How Stress Affects Kids - and How to Help Them Cope

By Lisa Kosan

As parents, we may not think our kids experience stress - not really anyway. After all, we're the ones dealing with mortgages, threats of layoffs, orthodontist payments and global worries such as war and terrorism.

"Ask me," my 10-year-old son says. "I know all about stress."

So I ask.

"I get stressed when I have to do big projects for school," Max tells me, "or when I have math that's way too hard. Everything builds up and I can't get it done. I feel like I'm going to explode."

From preschool on up, children deal with their own significant sources of stress. There's internal stress - the kind that bubbles up from within - and external stress, the stress kids feel from family, peers and the world at large. There's the age-old childhood stressors of separating from parents at preschool, bullies, spelling tests, making the Little League team, a new crop of pimples, college applications, worrying about parents or friends, and more. Plus, today's rushed lifestyles, crowded schedules and increasingly high academic expectations have added new layers of stress to kids' lives.

So much so, in fact, that earlier this year the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urged physicians to routinely assess young children for stress, anxiety and depression. The AAP acknowledged the deep toll of modern lifestyles and heavier academic loads on today's kids and strongly advocated for more downtime.

"When pediatricians are issuing a report saying that kids are too scheduled and stressed, and that they need free time, you know something is up," says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of The Pressured Child and co-author of the best-selling Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.

Pressure to Succeed

One reason why today's kids are likely to be more stressed than even 10 years ago, many argue, is the sense of higher stakes for academic success in an increasingly competitive world economy. Parents may convey a heightened state of anxiety about this that children feel, either consciously or subconsciously.

"We have an idea that the best-raised children are the ones whose parents are guiding their child every second of the day," says Thompson, a clinical psychologist, consultant and parent of two teenagers. "Aware parenting is fine. But we're getting to a point of competitive parenting, when your children are a project that has to be constantly monitored so you can turn out the perfect child. You're under stress, and so are they."

Consider the mother of a little boy who told Thompson she wanted to hold her son back from kindergarten so that he could be at the top of the next year's class. She kept saying that she wanted him to be a leader.

"What she couldn't say was that she wasn't satisfied with her son just being a happy student in the middle of the class," Thompson says. "That's competitive parenting that causes stress in children."

"If their lives and schedules get too demanding, put your foot down and say enough's enough."
- Denise Moutafis
(Mother of two and teacher)

Or how about the father who told Thompson that his ninth-grade son needed to be more organized? "I asked why he was so worried and the father said, 'globalization.' And he meant it."

Global competition is real, Thompson says, but so is the timing of childhood milestones. "You can scare the hell out of your children by saying they need to prepare for globalization, but that doesn't change the arc of their development - or when boys get organized."

"So many kids have teachers everywhere," he adds, referring to parents who are overly involved in their children's academic lives. "It's stressful when your mom is also your teacher, and there's no difference between home and school."

Certainly, children need to understand their responsibilities around school and homework, but they also need to have lots of fun, Thompson says. "Kids need time when they're not task-focused, when they're not doing things that contribute to their welfare later and they are just playing in the moment. That is the sweetest time of all, and it's also the best for developing a child's personality."

Pressure to Feel Safe

Children also feel their parents' anxieties about challenges closer to home. If we're too worried about their personal safety to let them ride their bikes to the park or walk to school on their own, our children may not become resilient enough to cope with their own stress; they won't have the skills they need to rely on themselves.

"Kids used to grow up in communities where they knew everybody on the block or in their building," says clinical psychologist Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., a teacher at Harvard School of Public Health, author of Tough Times, Strong Children and co-author with Thompson of Raising Cain. "Most of us feel fairly isolated today, and isolation produces stress. Social support is the biggest protective factor in dealing with stress, but we feel more alone and our kids feel more alone."

How to Spot Stress

Just like adults, children exhibit a range of symptoms when they're under stress. They might:

  • look anxious or tired
  • complain of stomachaches and headaches
  • have trouble sleeping or suffer vivid nightmares
  • seem to lack joy in activities that would normally make a child smile
  • start biting their nails, twirling their hair, or sucking on a shirt cuff or collar to release excess energy.

Regression is another classic symptom. A toilet-trained 3-year-old, for instance, suddenly has accidents when faced with a new preschool or caregiver. A slightly older child starts clinging to parents more and talking in a more childish voice.

Some children participate in repetitive play to gain control over scary situations. For instance, a child who was momentarily locked out of her house might open and close a door repeatedly. Kids under constant stress, bordering on trauma - such as living with an abusive parent or in a violent neighborhood - might become numb to their surroundings or introverted, withdrawing from friends and family.

How to Help

Extracurricular activities, from dance lessons to baseball practice, can create stressful schedules, fewer opportunities for families to spend time together and more pressure at the end of the day when homework still isn't done. Add a problem or conflict - such as fear of a bully or worrying about grades - and the stress can feel insurmountable to a child. What can parents do to help?

Limit the causes of stress in your children's lives, and make sure they have enough downtime. "If their lives and schedules get too demanding, put your foot down and say enough's enough," says Denise Moutafis, a teacher and the mother of two grown boys. "Their anxiety builds when they feel like everything is going to come crashing down around them."

Moutafis says she and her colleagues are often the first to notice signs of stress in a child. She'll first try to assess whether the source of stress is at school - such as problems with classmates or schoolwork. Then she'll approach parents to see if there's trouble at home.

"It makes such a difference if we know that a grandparent is ill, or a pet just died, or homework causes a major meltdown every night," Moutafis says. "When a parent talks to us first, we can anticipate how a child might act at school."

With very young children, try to take on some of the burden. That might mean rearranging a child's bedroom and hanging up a dream catcher if nighttime starts feeling scary, or calling a teacher or another parent to resolve a conflict at school.

"Work with [children] to solve the problem and help them move forward," Kindlon says. "Give them a sense that there is always something you can do, even if you don't think it will work. Just letting them sit there feeling afraid is the worst thing you can do."

Talk with your kids about what stresses them, maintain a sense of humor and give them some perspective. Remind your middle-schooler that a bad grade or two won't prevent her from going to college.

"You want them to work hard," Kindlon says. "But if they give their best effort, let it fall the way it falls. And let them know you love them even if they get a C on a test."

Let your children know that you're always available to listen and you'll try to help. Being able to talk about the stress they're feeling, and knowing you're there to support them no matter what, helps tremendously.

Talk. As with any health issue, if you suspect your child is more seriously affected by stress, talk to her pediatrician about how to respond and what other steps may be needed.



These books examine why and how children experience stress and how to help:

KidStress: What It Is, How It Feels, How to Help, by Georgia Witkin, Ph.D., Penguin, 2000.

The Pressured Child, by Michael Thompson, Ph.D., with Teresa Barker, Ballantine Books, 2005.

Tough Times, Strong Children: Lessons from the Past for Your Children's Future, by Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., Hyperion, 2005.

On the Web

American Academy of Pediatrics  - The Web site includes a section for parents on childhood stress and how to help kids become resilient.

Kids Have Stress Too!  - A project of the Psychology Foundation of Canada, this site can help children learn to manage their stress. A Toolbox Activity shows kids simple and quick relaxation techniques.

Lisa Kosan is a writer, editor and the mother of two boys.