Is Your Child Dealing With Stress?

stressed child

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As a parent, there is almost nothing more heartbreaking or challenging than when your child is stressed. Sometimes it’s obvious when your child is experiencing stress—they act out, cry more than usual, or your parental instincts tell you that something is “off” with them.

But other times, it’s not clear that your child is experiencing stress, and you may feel confused. After all, most children aren’t able to sit their parents down and tell them that they are stressed. Not only that, but stress in children doesn’t always manifest in the same ways as stress in adults.

If you have asked yourself “Is my child dealing with stress?”, you are not alone. Let’s take a look at what stress looks like in children: signs and symptoms, what causes stress, and how to cope.

Symptoms of Stress in Children

All of us experience stress from time to time, but as adults, we can usually identify that we are stressed. We may notice tension in our bodies, headaches, racing heartbeats, and general feelings of dread and uneasiness.

But kids often don’t have the words to articulate what they are feeling, and they may not be able to recognize that what they are feeling is stress.

But, just like adults, children experience stress in reaction to difficult situations that happen in their lives. As their parents, it’s important that we learn to recognize these signs and symptoms so that we can help them cope.

Physical Symptoms

  • A child who is experiencing stress may have trouble sleeping; despite being tired, they may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • You may notice changes to your child’s eating habits: they may be eating noticeably less, or they may be eating much more
  • Children experiencing stress are more prone to nightmares and episodes of bedwetting
  • They may complain of headaches and tummy aches; school-age children may be frequent visitors to the nurse’s office during times of stress

Behavioral Symptoms

  • A stressed child may be more prone to meltdowns, and may be less apt to abide by your rules at home
  • Your child may not want to participate in activities they usually enjoy, and might prefer to stay home
  • Older children may not be able to complete homework when they are stressed; they may not be willing to do their household chores
  • Your child may regress to less mature behaviors that they seemed to have outgrown
  • New, anxious habits such as thumb sucking, nose picking, and nail biting might be present in younger kids
  • Older kids may exhibit aggressive and even bullying behavior
  • Older kids may have noticeable drops in their grades or academic performance

Emotional Symptoms

  • Your child may be unusually moody—happy one second, and grumpy the next
  • Older children may be angry, irritable, and argumentative
  • Stressed children may be more clingy to their parents and may feel unable to try new things or meet new people
  • Your child may be unable to control their feelings, and just seem generally more emotional
  • Your child may experience heightened amounts of worry and anxiety

What Causes Stress in Kids?

If your child is exhibiting signs of stress, you will want to do everything in your power to help them feel better. One of the first and most important things you can do is to try to understand why your child may be feeling stressed.

Identifying the cause of your child’s stress is the first step in helping them cope and work through their stress.

Some possible causes of stress in children include:

  • An overscheduled life—too many activities, and not enough down time
  • Academic or social pressure from school
  • Having difficulty separating from parents (separation anxiety)
  • Financial stress in the family or a parent who is experiencing work stress
  • Concern over the health or well-being of a loved one
  • Divorce or parental separation
  • Death of a loved one
  • Moving and/or starting a new school
  • Experiencing homelessness or housing instability
  • Living in an unsafe home or neighborhood
  • Experiencing puberty and other body changes
  • Problems in a child’s friend circles, including arguments and peer pressure
  • Experiencing bullying
  • Worry and fear about frightening world events, including wars and mass shootings

Many of the causes of stress are from life experiences that a child endures directly. But children are sponges and can pick up on stress from others around them, which can in turn cause them to experience stress. So being aware of what stress you may be under and noticing how this affects your child, is an important factor.

How to Cope

While stress in life is something that all of us experience from time to time, including children, it’s not something to take for granted. In certain ways, stress can help children grow and build up some resiliency. On the other hand, chronic or prolonged stress can create lifelong issues for children.

For example, a study published in the American Sociological Association found that children whose parents dealt with mental health issues were more likely to experience distress as adults. Distress levels in adulthood were dependent on how long children were exposed to the stressor of having parents with poor mental health, and how severe their parents’ mental health issues were.

Other studies have found that children who experience “toxic stress”—defined as stress that is prolonged, severe, and isn’t mitigated by a caring parent or other authority figure—can have lasting effects on the child’s physical and mental health through adulthood.

Thankfully, as a parent, you have an important role to play in how your child manages stress. You can’t always stop the stress from occurring in the first place, but you can help your child move through it so that they can learn from the experience and become stronger in the end.

Here are some ideas for helping your child cope with stress:

  • Give them a safe, non-judgmental space to share their feelings
  • Be a good listener; allow your child to share their feelings without trying to silence them, correct them, or change how they feel
  • Younger children may need help naming their feelings, and help understanding the ways that stress can manifest in their bodies
  • Provide predictable routines for your child around how your day is structured, mealtimes, and bedtimes; routines can be soothing for children during times of stress
  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep, time outside exercising, and healthy, regular meals
  • Take some time each day to give your child your undivided attention, whether that means playing with them, talking to them, or listening to their feelings
  • Prepare your child in advance for any stressful situations, outlining what to expect and answering any questions they may have
  • Encourage older children to write out their feelings or do some journaling
  • Make meditation and mindfulness part of your routine with your child; there are several meditation apps on the market geared toward children that can be helpful

When to Seek Professional Help

Sometimes you can’t do it alone, and your child’s stress levels have reached a point where they need professional help to get them through. Signs that your child might benefit from therapy, counseling, or a meeting with their pediatrician include:

  • Your child has started to withdraw from you or their friends
  • Your child is experiencing not just stress, but signs of anxiety or depression
  • Your child can’t control their anger or aggression
  • Your child is having trouble functioning in school or in social situations

Parents may also seek professional help for themselves if they are struggling with helping their child. Not being able to help your child can cause increased stress and concern. So you may benefit from receiving additional support for yourself as you help your child navigate this.

A Word From Verywell

Even though certain signs of stress in children are pretty obvious, a lot of the time, it can be hard to know if your child is dealing with stress. If you have educated yourself about the signs of stress in your child and you are still unsure if your child is experiencing stress, you should reach out to your pediatrician for further questions.

Some children aren’t simply dealing with stress, but may be challenged with a learning disability, ADHD, or another mental health condition that is causing their symptoms. It’s also important to keep in mind that while many types of stressful situations can be managed with some basic coping mechanisms, severe stressors—such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or bullying at school—may require additional support from a counselor or therapist.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to do this alone: help is out there for you and your child.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. How to help children and teens manage their stress.

  2. National Library of Medicine. Stress in childhood.

  3. American Psychological Association. How to help children and teens manage their stress.

  4. Nemours Children’s Health. Childhood Stress.

  5. Kamis C. The Long-Term Impact of Parental Mental Health on Children’s Distress Trajectories in Adulthood. Society and Mental Health. 2021;11(1). doi:10.1177/2156869320912520

  6. Franke H. Toxic Stress: Effects, Prevention and Treatment. Children (Basel). 2014;1(3):390-402. doi:10.3390/children1030390

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.