Signs and Symptoms of Stress in Kids

With social pressures, school challenges, and scary current events, children can feel anxious and frazzled too.  Read on to learn how stress manifests in children, teens, and tweens.

An image of a teenager concerned at her desk.
Photo: Getty Images.

It should come as no surprise that children get stressed. From the pressures of school and social life to external factors, like growing up in the middle of a war or even a global pandemic, our kids face many challenges—and will continue to face them, time and time again. But how can you tell if the youngest members of your family are frazzled? What are the signs of stress in teens, tweens, and young adults?

Here's helpful information about stress in children, from how to help them to what to expect.

Signs of Stress in Toddlers and Young Children

Most children experience stress, at least from time to time. But the manifestation of stress will differ. "Every child is unique and will display her own personal signs of stress," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution. "Parents need to be on the lookout for unusual or suspect behaviors and actions."

Rene Hackney, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and founder of Parenting Playgroups and Parenting by Dr. Rene, agrees. "Changes in normal behavior can be significant indicators of stress in young children" Pantley advises.

The following signs may suggest that your toddler or young child is feeling stressed:

  • Change in regular sleep and eating habits
  • Change in emotions (such as showing signs of being sad, clingy, withdrawn, or angry)
  • Increase in crying or tantrums
  • Nightmares and fears at bedtime
  • Physical ailments, such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Anxious tics, coughs, or body movements
  • Frequent reliance on habits such as hair chewing or thumb-sucking
  • Change in bowel movements
  • Avoiding certain situations and people
  • Verbal expression of increased fear or anxiety
  • Asking more questions (often repeatedly) and needing reassurance

Although "these symptoms don't always indicate stress, they could be related to misbehavior, habits or growth. If a child's behavior worsens, it could be a sign of something more," Pantley says. If there's any concern that a child's behavior is becoming more extreme, seek advice from a professional.

Signs of Stress in Teens, Tweens, and Young Adults

As with young children, the signs of stress in teens, tweens, and young adults vary—from person to person and age to age. If your child is stressed, they may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Nausea
  • Sleep issues, including insomnia, hypersomnia, nightmares, and/or difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability or anger
  • Difficulty handling emotions in general
  • Educational issues
  • Changes to their social behavior; increased difficulty in getting along with others
  • Sadness or withdrawal
  • Change in eating habits
  • Tics or obsessions/compulsions

What Causes Stress in Children?

Numerous factors can cause stress in children, ranging from academic worries to a full social calendar. Below are some of the most common causes of stress in children, from 18 months to 18 years old.

Separation Anxiety

Parents, take heed: Separation anxiety can be a major cause of stress for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. "Though separation anxiety is often a healthy response to being separated, it can also be a reaction to an unrelated stressor, such as a new daycare," Dr. Hackney explains. "When there's a life stressor, kids' tolerance for other frustrations tends to go down." This can lead to increased clinginess, difficulties with goodbyes, or nervousness about being away from primary caregivers.

Familial Changes

Major family changes such as death, divorce, a parent's job loss, or a new home can stress children of all ages. "The combination of heightened emotions, disrupted schedules, and unfamiliar routines can make even the most relaxed child feel some tension," Pantley says. Even positive changes, like the birth of a sibling, can be stressful. "Change can equal stress," Dr. Hackney explains. If there is a significant impact on the way life has normally been, stress can result.

School

According to Medline Plus, a website from the National Library of Medicine and National Institute of Health, school can be a major stressor for children, teens, tweens, and young adults. "Worrying about schoolwork or grades, juggling responsibilities... [and navigating] problems with friends, bullying, or peer group pressures" can all cause a child to feel stressed out.

Overwhelming Schedules

Children live in the present and enjoy taking the time to experience the world around them, so overscheduling them for different activities or rushing from place to place can create stress. If a parent's agenda or busy to-do list disregards a child's rhythm, they can feel stressed.

Unexpected World Events

Big scary events (natural disasters, school shootings, and terrorist attacks) or exposure to violence on the evening news can affect children of every age. Even accidental exposure to a scary movie or commercials on television can influence your child. "It's common for children to pick up on the stress around them," Pantley explains. Pay attention to any frightening or violent images surrounding a child's environment on a daily basis, and monitor older children's internet activity.

Puberty

Going through bodily changes and/or hitting puberty can also be stressful. This time is full of uncomfortable unknowns and—in some cases—awkwardness, and both can lead to stress.

Daily Stressors

Little stressors in life can add up and cause a child to be stressed. Additionally, some children have daily stressors in their lives, such as poverty, neighborhood violence, family conflict, a parent who is absent or frequently disappoints, or family members engaging in behaviors that are harmful or detrimental (drug or alcohol abuse, illegal activity, and so on). Any of these factors can lead to stress and anxiety in kids,

How Can You Help Your Child Destress?

Keep Calm and Carry On

"It's important to stay calm and acknowledge your child's feelings," Pantley says. "But don't go overboard." You want to convey that you understand your child's feelings, but that nothing bad is likely to happen when you are apart, and your child can handle whatever comes up. Your child can learn that they don't have to be immobilized by stress or fear.

Dr. Hackney suggests a tactic she describes as "matter-of-fact empathy," where the message is conveyed through words, body language, and tone of voice that you understand how your child feels but you're not changing course. If a child doesn't want to go to daycare, say, 'I know, this is really hard. I know you really don't want to go, you're having fun at home,' but continue your usual routine and then head out the door as planned. This way, "all of your language is basically saying 'I completely understand, but we're still going,'" Dr. Hackney says.

Stick to the Schedule

Maintain daily routines, such as going to school, daycare, or preschool; feeding; and/or preparing for bedtime. Routines are particularly important for toddlers and young children, as schedules help them to feel in control and "go a long way in creating a sense of calm," Dr. Hackney says. What's more, keeping a consistent bedtime is particularly important because children of all ages can become stressed when they are overtired. "To help your child cope with the stressors of life, make certain that she is getting a good night's sleep, adequate naptime, healthy meals, and plenty of daily activity," Pantley says.

Allot Time for Breaks

Build in adequate time for rest breaks, naps, and preparation for activities. Young children "live according to a much slower clock than adults do," Pantley explains. "They don't give a thought to what they might be doing next. They pause as they watch the cat sleep, examine the color patterns in the carpet, and stare out the window. So examine your schedule to make sure you're focusing on priorities and taking time to enjoy your child's company. Make sure that you're not taking away any special moments by rushing to the next item on the schedule.

Plan Ahead and Allow for Processing

"How parents present a stressor, how they frame and discuss it, and how they answer questions gives children boundaries on how to perceive it," Dr. Hackney explains. Determine in advance what you want to say so you have time to get it right. Try to anticipate their questions and answers.

"The idea is to start honest and small. If you need to tell your child about someone passing away, try saying, 'We wanted to let you know that Grandma was very sick and she died," says Dr. Hackney explains. If they have questions, you can then decide how to describe it, depending on their age, maturity, and your comfort level. Then give them time to process said information.

Monitor TV and Internet Exposure

Be mindful about what programs your child is absorbing on TV. "When a parent is watching the news and a child is in the room, they're exposed to all kinds of violence," Hackney says. Reserve certain TV shows for after the kids are in bed or limit how long you watch the evening news. Exposure can often be unintentional, so try scheduling different TV times for different-aged kids or make sure all the programming is geared toward a younger child if they're in a room with others. Visit websites like kids-in-mind.com or commonsensemedia.org to see the reviews and ratings of various programs so you can make informed decisions about TV viewing.

Also monitor internet usage, as social media and cyberbullying can be huge stressors for adolescents and teenagers. Learn more about healthy social media habits here.

Give Extra Love, Hugs, and Kisses

When adjusting to change, some extra one-on-one attention and a few more daily cuddles and kisses can be helpful, for young children and older ones. Extra love and support can help your child feel more comfortable and to get settled into new patterns, Pantley says. Whether the stressor is a negative or positive one, the added affection can help boost the child's confidence and self-regulation skills, enabling them to be more flexible and resilient to change.

Actively Work to Decrease Stressors

Make sure that your child has enough fun in their life, and work to decrease some of the things that can cause the stress. For example, parents who frequently argue can seek get marital therapy to ease tension in the home.

Teach Stress Management Skills

Finally, you should teach your child stress management skills, such as deep breathing, visualizing calming scenes, and telling themselves coping statements such as "This is tough but I am tougher and I can make it." Remember that every child is different, so choose coping techniques that might work with their personality and temperament.

Updated by
Kimberly Zapata
Kimberly Zapata

Kimberly Zapata is the Associate Editor at Parents. Her parenting, health, and wellness work has been published on numerous websites, including Health, Healthline, Parade, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Oprah, The Mighty, Mic, and Vice. She is also the founder and creator of Greater Than: Illness, an organization dedicated to empowering teens and young adults struggling with mental illness. And when she is not writing—or working—she is caring for her two children, aged 8 and 3.

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