Many are facing a lot of stress right now.

While some are potentially growing from this collective experience, and others may be able to find silver linings, there is a lot that’s hard about pandemic-induced stress. Some families are much more affected than others and since we don’t know when it will end, we can’t calibrate for that.

The first thing that might help is reframing stress itself as not only totally normal, but sometimes even positive—really. Experts at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child say that there are three types of stress and they affect children differently.

Positive Stress:

Yes, it’s possible for stress to be positive! Just think of things like going on a job interview or getting married. These things cause stress, but they are potentially growth-promoting too. For children it could be trying a new physical skill (playground structure) or entering a new social situation (sharing is hard). This type of stress can be helpful to child development.

Tolerable Stress:

When stress is affecting you in a negative way—for example when something bad happens (accident, illness, etc.) but it is not ongoing—it’s considered tolerable. You’re on a hike and have a close encounter with a bear. The bear decides you are not that interesting, but your nervous system (and its fight/flight/freeze response) still got one heck of a workout. This type of stress generally passes without lasting impact on development, especially when a child is supported through the difficulty.

Toxic Stress:

This is the nasty one—when stress is ongoing. It’s one thing to bump into a bear on a wooded trail and survive it, but what if you live with the “bear.” When adults or children don’t feel safe in their own homes or communities (for any reason), it chips away at their ability to thrive. This type of stress can impact and even derail child development. Having a supportive adult always helps in these situations.

The other inconvenient truth is that adult stress affects child stress. As Brené Brown often says, “Humans are wired for connection.” And when parents and caregivers are stressed, kids feel it. Of course it goes both ways, but in the caregiving relationship, it’s up to the adult to do the heavier lifting. Parent mental health affects child mental health. And stress affects both parties. Here are some ideas for reducing or managing stress so everyone can feel just a little better:

Use self-reflection as a tool:

I could tell you what helps me reduce my stress, but it might not work for you. You’ll have to do your own investigating to figure out if more fresh air, stretching, exercise, or sleep will help you (it probably will). But it might be something else — yoga, journaling, gratitude — or something unique that I can’t even think of.

Change (lower) your expectations:

You’ll probably need to let go of so:mething. For us it was folded laundry. Sorry, find your clothes in the giant pile of clean laundry. This is life now. For some people that would just cause more stress. Your house is probably going to be a little messier and your kids will probably have more screen time than you’d like. Maybe we need to relax about academic progress right now and focus on emotional and mental health? Everyone will find their own comfort level and adjust to this new normal, for now.

Feel your way through:

The game-changing book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle names very clearly that the stress itself is not the biggest culprit when it comes to the negative impact it has. It’s the emotions that never get processed so we can “complete the stress cycle” that hang out in our bodies causing all kinds of problems. The authors, identical twins Emily and Amelia Nagoski, liken it to getting stuck in a dark tunnel. To get to the other side of the tunnel, you must metabolize, so to speak, the feelings — that are triggered by stress. A good cry will do the trick, but other ways to complete the cycle include physical exercise/exertion or a good, long 20 second hug. (I realize some might need to put on PPE to get that hug!)

My parting words: “Hang in there,” and “You’re not alone.” When you hit a wall, lean up against it and rest (I read that on social media) — or reach out to someone for support. Even if you can’t lean on someone in person, you can still lean on them over the phone (or, sigh, Zoom). To quote Emily Nagoski: “(T)he cure for burnout is not self-care. It’s all of us caring for each other.”


A Guide to Toxic Stress from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child
Help Stressed Babies and Toddlers During the Pandemic from Psychology Today
Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and the recently launched Raising Humans With Heart. Her work has been featured in The Huffington Post.  Sarah is a human development nerd who brings over 30 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to a teenager who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice.