Stress is not just a problem that adults have. Children can have it, sometimes even before they start school.
As adults look back on their childhood, they often think about it as a time of fun. They had no real worries. But times have changed. The small world of a child today is often filled with a great deal of stress.
There are three types:
- Developmental —Caused by normal childhood events, such as separating from parents as babies, going to school, or getting used to puberty
- Critical —Problems that do not happen in every child's life but are common, such as moving to a new home or family financial problems.
- Catastrophic —Caused by severe unexpected events, such as an illness, death of a family member, disasters, or abuse. Children are at high risk for this type of stress.
Signs of Stress
How children react to stress has a great deal to do with their personalities and the support they get from family and friends. You should expect your children to tell you that they are feeling stressed. They will often deny that there is a problem because they feel ashamed, guilty, or unsure of their feelings. They may not want to let you down.
Changes in behavior and personality are often the first sign of stress in children. Here are some others:
Babies and Toddlers
- Crying without control
- Temper tantrums
- Head banging
- Rocking back and forth
- Bed wetting or soiling
- Thumb sucking
- Baby talk
- Feelings of fear that cannot be explained
- Fast heartbeat
- Crying spells
- Clinging to parents
- Bed wetting or soiling
- Nail biting
- Grinding teeth
- Having a lot of accidents
- Lack of hunger
- Nervous twitches
- Stomach aches
- Changes in personality
- Not doing the things he or she used to enjoy
- Stomach upset
- Changes in emotions
- Behavior problems
- Problems sleeping
- Sleeping too much
- Obsessive-compulsive behavior
Many of these problems are common in children. Talk to your child's doctor if they last or get worse.
What Parents Can Do
Some stress is a normal part of growing and living. As a parent you cannot fully protect your child from it. But there are things you can do to help stop stress from reaching a harmful level.
Many adults may tell their child, "Relax. There is nothing to worry about. You think you have problems now, wait until you are older." Keep in mind that children feel as deeply about their problems as adults do, but they have less control. Not getting a spot on the cheerleading squad can be just as stressful for a child as being fired from a job would be for an adult. Parents should not deny or make light of their child's worries. They are real to the child.
Provide your child with comfort. Instead of saying, "Oh, you are over-reacting," listen and help children think of ways they might solve their problems. To get started, make a general observation out loud. Try saying something like, "You still seem upset about your friend."
Be a Role Model
Children watch how their parents handle stress. They learn from what they see. "I was shocked when I heard my 10 year old son swear at the computer when he could not get something to work. Yet, he said exactly what his father and I say when we get frustrated with it," confesses a mother of three.
Give Children Time to Be Crazy
We all need ways to ease stress. Children need time each day to play, run around, take a walk, go to the park, tell stupid jokes, sing, and laugh. During these times, they can think, be creative, experiment, and make choices. This is also a time for them to enjoy being a kid.
Today's parents shuttle kids from one thing to the next. Being this busy can lead to frustration, anxiety, and exhaustion. Parents and children need to make choices and set limits. Ask your children to decide which things they like best. Let them prove they can handle one activity, homework, and household tasks before doing more.
Not all stress is bad. It pushes us, helps us get things done, and gives us energy to take on new challenges. But when it becomes a problem when it gets in the way of a child's normal growth. With a little empathy, humor, logic, and balance, you can help your children cope with their small, yet stressful world.
Childhood stress. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/feelings/stress.html. Updated February 2015. Accessed April 22, 2020.
Helping children handle stress. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Pages/Helping-Children-Handle-Stress.aspx. Updated April 26, 2012. Accessed April 22, 2020.
Helping kids cope with stress. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/stress-situations.html?ref=search. Updated January 2013. Accessed April 22, 2020.
Identifying signs of stress in children and young teens. American Psychological Association website. Available at: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-children.aspx. Accessed April 22, 2020.
Signs your child is stressed & 5 ways to help. Psych Central website. Available at: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/06/06/signs-your-child-is-stressed-5-ways-to-help. Updated May 24, 2019. Accessed April 22, 2020.
Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 4/22/2020