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Not All Stress is the Same

Life stress, in its many forms, is unavoidable.
How do we prepare ourselves and our children?
By providing the consistency of regulatory scaffolding and
what I call co-regulation in motion.


Definition of “regulatory scaffolding – the developmental process by which resilience grows out of interactive repair of the micro stresses that happen during shortlived rapidly occurring mismatches. The caregiver provides “good enough scaffolding” to give the child the experience of overcoming a challenge. Ensuring there is neither too long a period to repair nor too close a  match with no room for repair.” 

This scaffolding helps the child tolerate the three different types of stress. 

  1. Positive stressors—Positive stress is a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief heart rate increases and mild hormone level elevations. Examples include immunization, sleep-learning, meeting a new caregiver, attending a new daycare or preschool, not getting a second cookie, meeting an environmental barrier in place for their safety but inhibits freedom, etc. 
  2. Tolerable stressors—Tolerable stress is stress experienced during a challenging time with adequate adult support and generally goes away once the event that triggered the stress is over. Children may experience tolerable stress when a beloved pet dies, a loved one dies, or an environmental disaster occurs, such as weather disasters, earthquakes, and war zones.
  3. Toxic stressToxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity without adequate adult support (See A.C.E. Study/Test) —such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, malnutrition, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship and scarcity of basic needs being met.

Co-regulatory scaffoldings nurture the seeds of resilience that naturally grow out of development and the many opportunities for mismatch and repair. The struggle inherent in learning new skills and habits is considered a “positive stressor.” We provide regulatory scaffolding whenever we respond with co-regulatory support, love, reassurance, and attunement. 

  • When an infant has amassed accumulated doses of enough positive stress followed by moment-to-moment repair in attuned interactions, he is prepared to handle the tolerable stress of a significant life disruption. 
  • The infant makes meaning of their accumulated experience of overcoming microstresses.
  • Our repetitive responsiveness and consistent support offer the child an understanding of when we will return. 
  • The satisfaction of reuniting with the caregiver deepens the trust and the bond.
  • In a developmental process, the relationship is safe and secure because the infant develops trust in the movement through mismatch and repair with the caregiver.  

Bad stress, also called ugly stress, leaves the child uncertain and confused. 

  • Bad stress is represented by sudden, inexplicable absence and a lack of consistent understanding of when the caregiver will return. 
  • Bad/Ugly stress occurs when the infant misses repeated opportunities for repair and, therefore, cannot handle bigger stressors. 
  • Bad stress is tolerable because of positive or good stress. 

We will not be cavalier about stress, and of course, we protect our children from unnecessary and harmful stress as much as possible. Remembering that even the best of the good enough parents cannot protect our children from all stress can be helpful.

And at the end of every stressful event, we can sit, self-regulate, and remember…

Children who grow up with insufficient experiences of mismatch and repair are at a disadvantage in developing coping mechanisms to regulate their physiological, behavioral, and emotional reactions. ~ Ed Tronick PhD

The gift we offer our little ones is the ongoing ability to co-regulate and self-regulate. This is at the root of what will develop into – adaptive coping skills.

LINK: More on the Different Types of Stress
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