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How to Recognize Stress

It’s sometimes easy to forget that children experience stress too – all the way from toddlers to teens.

Think of all the challenges in your child’s daily routine at home and at school. They are constantly learning, trying to fit in at school, dealing with siblings, and managing confusing emotions. That’s a lot to handle!

Stressors (triggers of stress) come in different sizes. Some are the usual pressures and challenges of everyday life, and there’s stress that can come from significant life changes or difficulties – these can be more challenging to deal with but happen less often.

Children cope with life’s everyday ups and downs in different ways.

Because everyone experiences and expresses their stress a little differently, here you’ll discover ways to recognize everyday stress early on.

Common stress triggers in children

Here are some of the most common stresses in children:

  • Disruptions to their daily routine or environment: Any sort of change can throw a child off and bring on stress, even good change like a new after school sports schedule. For some children, a disruption to regular routines can be a source of major stress and anxiety. For example, this could be a shift in the morning routine like a different person taking them to school, or no longer having a weekly soccer game and seeing friends. 
  • Managing school and social pressures: Whether it’s struggling to study for an upcoming test, or trying to keep up with homework, school is often a source of stress for children and youth. Wanting to fit it, make friends, and greater social media pressure are also stresses that add up. Sleep problems and difficulty getting out of bed in the morning are not unusual for children who are feeling stressed. 
  • Stress in sports and lessons: Sometimes, starting a new sport, trying out for the team, or taking up an instrument or other lesson can be stressful or overwhelming, especially if a child feels like they are not good enough or can’t keep up.
  • Bullying and teasing: Children today are more connected than ever - in the classroom, many also by text, and on social media channels. A bullying text, or conflict in the schoolyard captured on video, can go viral with one click. Bullying, in-person or with an online component, can be a major source of stress for children and youth. Any unkind behaviour and occasional teasing can be hurtful.   
  • Scary events or news: In a world of endless content and 24-hour news headlines, children are often exposed to too much, too fast. Children of any age can become stressed if they are exposed to media that has disturbing or scary images or videos (e.g. showing natural disasters, terrorism, or violence).
  • Difficulty coping with life transitions: Children often feel stress when an experience feels beyond their control, like starting school, the arrival of a new sibling, or moving to a new neighbourhood or city. Even going back to school after the holidays can lead some children to worry about things like adjusting to new classes, teachers or schoolmates.
  • Changes in the family: Changes such as divorce, or coping with illness or loss in the family can be extremely stressful for everyone in the family. When these are added to their everyday pressures, stress is magnified.

Common signs of stress in children

Whether it’s everyday stress that becomes overwhelming, or a significant stressor in a child’s life, stress can affect how they feel, think, and act.

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if a child is feeling stressed.

Most of us, and especially children, don’t always recognize that our physical and behavioural changes are actually signs of stress. Maybe we can’t get to sleep for a few days, have a headache, or a lack of appetite. Or we’re withdrawing from people and falling back to more screen time. Many children do not say “I’m feeling stressed” when they are feeling stressed, so it’s important to be a ‘stress detective’.

The way children express stress can vary by age and personality. Some children may giggle when they feel unease, others may be irritable, while others may become withdrawn and quiet. Some children may cry or whine more often than usual, start performing poorly at school, or react with increased aggression or hyperactive behaviour.

Often parents notice the behaviour first. Consider that stress may be the reason behind these behaviours.

When younger children are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing a big stressor, they may:

  • Return to behaviour patterns they had once outgrown, such as thumb sucking or bedwetting
  • Have nightmares
  • Become clingy with loved ones, and not want to be alone
  • Cry more often
  • Have more tantrums
  • Express physical symptoms, like headaches and stomach aches

Older children may:

  • Act out
  • Develop eating or sleeping difficulties
  • Feel more irritable
  • Cry more often
  • Withdraw from others (e.g. may stay in their room more or not seem interested in playdates with friends)
  • Lose interest in school
  • Express physical symptoms, like headaches and stomach aches
  • Have new difficulties with concentration and focus

Additionally, pre-teens and teens may:

  • Push against rules or expectations more than usual
  • Express a lot of anger
  • Express poor self-esteem and social worry (e.g. putting themselves down or assuming that others won’t like them)

A few practical tips to recognize stress in your child early on

1. Try to find the underlying reasons behind your child’s stress

If you’ve noticed changes in your child’s behaviour or attitude, try to find out why. Remember, what children find stressful might not seem stressful to you, or be what you think.

For example, a meltdown might be because they are scared to be left alone and not because they are trying to be difficult. Or, could they be having trouble with learning at school? With peers?

2. Watch for little clues that your child may be feeling stressed

Sometimes stress is expressed in very small ways, or in ways that don’t seem connected to the actual cause of the stress.

It’s also possible that your child is trying to ‘cover’ their stress. This can happen for lots of different and ‘normal’ reasons. For example, a high achieving child might appear cheerful, but may be hiding their stress in order to avoid disappointing you.

Try to listen for little clues such as your child mentioning that they have a lot of homework, or that they are having trouble concentrating, or not sleeping well. They may not recognize the stress in themselves.

3. Ask a teacher or a child’s close friend for insight 

Many children and youth find it difficult to tell their parents when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

If you’re noticing that their behaviour feels a little off, it can be helpful to reach out to other people in your child’s social circle to get their observations and thoughts.

This group can include a caring teacher, a school friend, or even other parents who have regular contact with your child. They may have insight into how your child is acting in another setting and social situation.

4. Pay special attention to major life changes and stress levels in the home

If your family has been through any major changes, positive or negative, like introducing a new sibling to the home, or a recent move or divorce, take the opportunity to do regular check-ins for possible signs of stress. 

For example, your teen may be more irritable because they are nervous about making new friends after a move. Or a younger child might feel threatened and jealous when a new sibling comes along. Keep asking questions, and reassuring them that you’re there and eager to listen.

When to get more help for your child 

All children and youth experience some stress in their lives, but sometimes stress can overwhelm their ability to cope.

  • Stress comes in different sizes. Some stressors are more common than others. Sometimes we can experience very difficult life events (sometimes these are called traumatic life events).
  • Sometimes stress levels remain high for a long time. This is often called “chronic stress”. The continued strain on a body from chronic stress may play a role in developing health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, as well as put your child at increased risk for developing a mental health challenge or disorder.
  • Sometimes a combination of multiple stressors can add up and push a child beyond their ability to cope.

When children and youth are experiencing common signs of stress more intensely and/or for a long period of time, these are times when to seek support from a health care professional. Or if they are doing risky or unhealthy behaviours, this is also a time to access more support. 

Health care professionals can play an important role in identifying and helping children and youth cope with stress. 

If you are wondering whether your child’s behaviour may be more than stress and linked to mental health, such as anxiety or depression, you can learn more about mental health challenges and disorders on our Kelty website. Here you’ll find information on the common signs, what can be done, and options for professional support.


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