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The just right challenge

It is critical to be able to read a child’s emotional platform to know how to help that child back to a stable, safe, state in the brain- body connection. In last week’s blog, we took a look at how co-regulation might be the key to such a return to safety.

But our job as parents and educators isn’t just to keep children comfortable !

In fact, keeping a child’s life easy and stress free is the best way to PREVENT them from growing grit and character and learning new skills and resources! In a well intentioned desire to keep a child from overwhelming stress, a hovering parent might just be the hurdle to growth. I never want to feel that my depth of empathy for my wonderfully wired child leads to a fixed mentality in which that child stagnates.

The goal isn’t to pave the way for your child to act out without consequence or to avoid ever stepping out of the comfort zone. In fact, our aim is quite the opposite… to support their child’s future resilience and independence.

The Plan: Find the Just Right Challenge

The Just Right Challenge or as Delahooke calls it the Challenge zone is the place where a child is “challenged enough to grow new strengths, but not overwhelmed by what we are asking of them.”

The challenge zone is individual - it differs from child to child. When we can identify this sweet spot we can build frustration tolerance and help our wonderfully wired child stay with frustration rather than melt down and give up.

It is in the challenge zone that a child learns to delay gratification and stay calm even when he or she encounters obstacles. All because they encounter manageable chunks of good stress.

Not all stress is bad

I am wrestling with the idea of toxic stress and its effect on our wonderfully wired children. It’s why we discuss anxiety with Natasha Daniels in Episode 5.

“Chronic stress wreaks havoc on the brain, especially on young brains. It’s like trying to grow a plant in a too-small pot. As any casual gardener knows, doing so weakens the plant, with long-term consequences. Rates of stress-induced illnesses are extremely high in every demographic, and researchers are working furiously to uncover the reasons behind the rise in anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression, binge drinking, and worrisome patterns of self-harm in young people.”write William and Ned Johnson inThe Self-Driven Child.

But just because too much stress for too long is bad for our children and obviously weakens their platforms, it doesn’t mean that all stress is bad. Delahooke explains that Stress that is predictable, moderate and controlled, leads to resilience. Good teachers know that a little stress, uncertainty, and confusion is good in provoking learning, stretching understanding and growing problem- solving skills.

Stixrud and Johnson’s three kinds of stress:

1. Positive stress: that bit of nervous energy that makes you better on stage for example

2. Tolerable stress: brief stress in the presence of supportive adults with time to recover

3. Toxic stress: frequent and prolonged stress with the absence of support.

The authors answer the question of how we ensure enough good stress to grow while preventing too much bad stress.

We offer:

1. A supportive adult

2. Time to recover from stressful events

3. The need for a sense of control

The Self Driven Child centres around the third point , and I can’t recommend the book more highly.

We want to challenge our kids without overwhelming them, to stretch them without breaking them. We want them to experience some positive stress and some tolerable stress, but in the right ways, and with the right bolstering. We want to give their brains all the support and room they need to grow strong. The how of all of this comes back again and again to a sense of control.

Stixrud, William; Johnson, Ned. The Self-Driven Child

Delahooke’s book Brain- Body parenting is full of examples of applying this concept: We read the state of the child’s platform, their developmental abilities and unique qualities and then allow for some tolerable stress in the company of a caring adult and with a sense of control.

This is my mission and yours: To stick it out in the discomfort of learning to strike that balance.

Allow yourself the luxury of mistakes along the way of finding the challenge zone. Delahooke explains the process of rupture and repair involved in how we figure out what fits in the challenge zone and what doesn’t. Remember that in the rupture and repair process relationships are built! So the aim is not to ‘get it right’ the first time, the aim is to find your way into the challenge zone more and more often and then use co-regulation to help a child who is unable to self-regulate.

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