Big Stresses for Small People

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.

Where Stress Comes From

Stress can come from many sources, such as:

  • Media —Too much information can cause stress. Set limits on the amount of time your child spends using screens, listening to the radio, and playing electronic games.
  • School —Stress may come from a first field trip, riding the bus, or conflict with peers. It will depend on your child's age.
  • Family —Families can ease stress, but they can also cause from things like a move, a new brother or sister, and parents who do not get along.
  • Parental pressure —Pushing your child to do something before he or she is ready can be a great source 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
  • Nightmares
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Crying spells
  • Aggressiveness
  • Clinging to parents

School-age Children

  • Nightmares
  • Bed wetting or soiling
  • Nail biting
  • Grinding teeth
  • Having a lot of accidents
  • Lack of hunger
  • Nervous twitches
  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Changes in personality
  • Not doing the things he or she used to enjoy


  • Aggression
  • Stomach upset
  • Changes in emotions
  • Behavior problems
  • Depression
  • Withdrawal
  • Problems sleeping
  • Headaches
  • 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.

Limit Activities

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.


American Psychological Association
Mental Health America


Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychological Association


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Signs your child is stressed & 5 ways to help. Psych Central website. Available at:
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Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 4/22/2020

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