Stress and anxiety are increasingly common in children and teens.
Noticing your child’s behavior and encouraging them to express themselves will make it easier for you both to become aware of problems before they get too big.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to identify, understand, and support a stressed child.
You will also find actionable tips for both parents and young people. These may help parents to reassure and give strength, while empowering children to manage their own stress.
Let’s dive straight in.
In this article:
What is childhood stress?
Milton S. Hershey Medical Center defines stress this way:
“Childhood stress can be present in any setting that requires the child to adapt or change. Stress may be caused by positive changes, such as starting a new activity, but it is most commonly linked with negative changes such as illness or death in the family.”2PennState Hershey’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
Every child responds differently to the stress they experience. Some kids are naturally more confident and calm in the face of stressors, while others are more fearful and less sure of their abilities to manage. Each child, though, can learn better ways to face their stress, and every parent can help them along the path.
Acute vs. chronic stress
The nature or ‘flavor’ of stress varies. Consider the intensity and duration of stressful events or circumstances; they can come and go in minutes or persist for months or years.
- Acute stress happens then quickly goes away. Dangerous situations, participating in extreme sports, or family arguments are examples of acute stress.
- Chronic stress lasts longer, sometimes for months or years. Situations such as financial trouble, unemployment, or a long term illness may produce chronic stress.
What is positive, tolerable, and toxic stress?
Taking into account the intensity, duration, support (buffering), and the uniquely personal response of a child, experts have identified three categories of stress: positive, tolerable, or toxic stress.5Toxic Stress – Harvard Center on the Developing Child
Positive stress is a normal and essential party of healthy child development. It nurtures emotional growth, self-confidence, and maturity, and is often a necessary motivator to when tackling the demands of home, school, and family life.
Examples of positive stress
- The first day a child is left with another caregiver
- A novice player stepping up to bat
- Getting an immunization injection
Tolerable stress is usually characterized by more severe and longer-lasting challenges. If these don’t last too long and are accompanied by supportive adult relationships, then a child can adapt and recover. In some cases, they can lead to greater self-awareness and self-esteem as children discover their own abilities.
Examples of tolerable stress
- The death of a loved one
- A frightening physical injury
- A natural disaster
Toxic stress occurs where a child experiences acute, long-lasting, or frequent adversity, such as the presence or threat of harm. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child states that “this kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”6“Toxic Stress 101“, Harvard Center on the Developing Child
Examples of toxic stress
- Physical or emotional abuse
- Chronic neglect
- Caregiver substance abuse or mental illness
- Exposure to violence
- Extreme poverty or family hardship
12 common sources of stress in children and teens
Around the world, in every culture, childhood is a maze of difficult choices. By thinking ahead a bit, we parents can perhaps foresee which pitfalls await our kids.
By no means inclusive, here are the most common stressors for children and teens.
#1 Academic challenges
If your child has a more difficult time with academics, you would be expecting this to be a significant stressor. You’ve dealt with the problem since preschool. You and your child have no expectations of making the honor roll, but the child must try to do her best. Academic issues like this may be tolerable stress.
If, however, your child had an easy time with her subjects, the last thing she and you are expecting is getting a D or F. If it’s in her favorite subject, the stress is more threatening, toxic stress. One would expect that she will have very adverse reactions in the form of anxiety and worry. Her self-esteem would take an enormous direct hit.
#2 Negative self-image
Self-image isn’t only a problem with girls. Boys also intensely desire the perfect body, the excellent grades, the admiration of all. Most children realize that these are unrealistic expectations. They have already learned where they fit in the mythical 1 through 10 scales of attractiveness, athletic skill, and brains. These can be positive stressors. They remind kids to take showers, dress appropriately, and learn not to judge others too harshly.
Negative self-image many times results in a boy or girl continually putting themselves down. Whether in front of the mirror or looking at what’s reflected in others’ eyes, this negativity results in lower self-esteem. This negativity is undoubtedly a major cause of toxic stress.
#3 Physical changes
Every child sooner or later changes into an adult person. When they started middle school, they usually looked like a child. The difference between fifth grade and sixth is usually a great deal of change. Eventually, though, boys turn into men, and girls become women.
A girl’s struggle is unique. Her breasts develop, which may seriously stress a child who has a hard time handling anxiety. Susan may try to hide the fact by wearing loose clothing or even trying to bind her breasts.
In early teen years, girls will begin to menstruate. The menarche is a subject of intense stress.8Rawat, R., Sagar, R., & Khakha, D. C. (2015). Puberty: A stressful phase of transition for girls. IOSR Journal of Nursing and Health Science, 4(5), 07-12.
Girls will become stressed by the thoughts like when will it ever start, why is my cycle beginning so soon, won’t it ever begin? There is just one question hidden inside all that: am I normal?
Boys have their changes to deal with like voice changes, body hair, muscle development, and nocturnal emissions. Again, the insecurities arise from the same questions: Is this too early, is this late, am I doing it right, am I normal?
#4 Unsafe environments
Some teens live in dysfunction and unsafe homes or neighborhoods. Above all, we humans need safety in our physical, sexual, and emotional environment. Anything that takes away from that is certainly toxic stress.
#5 Family instability
All couples sometimes argue. It can be a positive experience for a child if the arguments are fair and conducted calmly. It teaches kids that people can vigorously disagree even if they love each other. You will teach coping skills to your teen about how to handle conflict.
When the fights become physical, frequent, or involve the children, this is toxic stress for everyone. Kids may vow never to get into a romantic relationship or marry. These situations make them do the very human thing of avoiding pain now and in the future.
Then, there is separation or divorce. Many times, it comes as a surprise. Parents, hoping to spare their child pain, keep the impending separation a secret. The child has no clue what is happening right in front of them. They come home to find dad’s stuff is gone, he is gone, and he isn’t coming back. Kids very often blame themselves. The break-up of a family is one of the most painful instances of toxic stress.
After a divorce or separation, the spouse in charge of the kids may date, move in with their new interest, or even remarry. All these situations are quite stressful for children. They again try to take responsibility for the breakup.
#6 Chronic illness in family
Illness is a fact of life. It might be as insignificant as a three-day cold or a diagnosis of a terminal illness. In days past, families would frequently hide diseases and the seriousness if they possibly could. Again, a child unprepared is a child without defenses against life-altering psychic pain.
If your child is prepared to understand that life and health are not guaranteed, they will better meet these challenges. They may be moved to study medicine, collect donations for a cause, or become part of the caregiving team. Illnesses can be either tolerable or toxic stress. The difference depends on the child’s inner resources and what parents teach.
#7 Death of a loved one
Eventually, of course, death happens to all. We can only wish that we have had a productive, loving, and happy journey along the way.
Kids’ first encounter with death and its finality may be with a beloved pet or close relative. Whether it’s a goldfish or a dog that’s been with the child a lifetime, sadness can be intense.
Again, preparation is predictive of successful coping skills. A death can be either tolerable or toxic stress.
#8 Moving away
Moving is a frequent fact of life for many kids. Those whose parents are in the military, foreign service, or jobs that require moving every few years are pretty much used to it. Some kids, though, never get the hang of leaving their house, neighborhood, school, or friends. They may take months to be comfortable in a new home.
#9 Changing schools
Changing schools is either a little thing or a huge thing. Our family lived for a while in a tiny rural town. There were two schools, the elementary and the middle/high school. Those small-town kids went to school with the same kids from the same families. Stress was at a minimal background level.
Think, though, about teens in a large metropolitan area. There may be thousands of kids attending the high school they’re about to begin. Their fellow students are from many parts of the city. They may speak different languages, have different expectations and customs, and expect other kids to comply. Changing schools is a high stressor that will affect every kid. Depending on the preparation, the move will eventually be successful or not.
#10 Too many activities
Many children and teens today are over-scheduled. According to the National PTA and the National Education Association,9https://health.usnews.com/wellness/for-parents/articles/2018-03-20/how-much-homework-is-too-much-for-our-teens#:~:text=In%20that%20poll%20teens%20reported,hours%20of%20homework%20per%20week kids should be doing about 10 minutes of homework for each grade level.
That means, by the time a teen is a senior in high school, their homework burden should be no more than two hours per night. However, the same survey found that teens reported doing an average of at least three hours per night. Some teens reported doing as much as seven hours of homework a day.
Besides school, of course, many other activities take up a child’s time. It might be religious activities, a part-time job, Little League sports, scouting, dance or music lessons, or tutoring.
Add all the time outside activities take up in your child’s week and add that to time in school and homework. If the total comes close to a full-time job for adults, the child is spending too much time on them.
#11 Too many expectations
Some kids have a tough time meeting their parents’ expectations. The phenomenon of Tiger Mom (and Dad) are well-known in all cultures. If a parent has decided that their son will become a major league pitcher, and the child is still a newborn, there’s a sure recipe for stress, very toxic stress.
It’s hard for kids to fight against unrealistic expectations. More often, they internalize them and feel like failures when they are unable to attain them.
#12 Family financial pressure
Very few families in the world do not face severe financial pressure at least a few times. A lost job, a severe illness, needing to care for the extended family can make a family budget from adequate to financial trouble.
Telltale signs (common stress symptoms in kids)
Children can respond differently to stress. As a parent or caregiver, it’s important to watch, notice, and be aware of your child’s behavior, and to listen attentively to what they have to say. This will provide you with the best possible chance of picking up on symptoms of stress.
Here are some of the common symptoms that you can look for if you think stress is a problem in your child’s life. If you see these symptoms occurring regularly, talk to your child or teen about the issues they see in their life. If they don’t open up to you but are willing to speak with another supportive adult like a counselor, teacher, or religious leader, then this could be valuable.
Some common symptoms to watch for:
- Excessive crying or sadness
- Your child seems worried, jittery, or nervous
- Irritability and anger happen more often
- Your child may have difficulty falling and staying asleep
- Fearfulness and feeling out of control
- They may have trouble with concentration and attention
- Avoiding activities they normally enjoy
- Your child may feel ashamed that they can’t meet expectations
- Unhealthy eating habits
- Kids often feel isolated from others when anxious
- Returning to past behaviors, such as bedwetting or clinginess
- Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
- Children may experience unexplained headaches or body pain
Actionable stress-busting tips
Tips for parents (helping your child cope)
If a child is experiencing stress or anxiety, there are some practical things a parent or caregiver can do to help.
#1 Notice your child’s behavior
Watch and listen attentively to your child. Signs of stress are easy to miss, especially if the parent or caregiver is also experiencing stress and anxiety. Do your best to notice your child’s behavior, especially if you are aware of external circumstances that are common stressors.
#2 Identify and reduce sources of stress
Some sources of stress may be outside of your control (such as their first day of school), however, if you can identify others that are within your control (like an overscheduled diary), then you can help to reduce the stressors in your child’s life.
Don’t wait. If you see your child is falling behind in school, take positive action before severe consequences occur. Teachers are usually happy to meet with parents. You may gain some critical insight into your child’s behavior or recent trouble with academics.
#3 Regularly check-in with your child
Check with your child about any current stressful situations. Kristin Scott, Ph.D., a psychologist at Children’s Health and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, recommends checking in with your child regularly.
“It can be very powerful for parents to do a check-in with their child,” says Dr. Scott. “Listening carefully to children about what emotions or stress they are experiencing and finding out if there are any areas where they are overwhelmed is important.”
#4 Reassure them and give them extra love
A warm supportive parent or caregiver can have a huge impact on a child’s ability to navigate and cope with stressful life circumstances.
Make a habit of checking in with your child periodically. Find out how things are going, where they’re happy and not. Express acceptance and reassure them. This extra love and attention may be all that is needed to begin to reverse a stressful situation.
#5 Keep your normal routines going
During times of disruption or disaster, it is easy for regular routines to fly out the window. However, psychologists have shown that children depend on routine and rhythm to feel safe and secure.10Reassuring Routines and Rituals, By Carla Poole, Ellen Booth Church, Susan A. Miller, Ed.D. – Scholastic.com
It may at times be a real challenge, but if it is possible to continue with as much of the usual daily and weekly routine as possible, even amidst a divorce or house move, then this can go a long way in mitigating the stress experienced by children.
#6 Talk, listen and encourage expression
Engage in active listening. This is where you provide a judgment-free space for them to express themselves. It is often best to listen first and let them know you’ve heard and understood before jumping in with advice. When they feel you ‘get’ where they are coming from, then a child or teen will be more responsive to advice about reducing stress and increasing confidence and calm.
A parent’s role is that of a listener, teacher, and life coach. Yes, you want to protect them, but it is far more essential to prepare them for life as a successful adult.
#7 Share your burden. Speak with others.
Having a child who is stressed and anxious can bring up both of these things in the parent too. No one likes to see their child suffer, and sometimes we may struggle to see how best to deal with the situation. At times like these, it can be extremely helpful to share your concerns with and get advice from other parents, teachers, or community leaders. Sometimes working jointly to support your child will be more effective.
Stress-busting tips for kids and teens
It’s always a good idea to teach your child how to how to recognize signs of stress and anxiety in themselves. Here are some ways that you can encourage your child or teen to manage their own stress.
#1 Take care of yourself
Eat well and sleep well. Eating a well-balanced healthful diet, avoiding high-sugar foods will go a long way to reducing anxiety. Good sleep hygiene can make a big difference in a child’s life.11Sleep in Adolescents – Nationwide Children’s
Kids need enough sleep, up to 10 hours a night. Ideally, a restful sleep environment is cool, dark, and free from electronic screens.
#2 Get active
Whether it’s sports, scooting, walking, or yoga, children aged between 5-17 should try to do a total of 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity each day.12Physical Activity and Young People – W.H.O.
W.H.O. While this recommendation is good for everyone, exercise has been shown to effectively diminish stress, anxiety, and depression.13Physical Activity Reduces Stress – Anxiety and Depression Association of America
#3 Talk and stay connected with other
Connecting with others, be it friends, parents, or mentors, can effectively reduce feelings of isolation and anxiety. It can also be helpful to know that you are not alone in what you feel. Try talking face to face (even if it is via Skype or Zoom). This will be more impactful than sending text messages
#4 Take information or media breaks
If there are external influences that are causing stress, whether at a local, national, or global level, reading or watching too much news can reinforce and amplify anxiety. Sometimes taking a break from the news or your regular social media feeds can give you space in which the feelings of stress can begin to lessen.
#5 Schedule time for play and relaxation
For older children with intense academic expectations or upcoming exams, it can be easy to spend all hours working or worrying. Scheduling time in your day and week for some dedicated fun and relaxation will help you to follow through and actually do it. Choose to do something that you enjoy. This is a window where you allow yourself to have fun, undisturbed by anything work-related. Even if it’s 10 minutes, this time can help you to reconnect with yourself and what you like.
A word from We the Parents
Anxiety and stress are all-too-common issues among children today. Younger kids may not be able to fully understand what is going on or express their feelings about it. And while older children may have a better idea of what is causing their anxiety, this doesn’t mean that they will have the know-how to manage their stress levels. Noticing your child’s behavior and encouraging them to express themselves will make it easier for you to become aware of problems before they get too big.
If your child’s stress is intense, persists over time, and interferes with their daily life, then is it a good idea to get some professional help. A visit to your doctor is usually a good place to start. Thereafter, social workers and family psychologists are great resources to discover if you and your children have too much toxic stress in your lives. Discussion with a counselor can help your family become calmer, more confident, and healthier.