As we stood outside the door to the judges’ room, the sheet music clutched in my eight-year-old daughter’s hands visibly trembled. I’d encouraged her to take on a piano piece that really challenged her, and she’d struggled for months with it. She was extra nervous in the days leading up to the performance, to the point I wanted to let her back out. Had I pushed her too hard?
But while her sheet music was trembling, her mouth was set in a determined line and her eyes were wide and focused. I offered a few words of support and she entered the room alone. Five minutes later, she emerged with a huge smile on her face — her hard work had paid off.
Many parents instinctively navigate around stressful situations when it comes to our kids. I wanted to rescue my daughter from the stress surrounding her piano performance. Seeing her little face set in nervous concentration like a grownup’s made me want to snuggle her in my arms and tell her to forget the whole thing. But it’s a good thing I didn’t, because what my daughter was experiencing, though stressful, was a gift. My daughter was experiencing eustress.
All stress is not created equal
Some stress—the right kind of stress — is beneficial to us. Distinguished from its cousin distress, eustress is a positive form of stress that can help us focus and actually improve our performance, leading to a sense of self-sufficiency and confidence.
The term was coined in 1974 by Hans Selye, a Hungarian endocrinologist and researcher, by combining the Greek prefix “Eu” (meaning “good”) with “stress.”
Negative stress, on the other hand — distress — is not helpful. It causes anxiety and discomfort in the person experiencing it and can chip away at confidence and weaken performance.
The stress my daughter experienced with her piano performance was eustress flirting with the boundary of distress. If I had stood over her and yelled at her while she practiced or thrown my hands up in frustration, her stress surely would have turned negative.
But I supported her in a positive way, and she put in the work necessary. For her, the experience, though nerve-wracking, was positive and affirming.
Psychologists are careful to point out the distinction between distress and eustress. One brings fear and uncertainty; the other brings excitement, anticipation, the nervous joy of tackling a challenge.
One chips away at self-esteem; the other builds confidence. One is better avoided. The other is desirable and could even be considered necessary.
What does eustress look like for a kid, and how do we make sure our kids experience it?
It looks like facing a challenge
An achievable challenge, anyway. Of course, we can’t expect our kids to win every contest they enter, but we want them to walk away feeling their effort has led to a result they can feel proud of.
Sign your kid up for contests or challenges that require them to put in some work, and make sure they feel the positive result of that work. Praise their determination and how far they came, without focusing on whether they won something.
It looks like trying new things
Another form of eustress is the jolt of nervousness we get from trying something new. Will we be good at it? We don’t know, but that’s part of the fun — it doesn’t matter if we were good at the new thing or not. The point is that it’s fun to learn. Whether it’s roller skating or a theatre class or a new sport, give your kid ample opportunity to experience the excitement of a new endeavour.
It looks like experiencing changes
Most of us fear change. If we’re comfortable where we’re at, why rock the boat? But sometimes comfort means inertia — sometimes it prevents growth. For an adult, eustress could come from a career change or buying a new home. For a kid, it might look like switching to a different school because it offers a program that matches their interests, or moving to a new neighbourhood.
Both of these experiences can be scary and could even cause distress, but looking at them as exciting opportunities can go a long way to transform that negative stress into positive, butterflies-in-your-belly anticipation — eustress. And reframing and using stress as a positive motivator is a life skill we want our kids to have.