Like tweens and teens, children are stressed out by feeling threatened or thinking they can’t cope with the demands being made on them. Common stressful situations are beginning a new school year, fighting with a friend, facing a hard test, or getting sick. Other stressful life experiences are moving; the birth of a sibling or older sibling leaving home; a serious family illness; or parents separating, divorcing, or remarrying. Often, triggers for stress reactions may be less obvious, such as being excluded or bullied at school, competing with a sibling, or feeling unable to solve a troublesome problem.
Signs of Child Stress
Because it is often hard for younger children to recognize and verbalize when they’re stressed, they often express stress reactions through changes in their behavior. According to the National Institutes of Health, the American Psychological Association, and Psych Central, some common signs are:
- Decreased appetite, overeating, or other changes in eating habits
- New or recurrent bedwetting
- Sleep disturbances – too much or too little
- Upset stomach or vague stomach pain
- Other physical symptoms with no physical illness
Emotional or Behavioral Symptoms
- Inability to relax
- New or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of strangers)
- Clinging, unwilling to let parents or teachers out of sight
- Irritability, moodiness, or anger
- Inability to control emotions
- Regression to behaviors typical of an earlier developmental stage
- Unwillingness to participate in family or school activities
- Trouble concentrating and doing schoolwork
Healthy versus Unhealthy Stress
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), mild and brief stress helps children develop the skills they need to cope with new and potentially threatening situations throughout life. But they need support from parents or other caregivers to learn how to respond to stress in a physically and emotionally healthy manner. The beneficial aspects of stress diminish when it is severe enough to overwhelm a child’s ability to cope effectively. When stress is severe or long-term, it can permanently damage children’s developing brains.
How Toxic Stress Affects Kids
- Toxic stress can cause kids to develop low thresholds for stress, which may make them overly reactive to adverse experiences throughout their lives.
- High levels of stress hormones (for example, cortisol) can damage the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory, throughout childhood and adulthood.
- Children who are exposed to extremely stressful home situations have significantly lower IQs than children not exposed to such traumas.
- Even kids who experience less extreme stress (e.g., “household chaos”) have lower IQs and more conduct problems.
- Children who experience verbal abuse from their mothers have lower verbal IQs and less white matter in their brains. (White matter affects learning by coordinating communication between different regions of the brain.)
- High levels of stress hormones can suppress children’s immune systems, leading to such health problems later in life as alcoholism, depression, eating disorders, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.
What Kids Say Most Stresses Them
When KidsHealth conducted a national poll of boys and girls aged 9 to 13, they found:
- 36% of kids report being stressed out by grades, school, and homework
- 32% by family problems
- 21% by friends, peers, gossip, and teasing
Kids’ Healthy Coping Strategies
When they’re stressed or upset:
- 52% of kids play or do something active
- 44% listen to music
- 42% watch TV or play a video game
- 30% talk to a friend
- 29% try not to think about it
- 28% try to work things out
- 26% eat something
- 23% lose their temper
- 22% talk to a parent
- 11% cry
- 25% of kids said that when they are upset, they take it out on themselves, either by banging their heads against something, hitting or biting themselves, or doing something else to hurt themselves.
- These kids also were more likely to eat, lose their tempers, and keep problems to themselves.
Kids Say They Need PARENTS
- 75% of kids say they want and need their parents’ help when they’re stressed
- They’d like their parents to talk with them, help them solve the problem, try to cheer them up, or just spend time together.