Stress automatically calls to mind negative moments in life: A difficult upcoming test, a fight with a friend or parent, global collective stress like the coronavirus pandemic, or even self-created stress about what others might be thinking. And yes, too much stress and too few resources to combat it can be a bad thing…but allowing kids to entirely avoid it actually does them a disservice.
Board-certified family physician and TrueSport Expert Deborah Gilboa, MD, specializes in youth development—including stress management. Her main message to parents is that children need to experience stress in order to be prepared for later life and become effective leaders. “Our job as parents is not to protect them until they’re adults. It’s to ready them for adulthood. And the ability to deal with stress is one of our best tools,” says Gilboa.
Here, Gilboa explains how parents and coaches can teach young athletes how to process and handle stress, rather than bulldozing it away.
Understand your response to a child’s stress
“From the time kids are very small, we have to be hyper-vigilant to keep them safe: There’s no more helpless creature than the human newborn,” says Gilboa. “It’s natural to try and control absolutely everything that you can, but that won’t help your child grow and lead. Parents are hardwired to pay attention to every sneeze and cough, but then by the time our kids are adults, they suddenly need to be able to do everything for themselves.”
For nervous parents, Gilboa notes that despite the scary 24-hour news cycle, in many ways, it’s never been safer to be a child in the U.S.
Consider the source of the stress
“Very few parents get kids into sport to win championships or trophies, we’re just trying to teach them life lessons and as such, we shouldn’t deprive them of chances to deal with adversity and stress,” says Gilboa. This experience is especially beneficial in the semi-controlled environment of sport.
“Those experiences of getting benched or having to run extra laps or being second string, they’re all valuable life experiences even if they cause stress. Kids have to learn to put the group ahead of themselves sometimes. They have to learn to do stuff that they don’t feel like doing. They have to learn to show up when they’d rather stay home.”
Lead with empathy
Often, a child’s stress can be lessened simply by having an adult acknowledge it and believe that it exists. While it’s tempting to laugh off certain stressors for a child, you have to understand that to them, a minor stress may feel like the end of the world.
“You can’t tell young people how they should feel—it’s ineffective and disrespectful,” Gilboa says. “As parents, we sometimes think that if our kids are stressed, we have somehow failed them already, so we try to rationalize that if a child is stressed, they’re not ‘really’ stressed. So first, we need to recognize that our kids do have stress, despite what we may think about it.”
Help them understand their feelings
Often, a child will feel stressed but not be able to articulate that emotion. As adults, Gilboa notes that we can help children work through their complicated emotions and should make sure that they feel safe sharing how they’re feeling. This includes if someone is hurting them, if they’re being bullied, or if they feel uncomfortable. Ensure that your child feels they can share any emotion with you without judgement or immediate action on your part.
Use low-consequence opportunities for teaching
While you may consider an argument between your child and a teammate to be a dramatic annoyance, they might consider it a major stress. These smaller issues are great learning opportunities with low risk for your child.
Rather than trying to solve the problem for the athlete by phoning the coach or the teammate’s parent, use this as a chance for your athlete to learn about stress management. That may mean discussing how to confront the teammate, talking through some stress-relieving techniques like deep breathing, or even having your child speak directly to their coach.
Stress can get out of hand
“As with sport, overtraining with stress is certainly possible,” Gilboa admits. “It’s important to make sure you’re not pushing your child too far.”
“If a child experiences too much stress from too many directions without the right support and training, they could become damaged—just like someone who runs once a week would be injured if they suddenly tried to run a marathon. It’s our job to help support our children to make sure they have what they need to deal with stress without over-taxing themselves.”
Promote a healthy lifestyle
It’s worth noting that some stress can be brought on or made worse by how your child is taking care of themselves. Stress is exacerbated by a host of physical influences, including hormones and sleep. Even overindulging in junk food or drinking too much caffeine can interfere with healthy reactions to stress. The simple solution is generally healthy living: Make sure that your athlete is getting plenty of sleep, hydrating and fueling properly, and exercising enough.
While it’s natural to want to eliminate stress for your young athlete, they need to learn to manage stress to prepare for adult life, and sport provides a perfect testing ground to hone stress-management skills.