Developing Stress Tolerance in Children

The 2013 World Education Games are coming up in March and Aristotle’s school has registered for the Maths category. So when Aristotle came home with his login details, I thought to give him a chance to practice to help build his confidence. I was not prepared for the reaction I received.

Aristotle was not keen to practice and he seemed distressed when he had to compete against faceless children from other parts of the world. The more children he was pitted against, the more worked up he became. It was so bad that he could hardly concentrate on his own questions because he was too busy worrying about the performance of the children he was competing against.

I took a look at the questions that were being given in his age category and they were all well within his ability so I knew it was not because the questions were too hard. I wanted him to practice because although he could do the questions easily, his main stumbling point was keying them in. If he got flustered, he sometimes mis-typed the answers and he would press enter without checking if the answer he keyed in was the answer he worked out. And if he accidentally got them wrong, he would get upset with the keyboard.

What was supposed to be light, friendly competition had turned into a highly stressful environment for my son and he was not reacting well to it.

The same evening, Daddy reported to me that Aristotle was almost in tears as he related to his father about an award he was gunning for at school. From the sound of it, it was something very personal to him and it seemed very important to him that he get the award.

I was naturally stunned and upset by all of this. Aristotle has always been competitive – that was a trait that manifested very early. He likes to win and he hates to lose. We’ve talked to him before about good sportsmanship and losing with grace and although he accepts what we say when all things are calm, it’s like everything goes out the door when he’s in competition. I figured it was something he would grow to learn with constant guidance and coaching but I never expected it to get to this boiling point.

It was starting to appear to me that if Aristotle felt he couldn’t be good at something, he wanted nothing to do with it. He didn’t even want to try. He didn’t like to practice. He was developing my greatest fear – a fixed mindset.

This is a danger for many children who are precocious. I believe that many bright and gifted children end up with this problem because there is so much expectation placed upon them before they have learned to cope with the pressures. Before they can even realise their potential, they have burnt out. They develop the fixed mindset because too many people praise them for being smart (see: the inverse power of praise) and suddenly they are afraid to make mistakes and get things wrong. So instead of taking on challenges, they shy away from them because of the fear of failing.

Despite all my efforts to offer the right kind of praise of Aristotle, to talk to him about the need for effort, to describe the brain as a muscle that gets stronger with practice, to explain that mistakes help us learn; it appears it has not been enough. Aristotle still fears failure.

So I recently redoubled my efforts to emphasise:

  • the importance of having fun
  • that winning or losing doesn’t matter and that no one wins all the time
  • the importance of giving everything a go – just to try and do your best

Beyond that, I’ve also started to look into developing stress tolerance. Yes, it seems a heavy topic for someone who is only a child, and yet, it appears that some children need it more than others. The polar differences between Aristotle and Hercules has demonstrated that some children are more susceptible to stress (like Aristotle) while others just take everything in stride (like Hercules). If you’re interested, there is an interesting article that talks about stress tolerance and inheritance.

Although susceptibility to stress can be inborn, children can be taught resilience and how to cope with stress. Here are a few articles on the topic that I found and some of their suggestions:

Helping Children Cope with Stress

Junior Stress

  • Reduce activities and give your child more free time
  • Teaching relaxation techniques (yoga for kids can also be good)

Stress and Young Children

  • Help your child anticipate stressful events
  • Provide a supportive environment for your child to express his concerns
  • Help your child develop a variety of coping strategies
  • Help your child recognise, name, express and accept their feelings
  • Practice positive self-talk skills

What about you? How do you help your child cope with stress?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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