Children and teens notice and react to stress in their family and also feel their own stress. It is important to recognize stress in children and teens and help them with healthy coping strategies. The strategies they learn often stay with them into adulthood.
In general, anything that may cause children fear and anxiety can cause stress. This can include being away from home, starting a new school or moving to a new location, being separated from parents or caregivers, worrying about school and getting along with others, worrying about their changing bodies, and worrying about the future.
Here are some common signs of stress in different age groups:
Signs of stress in children and teens
Preschool and toddlers
Preteens and teens
- Problems with eating and sleeping, including nightmares
- Fear of being alone
- Regressing to infant behaviors
- Trembling with fright
- Uncontrollable crying
- Being distrustful
- Complaining of headaches or stomachaches
- Feeling unloved
- Having no appetite
- Having trouble sleeping
- Needing to urinate often
- Wetting the bed
- Not caring about school or friendship
- Acting withdrawn
- Worrying about the future
- Distrust of the world
- Low self-esteem
- Stomachaches and headaches
- Panic attacks
Ways parents can help
Reduce the amount of stress in your lives
- Acknowledge your child's feelings. When children seem sad or scared, for example, tell them you notice that they are sad or scared. If appropriate, reassure them that you can understand why they would feel sad or scared.
- Build trust. Let your child know that mistakes are learning experiences.
- Be supportive. Listen to your child's concerns. Allow your child to try to solve his or her own problems, if you can. But offer to help and be available to your child when he or she needs you.
- Show love, warmth, and care. Hug your child often.
- Have clear expectations without being too strict. Let your child know that cooperation is more important than competition.
- Don't over-schedule your child with too many activities.
Build positive coping skills
- Provide a good example. Keep calm, and express your anger in appropriate ways. Think through plans to reduce stress, and share them with your family.
- Teach about consequences. Children need to learn about the consequences—good and bad—of their actions. For example, if they do all of their chores on time, they will get their allowance. If they break another child's toy, they must find a way to replace it.
- Encourage healthy thinking. Help your child understand what is fantasy and what is reality. For example, help your child see that his or her behavior didn't cause a divorce.
- Provide your child with some control. Allow your child to make choices within your family framework. For example, allow your child to arrange his or her room, choose family activities, and help make family decisions.
- Encourage your child to eat healthy foods. Emphasize the importance of healthy habits.
Relieve stress in healthy ways
- Exercise. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to manage stress. For children, this means activities like walking, bike-riding, outdoor play, and solo and group sports.
- Write or draw. Older children often find it helpful to write about the things that bother them. Younger children may be helped by drawing about those things.
- Let feelings out. Invite your child to talk, laugh, cry, and express anger when he or she needs to.
- Do something fun. A hobby can help your child relax. Volunteer work or work that helps others can be a great stress reliever for older children.
- Learn ways to relax. This can include breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, meditating, praying, or yoga.
- Laugh. Laughter really can be the best medicine. You can be a good role model in this area by looking for the humor in life. Your child can learn this valuable skill by watching you.
Current as of: August 3, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
David A. Brent MD - Child and Adolescent Psychiatry