How to Recognize Signs of Stress in Children

By Richard Asa and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
November 30, 2023
How to Recognize Signs of Stress in Children

If you’re noticing signs of stress in your children, establish an open relationship and be willing to listen. You can help your children calm down and flourish.

At any age, people tend to feel a little on edge, amped up, or frightened, whenever they’re facing a challenge, threat or change. If something important is at stake, it’s normal to react.

Signs of stress in children

Mood swings, acting out, poor concentration at school, and changes in sleep patterns are signs your child may be reacting badly to stress. Some children get stomachaches or headaches; others wet the bed. Your child may withdraw and spend more time alone than usual. She might catch colds or flus every other week.

Let’s say your child has been practicing nonstop for her violin recital. The night before, she’s vomiting and assumes she should skip it because she’s “sick.” That’s where you come in. It’s important that you don’t get alarmed as well. Instead, help her hang in.


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Coaches and teachers tell athletes and other performers that big moments are likely to trigger physical symptoms of stress. Prepare your child to accept them as a sign of good excitement, rather than bad fear, notes Daniel McGinn, author of “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed.”

Anxiety symptoms tend to fade naturally within 20 to 45 minutes, notes child anxiety researcher Amy Przeworski, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University. Teaching your child to accept the discomfort allows it to fade.

Sometimes, kids don’t know when to pull back. That doesn’t mean they should quit something when they’re stressed, but participating in six honors classes, marching band practice, the chess club, and athletics all at once can be overwhelming.

“The stress doesn’t necessarily come from bad things, but can come from too many good things,” says child psychologist. Todd Cartmell, author of “8 Simple Tools for Raising Great Kids.”

“There’s just so much you can take on,” he said. “Your kids can end up feeling overwhelmed all the time. It’s critical that you pay attention to that and help your kids maintain a balance.”

Maintain your connection and have fun with your kids as often as possible. “Ask about their day, how things are going at home, at school, and with friends,” Cartmell says. “If your kids are used to talking with you, you have paved the pathway.”

Ideally, it’s not a big stretch for them to open up and talk about what’s bothering them.

When they do, listen and let them unload in whatever way they express themselves. Don’t launch into your own lecture or advice.

It’s also important, after you’ve given them space, to suggest other ways of thinking. Sometimes the stress arises from inaccurate perceptions. That voice inside your head can lead to a litany of untrue thoughts that can cause high stress.

Let your child know it’s okay to be imperfect and to make mistakes, Przeworski urges. As you move on, focus on the positives.

Be a role model

You are your kids’ role model. Even when you don’t notice, they are always watching how you cope with your stress.

Children pick up and reflect their parents’ emotions. If you don’t know how to remain calm and persevere, they can take on your stress response traits.

Model habits that allow kids to face the world with courage and solve problems. Reward brave behavior, Przeworski says, with praise, a hug, a sticker, or a favorite outing.

You might also teach your child relaxation techniques like deep breathing. For a fast-moving talkative child, simply remaining quiet can be calming. Introduce them to self-soothing imagery, such as imagining themselves at their favorite lake or beach.

Summoning calming images or memories can become a skill that will work quickly and effectively all their lives.  

Coping skills can prepare your child for when the big stresses hit. Children get cancer or other serious illnesses. Sometimes parents split up. A pet, grandparent, or a sibling or friend dies. They may have to move and start going to a new school against their will.  

Ongoing stress is more bearable with support. How are you coping? Are you drinking or eating too much or flying off the handle? Your kids see that.

Do you need more practical help, emotional support, or advice? Let your children see that you take steps to manage stress and continue to be reliable for them.

Sleep, diet, and exercise count as much with children as with adults — maybe more. Make sure everyone in your family has regular bedtimes and waketimes, exercise routines, and a diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and legumes. Get your vaccinations and follow all doctor’s advice.


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November 30, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN