As a parent, you want your child to lead a happy and fulfilling life. Part of being able to support her ability to create such a future is teaching her how to handle stressful situations and emotional upset.
According to the 2014 Stress in America Study conducted by the American Psychological Association, kids aged 13–17 experience stress at higher levels than their parents. Underneath this state are unprocessed emotions that children have difficulty comprehending and resolving on their own. Parents, though, can help their kids develop the social-emotional skills that will allow them to manage these underlying feelings.
Of course, not every negative emotion is an indicator of stress. Children (and adults) naturally feel upset or down at different points in their lives. What parents need to be mindful of is how often their child is experiencing such feelings. The more frequent or more intense your child’s emotions become, the more important it is to pose questions to understand what is contributing to the pressure.
Exploring the Stress
If you suspect your child is acting out because she feels stressed, the first question to ask is, “Is this pressure coming from you, your child, or both of you?”
In some cases, parents’ expectations may be the cause of a child’s stress. When your desire for your child to succeed or feel fulfilled outweighs that desire in your child, this can trigger negative emotions in her. In this case, the pressure she feels is due to unrealistic expectations, and she may internalize a need to meet your standards.
For example, you may value creativity and want your child to be involved in an artistic activity, whether it is in the performing arts, visual arts, writing, or music. You may be encouraging her to pursue something new, but the most important factor is that she is free to choose the activity she would like to spend time on.
If your expectation is specific, such as only encouraging her to play the piano, learn French, or get straight A’s, this can become problematic if your child does not share your passion. Your belief that this pursuit is important may be coming from an idea that self-worth is proven through accomplishments. While such a notion can seem to set kids up for success, relying too much on the external validation that an accomplishment can provide puts your child’s self-esteem in the hands of others who are evaluating her work, rather than allowing her to develop an independent and internally-based structure of self-worth.
If this recognition is what she believes makes her special, worthy, or even lovable, failure will become very difficult to cope with. This conviction may also lead your child to feel too afraid to try new things because she is so wary of failing.
Regardless of whether the stress is coming from internal or external pressures, when negative feelings emerge, it is important to talk to your child about how to use these emotions in an empowering way. At the International Institute of Emotional Empowerment we teach that each negative emotion provides a different signal to guide a person back on track. For example, when someone feels anxious, it is a sign that she is not trusting herself.
In order to turn your child’s negative feelings into constructive thoughts, you can help her transform her anxiety-sparked insecurities into messages of self-confidence.
Statements like these can be an indication that your child is doubting her abilities:
- I’m going to fail.
- I am so bad at this subject.
- This teacher’s tests are so unfair.
Reframing these thoughts will give your child a new, productive outlook. Here are several suggestions for reshaping negative statements into positive ones:
- I studied hard, which means I gave it my best and will do my best.
- This subject has been challenging, but if I keep struggling, I can always reach out to my teacher for extra support. I’ve got this.
- The teacher’s tests are tricky, so I’ve got to make sure I really read through the questions thoroughly before I answer them.
By implementing such a viewpoint, your child is learning emotional resilience, or grit. These characteristics refer to an ability to learn from hardship and persevere in the face of challenges. Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has done groundbreaking work on grit that proves how essential it can be to academic success.
To help your child generate more empowering thoughts, question her perception of failure. For instance, if she is telling herself that she is going to have a hard time on a test, ask her if she ever had such a belief before, only to get a good grade. Ask her to explore what the worst-case scenario would be if she were to get a bad grade, and what she would do if this happened. And if it turns out that failing a test would lower her overall grade in the class, explore the paths she could take to change this outcome, such as asking her teacher for extra credit.
In some cases, parents feel concerned that their child seems apathetic and indifferent to the outcomes of her work. For example, she may be saying, “I don’t feel like doing this.” Even when parents swear to me that their child is just lazy, I always explain that I have yet to find a child who cannot be motivated in some way.
The questions to ask yourself are:
- What gets my child motivated?
- How can I tie this motivation to tasks I’d like her to get done?
For instance, if your child seems to be motivated by spending time with her friends, think about how you can tie this into her learning. Perhaps encouraging her to form a study group with her friends will help her focus on schoolwork. Similarly, having a friend accompany her to an extracurricular may motivate her to try a new activity.
The key concern with kids who struggle with motivation is to be sure it’s not a self-esteem issue. In other words, when students try and try and try and still don’t get the results they want, they may cope by giving up in order to avoid the feeling of not measuring up — again! If you think this describes your child, it is important to help her discover her talents and for you, as her parent, to acknowledge her uniqueness.
Summing It Up
Learning how to work with your child’s emotional state, rather than fight against it, will teach her invaluable lessons about perseverance, confidence, and focus. Kids who learn to be emotionally resilient are the ones who dust themselves off when knocked down, re-evaluate what they were doing, and find a way to move forward. This is a healthy path to developing self-esteem, personal fulfillment, and, yes, success!
If your child is struggling with a particular subject or test, check out this advice on test anxiety and general tips to reduce academic stress. You can also use Noodle to find tutors and tutoring programs near you if you decide outside help is most needed.