Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Stressors, stress, and distress

Experienced distress depends both on objective stressors and our resources

Monday was a stressful day all around.

  • My doctor told me that, although she wasn’t sure what was causing my sudden neurological problems, many of the likely suspects could eventually land me in a wheelchair.  She ordered a lot of tests.
  • My husband’s parents called, sounding happy and excited and vibrant for the first time in many months.  The previous day’s long, loud, and blunt conversation with my husband about painful and difficult topics had helped them to find insight into what had seemed an intractable problem.
  • My eldest’s newly bought old car had a dead battery.  It took half an hour to figure out that it was, indeed, the battery, find a flashlight, and dig the charger out of the basement.  It took another half hour of swearing, laughing, and lecturing to teach my son to use it. 
  • My youngest son completely melted down when I asked him to get off the computer and read before bed.  After long soothing, a shower, and a quiet snuggle, it came out that his best friend had been snubbing him at lunch.

One of the difficulties in studying psychology as a science is that psychologists use everyday language in very specific ways.  The word stress is a good example.  Stress researchers define stressors as things that happen that require the utilization of resources.  Good things – having a baby, getting a new job, or winning an award - can be stressors.  Obviously, bad things can be stressors as well. 

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stressWe feel distress when the resources demanded of us outstrip the resources we have. Distress is a negative emotional reaction to the output of resources (stress). 

The example I use for my students is exams.  If you have one exam, you’re probably fine.  If it’s finals week and you have 5 exams in three days, you experience stress (putting out resources) and feel distress because the time and energy you have to meet those demands exceed those available to you.

Different people have different social, personal, and objective resources available to them and thus the demands made by a particular objective stressor may result in more or less experienced distress. And some stressors require a lot more resources than others.

Which brings me back to my very bad Monday.  That day was bad for all of us. 

As my youngest son cried about his video game and then about his friend, he told me that one of the reasons he knew he felt so bad was that he was tired and should have gone to bed earlier the night before.  He didn’t have the usual bounce and resources that he usually brought to his problems. He was having a harder time controlling his emotions.  Because of this, what would normally be an annoyance began a meltdown.  It wasn’t that he was displacing his problems with his friend onto the video game and his tears were really’ about that.  He was really crying about the computer.  It was the last straw.  His problem with his friend took a lot out of him.  Being tired took more.  The computer game took the rest.

Frankly, it was really hard for me to have anything to give to him to help calm him down, snuggle him, and get him settled in for bed.  My resources were gone too.  I wouldn’t have had it, except that my husband (a social resource) took over some of the other things demanding my energy – like my eldest and his battery.  And we won’t even talk about the emotional support he gave me, which helped to replenish my own resources (at the expense of his). 

But for my youngest son, tearing himself away from that computer game was just as stressful – and created more emotional distress – than any of the other things that went on in our house that day.  Because right then, he didn’t have the resources he needed to cope with it.  He needed social support and help pulling himself together.  In fact, one of the things that social support does is provide external scaffolding to shore up the individual resources we bring to our problems.  And that’s something I needed to do for him.  That's often what parents do for their kids - and friends and lovers do for each other.

And in many ways, I was grateful to him, because helping him helped put my own issues in perspective as well. And it also reminded me of the resources I had.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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