stressed. And it doesn’t take much to stress out a young child. The younger they are, the less control of their lives and the fewer coping mechanisms they have to manage that stress. Whenever a naturally egocentric child is not getting what he wants, he experiences stress. So he grabs for control wherever he can—grabbing things, grabbing attention, grabbing you or a sibling.

The next time you fear your child is turning into a controlling tyrant, stop and ask yourself, If she is trying to grab for control, it means she stressed. What is she having a hard time with? I promise you, if you stop and think, you will find an answer—not necessarily the specific source of the stress—that will lead you to more compassion, less anger. Then giving her a simple choice will help. I don’t want you to hit me. Do you want to smash this pillow or stomp up and down and yell?

Then get in the habit of looking to yourself. Notice when you feel stressed, you’re likely to try controlling those around you. Let your stress be your signal that you need a break, to take a walk or simply breathe deeply. Ask yourself, Is this a life and death situation or can it wait? Because if I choose to tackle it now, I will say and do things I don’t mean.

There’s nothing wrong with stress. It’s a human condition. It’s also an important signal—if you see it as a signal. When you don’t, it controls you. When you do, you can make choices. Is this important enough that I deal with the stress and push through or am I trying to do too much and need to cut back? Stress releases cortisol in our brain when we feel threatened in some way, so we go into fight, flight or freeze mode. So if a tiger is coming at you, it’s a good idea to let that cortisol help you flee as fast as you can.

But when there is no tiger, whatever it is that you think is threatening (an angry child for instance) will still trigger the release of cortisol and you may fight back, shut down or have no idea what to do and give in.

So can you now see that stress, upset, and big emotions are provoking your child’s reactive behavior? If you know this, can you allow yourself to cause further stress by yelling, threatening, or taking away something your child values? I don’t think so.

But you do what was done to you. You do what most everyone else does. You react in anger and trigger the threat reaction in your child causing the release of cortisol and thus more controlling, grabbing, hoarding behavior to get control over what feels out of control—just like you.

In the meantime, whenever you or your child feel stressed, the antidote always is empathy and connection. But when you get triggered, empathy goes down the drain and you teach your child what you would never intend. When you understand that his behavior is provoked by stress—feeling worried, misunderstood, powerless, alone, isolated, jealous, scared, not good enough—you will automatically feel compassion, and empathy will easily follow. You will see that your child is having a problem, instead of being a problem.

  • See provocative behavior as your clue to underlying stress.
  • Talk to the stress not the behavior, Looks like you’re having a hard time.
  • Don’t try to fix it or take the stress away. It’s your child’s, not yours. Your child will do better when you simply acknowledge it.
  • Comfort rather than threaten a stressed child. Just as you would want.
  • Share something you feel stressed about. Being stuck at home effects all of us. I really miss my friends and I know you do too.
  • Know your stress is likely to provoke reactive behavior in you.
  • Use either your stress or your reactive behavior as your clue to stop and do something for yourself.
  • Don’t ask your child to take care of your problem. And don’t take care of your child’s problem. Instead be understanding of your child’s so your child learns to be understanding of yours.

Resilience comes from weathering catastrophic storms and coming out the other end intact—whether it be preparing for a scary test or presentation, being dumped by a girlfriend, the loss of a loved one, or a pandemic that shuts down your life. Stress is inevitable and often useful during those storms. Be conscious of it so you can cope with it to the benefit of all.

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