Megan Gunnar from the University of Minnesota has studied stress for many years and she finds that stress is when the demands of our life, or expectations of what those demands are, exceed our ability to cope with them. So expectations is a very important word.
Sometimes we can expect the worst when the worst might not always be happening. So stress is brought on by both the realities of things that are difficult to cope with or expectations that they’re difficult to cope with.
There have been a number of studies that have shown how children and how adults not only cope with stress but how they try that next hard thing – how they take on a challenge. How they take that problem that they don’t think that they could do, and do it. Among the things that studies have found is that if we have some control over what’s happening, we cope with it better. One study that was done put kids in front of mechanical toys. They were loud and a little scary and the kids all freaked out. But if they had the switch they could turn the toys on and off and they were much better able to cope.
Another thing that matters is in taking on challenges and coping with stress is having support. Having the people around you help you either by thinking of what you’re going to do in a different way or by actually helping you deal with a challenge. And interestingly enough we communicate that support not just in words but by our faces.
There’s a wonderful study by Joe Campos that showed that when parents made different kinds of faces when children were supposed to do something hard – they were crossing a platform that was plexiglas on the top and then there was a visual cliff. The plexiglas went all the way across the top but the kids could now see down to the floor. You know, it’s like one of those places where you walk over a glass and you can see down to the floor below and it’s a little scary. You don’t feel quite as safe as if you can’t see down to the floor.
And if the parent made a fear face, the kids wouldn’t cross that visual cliff. If the parent didn’t make a fear face but made an encouraging, smiling, “it’s okay” face – and just their facial expressions or nodding, the kids were able to cross.
One thing that’s very important in taking on challenges is our mindset. If we think that we are born with the capacities that we’re born with – what Carol Dweck from Stanford University would call a fixed mindset – we won’t try something that’s hard because we think that our ability is just our ability and we were born with it and that’s it.
If we understand that we can always grow and learn from things, we have what she calls a growth mindset, we’re much more willing to take on a challenge. She has done studies with children that have found that the way that adults praise children affects whether or not they’ll take on the next hard problem. You can use the kind of problems that you give kids in intelligence tests. Like match this picture. And if the kids are praised when they have an easier problem to solve by, “Oh, you’re so smart” and then they’re given a choice about whether they would take a harder problem or an easier problem next, they’ll take the easier problem because they don’t want to lose that label of being smart.
If the kids are praised for having a good strategy or they’re praised for putting in a lot of effort, they will try that next harder problem. So the way that we praise our children or the way that we support each other by, in a sense, saying you can learn from your experiences, that was a good strategy – wasn’t quite the right strategy, makes all the difference in whether or not we’ll take on a challenge.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.
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