Stress in kids can show up with changes in behavior, physically and emotionally. Here’s how to spot common signs of stress in kids and ways you can help.
With so many parents dealing with stress of their own, it’s hard to know how to help kids cope with theirs. And the strategies that work for you as an adult may not work as well for your kids.
Here are possible signs of stress.
They tell you, ideally, but it’s not always that easy. Babies and toddlers may be unable to tell us anything, let alone if they’re stressed. Young children may be challenged with finding the right words to describe their anxiety.
Teenagers may not feel like sharing and prefer to keep the source of their stress private, or simply lack the experience to recognize symptoms of stress as such. You can’t make your kid tell you every time they’re stressed, but you can foster honest and open communication, which helps.
Short of them outright telling you, there are other signs your child might be stressed.
Possible physical signs of stress include:
- stomach or chest pain
- increased heart rate
- trouble sleeping or nightmares
- bedwetting (new or increased)
- decreased appetite, comfort eating, or other changes in eating habits
- faking illness or injury to avoid activities (school, sports, social, and more)
- physical discomfort or pain with no apparent cause
Possible emotional and behavioral signs of stress include:
- unusual levels of anxiety, worry, or fear
- mood swings
- restlessness or inability to relax
- new or increasingly intense fears
- unusually teary, angry, stubborn, aggressive, or otherwise emotional
- difficulty concentrating or getting motivated
- regression to comfort behaviors from earlier in their childhood
- social isolation or unwillingness to participate in activities they once enjoyed
Possible signs of stress in babies and toddlers include:
- decreased appetite
- more clingy than usual, gets upset if you leave the room
- waking up more often or sleeping less
- disruptions to digestion (more or less often, unusual consistency or color)
- crying more easily, more than usual, or for no apparent reason
- hiccupping, sneezing, frowning, or yawning more than usual
- looking away, squirming, or other avoidant behaviors
So how do you actually help your kid when they’re stressed? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are many ways for you to help your kid cope with and manage their stress, including,
1. Make sure your child feels safe
No matter the source of the stress, kids of all ages often seek comfort in their parents. Making sure your kid feels safe and loved can help alleviate their stress.
2. Talk with your child
Try to communicate in an open and honest way, ask your child how they’re feeling and listen intently to their answer.
- try and stay calm
- avoid judgment
- express your support
Teens and older children may minimize their own feelings or express negativity. Younger children may use words instead of “stressed” like:
3. Help them develop healthy coping skills
A 2013 study found that children with higher anxiety levels are more likely to engage in negative coping behaviors.
Kids often don’t have the tools and experience to manage their stress in a healthy way. You can try teaching:
- mindfulness techniques
- breathing exercises
- simple mantras
You can also promote:
4. Spend quality time with them
You can help reassure your child that you’ll be there to support them. You can offer them:
- other forms of affection
- activities together
- low-stimuli family routines together
- rest and relaxation time together
5. Manage your own stress
Not only is it difficult to care for others if you’re not caring for yourself, but kids will frequently take their cues from adults, and stressed parents can cause kids worry of their own. Try to make sure you take care of yourself too.
6. Keep your child informed of upcoming changes
Life disruptions can be big stressors for kids. You can try to tell your child in advance about any big changes, like:
- changing jobs
- a shift in schedule
- new sport or activity
- changing schools
7. Build your child’s self-worth
You can help your child develop a strong self-concept with:
- positive talk
8. Listen to them and include them in decision making
You don’t need to ask your toddler which car to buy, but try to take your child’s feelings and opinions into consideration, especially when you’re making choices that affect them.
Here’s how to practice active listening.
9. Get help from a mental health professional
As parents, we do all we can to help our kids, but some challenges are above our pay grade. If your child’s stress levels don’t decrease or disappear or — even worsen, over time, you may want to consider contacting a mental health professional.
Here’s guidance on choosing the right therapist for your child.
Just as children show their stress differently than adults do, kids’ stress isn’t usually caused by the same things causing adults’. Though youth are unlikely to identify work or raising a family as major stressors, there are plenty of potential sources of stress for kids, including:
- conflicts with friends, bullies, or other peers
- changing or starting a new school
- challenges in school (grades, tests, homework, and more)
- balancing responsibilities like school, extracurriculars, and friends
- conflict at home, with parents, between parents, or between parents and a sibling
- parental separation, divorce, or death
- financial difficulties at home
- unsafe or uncertain living situation
Stressors for toddlers and young children include:
- new experiences, people, or places
- being away from home
- performing, presenting, or playing in front of others
- social stressors (getting picked last, spats with friends, playground politics)
- perceived dangers (real or imagined) like kidnapping, burglary, fire, natural disaster, and more
- being asked to do too much
Stressors for teens and preteens include:
- puberty and all the physical and emotional changes it brings with it
- low self-esteem
- negative self-talk
- fear of the future (e.g., middle school, high school, college, getting a job)
- romantic relationships and dating
- increased school, social, or peer pressure
While these are some of the most common stressors for kids, it’s possible for other things to cause kids stress. If you’re unsure, the best course of action is usually to talk with your child.
Kids don’t always stress over the same things as adults do, or stress out in the same way.
Children deal with stressors of their own, and they may not have the coping skills adults do. In addition to talking with your child if you suspect they’re stressed, there are many physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of stress you can look for.
Many of the same coping skills can be effectively used by both adults and children. Helping children develop healthy coping techniques is one way to help them deal with stress. Providing therapy for kids so they can process how they feel is another way.
Even if you can’t help directly, providing your children with a loving, safe, and supportive home makes stress easier to manage.