Stress in Children
What Parents and Caregivers Need to Know
Recess, summer vacation, no bills to worry about – as adults, it can be easy for us to idealize childhood as a happy, carefree time. But even very young children experience stress just like us. Stressors can include normal childhood experiences like pressure over grades or extracurricular activities and arguments among friends and siblings, or by more serious traumatic experiences like bullying or difficult home lives. Children also pick up on stress caused by world events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s important for parents and caregivers to understand what stress in children looks like and when and how to step in to help them manage it.
When Can Stress Be Helpful?
Just like for us adults, stress in children isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. In fact, it can be a source of healthy motivation. Pressure to do well on a test or to win a sporting event can motivate children to avoid distraction. This can help them learn important life skills such as time management, prioritization, and focus.
Learning to handle stress is also an important skill in its own right. Stress is an unavoidable part of life. While it may be tempting to step in and protect children from unpleasant feelings, parents and caregivers should allow them to experience healthy stress levels so they learn to manage pressure, deal with disappointment and failure, and develop mental and emotional resilience.
Problems arise when children become overwhelmed by stress or when the stress becomes chronic. That’s when it’s time for parents and caregivers to step in.
How Stress Manifests in Children
Children, particularly young children, may not know how to communicate their stress in words. Instead they may display behavioral changes, such as mood swings, disrupted sleep patterns or nightmares, or acting out in school or at home. In younger children, stress can manifest through increased bedwetting, thumb sucking, obsessive hair twirling, or abnormal clinginess. Older children may begin to lie, bully friends or siblings, have trouble concentrating, or become withdrawn.
Stress in children can also manifest through physical symptoms. These most commonly include stomachaches and headaches. Children experiencing chronic or high levels of stress often ask to stay home from school or make frequent visits to the school nurse’s office.
How to Help Children Manage Stress
So what can parents do to help children learn to handle their stress in healthy ways?
First, help them prioritize their physical health. Experts recommend that children under 12 get 9 to 12 hours of sleep per night and that teenagers get 8 to 10 hours. You can help your children develop healthy sleep patterns by limiting screen time at night and keeping devices and televisions out of their bedrooms. Exercise and diet also play an important role in managing stress. Try to model healthy behavior by eating a nutritious diet and encouraging your family to be physically active for at least 60 minutes a day.
Second, encourage your children to communicate about their stress. Talking with an adult they trust can help children and teens gain perspective, find solutions to their problems, and ease mental and emotional strain. Open communication also gives you the opportunity to reassure them that stress is normal and that they are capable of managing it. If your child is reluctant to discuss their stressors, encourage them to write in a journal or draw pictures about what is bothering them. You can also encourage children to talk or write about the positive things in their life (for example, by keeping a gratitude journal) to help shift their perspective.
Third, make sure your child has free time. These days, kids’ calendars are almost as packed as their parents’. But just like us, children need down time to process and relax. Make sure your children’s days are not overscheduled. This can also help teach them important lessons such as setting boundaries and saying “no” to people or prioritizing important activities.
Fourth, spend quality time together. Spending time with the ones we love naturally helps us relax. Family time is an important way to build healthy bonds and reduce children’s stress. In addition, making time for your children every day helps them feel safe and supported. This in turn can make them feel more willing to open up about things that are bothering them
When to Seek Professional Help
Just like adults, sometimes children need the help of an objective third party to help them manage life’s stress. If your child is unwilling to talk to you at all about things that are bothering them, if their behavioral changes persist or are causing significant problems at home or school, or if they are experiencing serious anxiety or depression due to stress, you should seek professional help.