It’s our body’s way of dealing with any kind of demand placed on us – big or small, positive or negative, real or perceived. For many of us adults, we have adapted to workplace stress and the demands that come with balancing our family, occupational and social lives.

What most of us don’t consider, though, is that children also have to deal with stress. Including the pressure to do well in school, achieve their goals in sports and other extracurricular activities, maintain social relationships and strive to meet the real and perceived expectations of their parents, teachers, coaches, and friends.

Young people, like adults, experience stress. And as is the case with adults, too much of it, not knowing the warning signs, not having support and guidance through life’s ups and downs, and not feeling the freedom to talk about childhood stress can lead to some serious consequences. Here are some tips to spot signs of stress and ways to support children and teens through the tough times.

Overworked Children

Headaches and stomachaches are the most common complaints of children experiencing stress. Look out for excessive trips to the school nurse or frequent complaints at home that their head hurts or their stomach is upset, especially if these complaints seem to occur more frequently before a test before a social event with their peers (again, more than usual) or before practice. Be especially aware of these symptoms if they occur more on Sundays – right before going back to school the next day.
Headaches and stomachaches are the most common complaints of children experiencing stress.

Be aware of how your child or teen interacts with other people outside your home.

Children may often seem to be their “usual self” at home, yet behave differently in other settings or situations. While it’s normal for their home to feel like a safe place they can be themselves, stress can sometimes affect how kids act on a sports team, in class, or with their peers. Parents may want to give their children the freedom to experience life independently in some age-appropriate ways. Still, it’s also essential for parents to communicate with their child’s teachers, coaches, and other families their child or teen spends time with to know how they’re doing in the world around them.

Listen carefully and learn how to translate.

Children don’t often know how to talk about their stress. They might know that something isn’t right but not possess the awareness or the language skills to articulate it. Heck, many adults don’t! Listen for feelings of distress through other words like “angry,” “worried,” “confused,” or “annoyed.” Children may also express their stress by saying negative things about themselves, others, or the world around them by saying something like: “No one likes me,” “I’m stupid,” “I hate that place”, or “Nothing is fun.” Parents need to listen to these words and statements and figure out whether they are signs of mounting stress.

Seek support.

Like adults, children and teens don’t need to tackle the symptoms of childhood stress on their own. It’s okay to ask for help from trusted friends and family members and consider guidance from a professional. Counselors, therapists, and even the right pediatrician can often provide the listening ear and sound advice children, and their families need to learn healthy and effective ways to cope with stress.

Watch for any changes in their behavior. 

The youth of all ages, but especially younger children, often find it hard to recognize and discuss what’s bothering them. As is often the case, just like with adults, behavior changes may provide the cues that they’re overwhelmed, and they may be suffering from Childhood stress.

  • Common behavior changes in children and teens can include:
  • acting irritable or moody
  • withdrawing from activities that they usually enjoy
  • routinely expressing worry about a situation
  • complaining (more than usual) about school
  • getting tearful or fearful more quickly than usual
  • eating and sleeping more or less than they usually do. 

With teens, spending more time with their friends is normal and healthy. Be attuned to some more overt changes, though – like significant parental avoidance, increased isolation, abandoning long-time friendships. For new peer groups, or expressing hostility towards basic family rules or towards individual family members. While resistance, striving for autonomy, seeking more independence, and some of the normal “acting out”. We often see with teens is expected, negative and sustained behavior changes are almost always a clear indication that something is wrong.

By David Vittoria, MSW, CAP, CPP, ICADC, NCAC II

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