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5/1/24 blog post

understanding signs of childhood stress to help your child cope


In this article:

Myth: kids shouldn’t be stressed! 

Is the first thing you think when you read this title; “What could our kids possibly be stressed about?” or “I sacrifice so much to give them what they want or need!” 

This thought is more common than you think! 

At times, adults may downplay the stress kids might be feeling because of their own stress seems to be so large and overwhelming. But kids feel stress too! 

Our children may be facing some serious stressors in their day-to-day life including:  

  • Tests (weekly spelling tests, unit tests, pop quizzes)  
  • Many projects or assignments due at once   
  • The pressure of going to school events: school dances, sporting events, spirit days  
  • Navigating peer issues including social media 
  • Worrying about family  
  • Performing in academics and extra curriculars 

Stress is both a negative and positive part of life. Kids' ability to handle stress in a positive way relies heavily on the influence of the “significant adults” in their lives. A significant adult doesn’t have to just be a parent or caregiver, it could also be a relative, a coach, a neighbor or a friend’s parent! 

In order to help our kids positively handle stress, it is important for us to have a healthy perspective on childhood stress. We can change the way we think about stress. Here are some positive perspectives about childhood stress: 

  1. Although we cannot always eliminate stress from our kid’s life, we can help them work through their stressors.  
  2. We can help our kids balance life stressors without becoming overwhelmed by the stressors ourselves.  
  3. We can help kids learn and use positive strategies for coping when the stressors are small before they grow to be larger issues and take over their thoughts and their lives.

how can we tell if our kids are experiencing stress? 

Kids might not always come out and tell us when they’re stressed. Sometimes they might not even recognize that their behaviors and symptoms are because of stress.  

As a caring adult, here are some few basic signs that your kid could be stressed and needs extra support: 

  • Irritability and lack of patience: When kids are stressed, they may react quicker and more intensely than they would normally.  
  • Emotional Outbursts: Stressed out kids may react in a more extreme way than the situation warrants. This can include crying, yelling, and defiance.  
  • Saying they are worried: You might notice a kid who is stressed routinely talking about the things they are worried about.  
  • Change of eating and/or sleeping patterns: Worries often surface at bedtime when our kids have time to think through their day. Worrying can keep them up at night. Stress can also lead to a change in appetite, either eating more or eating less.  
  • Withdrawing from others: Kids who are stressed might want to spend more time alone and avoid the things that are making them feel stressed i.e. sports, school, or social events. 
  • Trouble concentrating: Kids who are experiencing stress might have trouble concentrating because their brain is so focused on worrying. This can lead to poorer performance in school.  
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches: When kids are stressed, their body releases hormones that can lead to stomachaches and headaches.  

start the conversation about stress 

If you are noticing any of these signs, it may be time to have a conversation with your kid.  

If you don’t know where to start, try this Conversation Starter template:  

“(Child’s name) I have noticed that you have (fill in one of the behaviors above) lately. What has been on your mind? I am here to listen.  

For example:  

“Alex, I have noticed that you have been (complaining of stomachaches, crying more than usual, not eating as much) lately. What has been on your mind? I am here to listen. 

your actions speak louder than your words. 

 As caring adults to kids, we are role models and need to remember that kids will pick up on ways that we are handling our own stress. This means being mindful of our own negative coping strategies around stress.  

Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP talks about stress in his book, Raising Kids to Thrive. He says, “Negative strategies are quick fixes that do relieve stress, but they have consequences that are harmful to individual children, families, and society. Our job is to convince young people that although stress is part of life, healthy ways of coping with it can ultimately be protective, productive, and satisfying.”   

 Look at the chart for examples of positive and not-so-positive ways to handle stress. 

positive not so positive
Making a plan and prioritizing tasks 

Avoiding tasks : 

  • scrolling on your phone 
  • giving up trying on school tasks/household chores 
  • giving up activities or other sports because they are too difficult 
Talking to a trusted person  Keeping emotions and thoughts bottled up inside 
Doing relaxation activities   Yelling at other people 
Engaging in physical activity and hobbies 

Engaging in numbing activities:  

  • Alcohol/drug use 
  • TV binging 
  • "Doomscrolling" on social media  
Prioritizing sleep  Staying up late watching TV or playing games 

In conclusion...  

Learning to manage your own stress in a healthy way can also positively impact your connection with your kids. We know this can be a challenge with all the stressors you face in your everyday life, but controlling our emotions and responses helps our kids’ emotional well-being.  

When managed positively, stress can give kids the opportunity to feel empowered to overcome challenges and grow by using a new skill. Of course, there are times in life when stressful events happen outside of our control and negatively impact our life. The more opportunities our kids have to practice coping with daily stressors, the more tools they will have in their tool bag to get through tough times and the better their overall emotional wellbeing will be. 

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Emily Weitz, BSW, LSW

Outreach Coordinator
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