Stress is not a phenomenon unique to adults. Sure, kids don’t have difficult co-workers, stressful morning commutes or financial worries. But there are plenty of stressors that affect children of all ages. As children grow up, they learn new coping mechanisms and discover new ways to respond to stress. In this article, we will look at stress in children: what causes it, how children typically respond, and what we can do to support children as they learn to navigate stress.

What causes stress in children?

What do kids have to be stressed about? They don’t pay bills or have any real responsibility! The truth is, plenty. Even very young children experience stress.

Children are often very in tune with their environment. Even if they aren’t talking about what’s going on around them, they are experiencing it emotionally. Anything that is bubbling up in a child’s environment can cause stress for that child. Sometimes what causes stress is not necessarily something negative – just something different. But children pick up emotionally on what is happening around them and even positive experiences and changes can cause a stress response.

Here are a few examples of things that may cause stress for a child: 

  • Moving to a new home
  • Welcoming a new member into the family – sibling, elderly adult, etc.
  • Starting at a new school, moving to a new grade or getting a new teacher mid-year
  • Dealing with a peer conflict
  • Something happening in the news
  • Changes in the family routine, such as a parent having a new schedule
  • Changes in the family structure, such as divorce, remarriage, or introduction of step siblings
  • Loss or illness of a loved one
  • Increased pressure from school or extracurricular activities
  • Uncertainty, not knowing what to expect about something coming up
  • Financial or other family hardship
  • Discrimination

This is a non-exhaustive list, because the reality is: anything can be a stressor. Stress responses happen in the body, not because the logical brain has weighed the pros and cons of a situation and determined it to be a threat, but because the brain works instinctively and involuntarily to respond to stressors in order to protect us from harm. However, understanding the various types of experiences and incidents that can cause stress in children can help adults get to the root of a child’s behavior. When in doubt – explore their environment and look for any signs that something is different or difficult. 

Stress in young children

In young children – babies, toddlers and early elementary age children – stress often shows up in two different ways.

The first is called “externalizing”. This is when a child’s behavior turns outward. Externalizing behaviors as a result of stress in young children could include:

  • More active, more “all over the place”, seemingly more energy
  • On high alert, running around, less calm
  • Trouble sleeping, unable to fall asleep easily or waking during the night, waking up tired in the morning
  • Changes in appetite – hungry more often or not as hungry as usual
  • More agitated, snapping at people or fussier more often than usual

The other way that young children may respond is called “internalizing”. This is when a child’s behavior turns inward. This might look like:

  • Tired or sleepy very often
  • Physical complaints, headaches, stomach aches
  • Wanting to spend more time alone, not connecting with others
  • Not as focused, unable to do homework or other tasks that require concentration
  • Not interested in playing with friends
  • Picking behaviors, biting nails, picking at skin or pulling hair

Some children may only externalize or internalize, but some waver back and forth between the two.

It is important to note that adults often have stress management skills, and so we can often experience a stressor longer before we begin to notice changes or exhibit behavior. Children, especially young children, don’t have these skills yet, so behavior typically bubbles up quickly. In fact, children can often be the first clue that something needs attention! They can serve as an alarm that there is a stressor in the environment. 

Stress in older children

As children age to middle and high school, they begin to navigate stress a little differently. Most children this age are more naturally drawn to their peers than their adult family members. This is normal! It means that children may not be as likely to tell an adult what they are experiencing and how they’re managing it. But here are a few clues that an older child is experiencing stress:

  • Changes in a child’s sleep schedule
  • Physiological changes such as digestion issues or headaches
  • Changes in diet and/or exercise
  • Isolation or withdrawal from family or friends
  • Increased risk-taking behaviors

Older children may also be experiencing stress for something they are embarrassed about or don’t want to share. For example, they may have done poorly on a test because they didn’t study, or they may be worried about a friend. Older children won’t always talk, but stress usually shows up in the body if we are paying attention.

Anxiety vs. Stress

Stress is made up of two components: a stressor and a stress response. The stress cycle is designed to work like this: stressor occurs – body reacts – stressor goes away – body returns to state of calm.

For example: big test – palms are sweaty, muscles are tense – test is over – body is fine.

But what happens when it doesn’t quite work that way?

Sometimes a child is experiencing stress, but sometimes it is bigger than that. Anxiety is a clinical term that describes worry or anticipation that is difficult to control and lasts for an extended period of time. One does not need a clinical diagnosis to have the symptoms of anxiety, but when anxiety begins to affect a person’s life and create challenges that prevent them from doing what they want or need to do, a diagnosis with support from a professional may be helpful.

Here are a few key ways to determine if a child’s stress could be anxiety.

The stressor doesn’t go away. If a child faces chronic stress, he or she may be in a heightened state of alert, and the body may not get the message to return to a state of calm.

We can’t identify the stressor. If a child has stress response symptoms, but doesn’t know what is causing them, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a stressor. It’s possible the child (and the adults in the child’s life) can’t see something is causing stress. But it also could mean that there’s not one single stressor, and that in fact, the child is experiencing a form of anxiety.

The response to the stressor far exceeds what we would expect. If symptoms are interfering with a child’s life, getting in the way of what a child needs to or wants to do, the stress may be anxiety.

Anxiety causes most people to avoid the thing(s) that make them anxious. For example, for some, social interactions may be stressful. As a consequence, a child may choose to retreat or may find making friends very hard. But with anxiety, the fear or discomfort can grow and begin to impact many interactions, leading the person to feel anxious. What then? The reaction is often to try to avoid, avoid, avoid – avoid all stressors or situations which might be stressful. This can lead to challenges meeting responsibilities and interacting with peers or others outside the home. Of course, avoiding everything is impossible. So when a person is pushed to do something that causes anxiety, it can sometimes come out as aggression, distraction, or physical complaints. 

How to Help Children with Stress

The best way we can help children manage their stress is by giving them the tools they need to navigate it. This will set them up for a lifetime of success. After all, the stressors will keep coming throughout their lives! How successful they are at managing it will depend on their arsenal of tools and their past experiences.

Here are five strategies to help children best navigate stress.

1. Have the conversation

2. Use mindfulness and sensory practices

3. Take care of the body

4. Let them struggle and even fail

5. Put systems in place, when you can

Have the conversation.

Giving children a language for what they are experiencing helps them understand it better. How we do this depends on the child’s age and understanding.

With young children, we might say something like:

Sometimes our bodies will feel bad when we are worried or when something is happening to us or around us. Like how right before school, sometimes your tummy hurts. This is called stress. Sometimes when we’re stressed, we might feel scared, worried or nervous. When I feel stressed, I feel it in my fingers and hands, and I notice my hands start to turn into fists. Do you feel stress in your body?

This helps children connect their emotions to their body and understand that stress is something that comes and goes.

Older children are less likely to engage in conversation – this is developmentally appropriate behavior and nothing to be concerned about. However, just because they’re not talking, doesn’t mean they don’t need connection and support from adults. 

Here are a few components to consider when discussing stress with an older child:

Check in (and don’t take their answer at face value)

Parents know when there is a shift in their child. If behavior has changed or other alarm bells are ringing, ask the child how they’re doing. Plan that the child may say “I’m fine” … even if they’re not. We don’t want to ignore the instinct in our gut that says that something is wrong. We also don’t want to hover over children – but something as simple as, “I can see you don’t want to talk about it now. That’s okay. I’ll come back later. I’m a safe person to talk to. I may have things that can help or know people I can connect you with to help.”

Talk about what you’re noticing in a way that invites conversation

Teens are especially sensitive to criticism and judgement, so conversations with children at this age should be judgment-free to be effective. This can sound like, “I’ve noticed you have been more tired lately. I wonder if you’re experiencing anything that is causing you to have less energy. I have been there. I know what this feels like. You can come to me about this any time.”

Mange your own emotions

It is important that adults are in control of their own anxiety and emotions surrounding whatever events the child is experiencing. We want to send the message that they can come to us and we can handle it. Managing our own anxiety and stress with our own peer group or a professional allows us to hold space for conversations with children.

Children who feel securely attached to parents and caregivers are at less risk for serious consequences than kids who don’t feel they have adults they can go to. 

Risk of drug and alcohol use, suicide and dangerous risk-taking decrease when children have a safe and trusted adult to talk to about their struggles. It may take awhile, and children may not always open up – but having the conversation is the first step to helping children manage their stress. 

As stress is a brain-body experience, so are the stress management strategies that can help. It is important to pay attention to the whole body when dealing with stress.

A few stress management strategies that can help children include:

  • Mindfulness practices
  • Deep breathing
  • Feeling an object with a specific texture or weight (such as a weighted stuffed animal or a well-loved blanket)
  • Stretching, going for a walk or other gross-motor movement
  • Smelling something with a comforting scent, such as a cotton ball sprayed with essential oil

While some of these practices may seem simplistic, they have a neurobiological aspect. Stress is felt in the body, and incorporating the body, including multiple senses, can help bring the body back to a state of calm. 

The best thing we can do to manage our stress is to pay attention to our bodies. Healthy body, healthy mind. After all, they’re connected! Here are a few key areas to pay attention to:

Food. With children (and adults), paying careful attention to what goes in our bodies is essential. With young children, ensuring that they’re consistently eating a well-balanced diet can buffer against some of the impacts of stress. With older children, it can help to bring the child along in the conversation. Ask them to notice what type of food they’re eating. Is their diet all snacks and fast food? Are they hydrated? It can help, if possible, to make sure there is dedicated time for meals, even on the busiest days.

Sleep. One of the first things to go during a period of stress is a good night’s sleep. Maintaining sleep routines with young children is important. Consider adding (or keeping) a bedtime routine that includes a long wind-down period to help the child’s body prepare for rest. Be mindful of the bedroom environment – lights, sounds and temperature, to make sure it is optimal for a full night’s rest. For older children, consider taking phones and other devices out of the bedroom, which often serve as a distraction and stimulate the brain, preventing it from falling into a sleep-ready state. With older kids, you can also ask them to track how they feel after different amounts of sleep. Giving them this information can provide them with autonomy. They’re more inclined to prioritize sleep if they feel it is important than if they’re just being told to sleep!

Sickness. Track on any physical symptoms a child is experiencing, such as headaches, indigestion or rapid heartrate. Help the child identify when they feel symptoms in their body, and, if possible, what they feel right before they experience these symptoms. Helping children connect the sensations in their body with stress helps them learn to navigate it. Rather than popping a headache pill and moving on, a child can identify that they feel a headache coming, and tap into strategies that have worked for them in the past. 

Stress is a part of life. When stressors a child is facing are not dangerous or life-altering, trying out stress management strategies and seeing what works – and what doesn’t work – will help children better navigate them in the future. Of course, we’re not suggesting we leave children alone with their stress, especially when the stress is about something significant, like moving to a new house, managing a bully at school, or applying for college. And we’re not proposing that we just let kids jump into the deep end here —we can start with small struggles and work our way up. But when it’s something small, like a middle school math test, sitting back and allowing the child to identify and work through their stress can be a great learning opportunity. If the child chooses not to study and fails the test, perhaps he’ll try a different strategy next time. But if we protect children from experiencing small amounts of stress they do not get the opportunity to build coping skills. 

We don’t always know when a stressor is coming. No one can predict the next natural disaster or family crisis. But when we do know that something is coming, say, a divorce, switching schools or a change in the family routine, we can do our best to prepare children. How early we prepare children will depend on the child’s temperament and tendency to worry. A child who is more anxious may not need to know that a stressor is coming for weeks leading up to it, while another child will do better with a longer runway. During a time of stress, leaning on routines and consistency will ease the transition. As much structure as possible is best!

Ultimately, the goal is not to eliminate all stressors for children, but rather to build a child’s capacity to have a healthy stress response system. 

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