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Stress is not an unfamiliar feeling to most adults who often feel the pressures of everyday life including the pressure to meet demands at work, raise a healthy and well-adjusted family, handle financial matters, or overcome health issues. As much as parents try to shield their children from the tribulations of the world, they too feel overwhelmed and even stressed at times. Stress can be defined as our body's physical and emotional response to everyday challenges or threats (Mandel, 2005). These "everyday challenges," also called stressors, can be caused by negative events (e.g., divorce) or positive events, such as birthday parties (Ruffin, 2001). Everyone feels stressed sometimes but the nature of stress in children differs from that of adults. For example, adults might stress about work, traffic, bills, and children. Children may stress about school, bullies, and tests.


What do kids have to worry about?

Stress doesn't always show up in our lives to scare us or turn our palms into sweaty puddles. Feeling a little nervous before an important test or a music recital is normal and can give your child the extra energy he/she needs to stay alert and keep them on their toes. Too much stress can be harmful and impact functioning in many areas of the child's life. Children, like many adults, experience stress from multiple sources, some internal (e.g., hunger) and others external (e.g., bullying) (Marion, 2003). Despite their best intentions, parents too can unwittingly influence a child's susceptibility to stress. Consider the story of Jan.


Jan's parents have recently divorced. Jan notices that her mother is increasingly worried and suddenly complains about everything; especially about turning off the lights when no one is using them. Jan and her brother have been eating leftovers and soup for dinner all month. Jan can sometimes hear her mother up sobbing late into the night. Yesterday her mother told her and her brother that the car was gone and they would now have to take the 3 mile walk to school. Jan begins to worry about her mother while in school, is acting out, and her grades are beginning to suffer.


While some problems may seem like ‘adult problems,' children members of the family can and do indirectly experience the negative effects of these struggles. In the story, Jan's mother never actually shares her struggles with Jan and her brother. However, Jan is very aware of the family's financial difficulties as well as her mothers stress level. Jan has also experienced lifestyle changes and personal stress as a result of the financial difficulties. It is important to take notice of changes in a child's personality or behavior as it may be related to past or present stressors that should be addressed immediately.


Some common causes of stress in children and adolescents include

  • Perfectionism

  • World issues (terrorism, parent at war, natural disasters)

  • School (teasing, bullies, tests, academics, making friends, retention, changing schools)

  • Parents (illness, incarceration, conflict, job loss, new baby)

  • Family (death, divorce, sibling rivalry, financial problems)

  • Competition (parent pressure, over-scheduling, playing a big game, trying out for teams)

How do I know if my kid is stressed?

The American Institute of Stress suggests that the term "stress" is difficult to define and explain as it is different for each of us. The responses to stressful events vary in children and adults. Because children do not always have the language skills and cognitive capacity to articulate feelings of stress or anxiety, it is helpful to understand how stress is manifested in children and adolescents.


Children respond differently to stress depending on the situation, support system, and personality. Symptoms of stress can be physical (e.g., headaches, stomachaches), emotional (e.g., irritability, sadness), or behavioral (e.g., crying, hitting). As in the case with Jan, children may begin to act-out rather than say "I am worried about my mother." Other kids may internalize stress and seemingly cry for no reason, act fearful, or become increasingly clingy to parents. Signs of reacting to stress may be difficult to recognize initially or tend to be attributed to "terrible two's," puberty, or immaturity. Below are just a few possible signs of stress. Take notice.

Seven Helpful Strategies to Reduce Stress


Excessive stress coupled with ineffective coping strategies to handle stress-inducing events can be counterproductive and may have detrimental long-term effects. Parent's and educator's can help children understand and effectively manage their stress levels in several important ways:

  1. Help children understand the meaning of "stress" and how children sometimes feel when they are stressed (e.g., butterflies in stomach) (Ruffin, 2001). The child could create a picture book with drawings that help them recognize and express various feelings.

  2. Use negative life events as teachable moments. For example, if a child is stressed over the loss of a best friend or did not make the football team, talk with the child about how he/she might express these feelings appropriately.

  3. Use therapeutic stories. Children may be better able to identify with a character in a story that appears to be dealing with a similar issue. Stories about stress, divorce, death, or bullying are great ways to illustrate how a main character successfully copes with a problem situation. Parents should ask questions after the story to allow the child to reflect on his/her own feelings.

  4. Model appropriate coping. Children often learn by what they see rather than what they hear. The way parents and teachers handle stress in their own life will speak volumes not only to how the child shouldhandle stress but to your own credibility when talking to the child about stress.

  5. Teach relaxation and deep breathing. Anxiety and relaxation are like oil and water. Teaching children relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, counting to 10, deep breathing, 20 second vacation, playing with putty, and guided imagery are great ways to help children self-soothe themselves during times of stress.

  6. Prepare children for stressful events beforehand. Before starting a new school, welcoming a new baby, or taking a big test, talk with your child about what to expect before, during, and after the big event. Preparation will help to reduce the stress and uncertainty of the situation.

  7. Use role-play to practice handling stressful situations. Create ‘situation cards' of stressful life events and role play with the family how each person might handle the stressful situation. Incorporate positive self-talk, relaxation techniques as appropriate ways of responding to stress. Children could also create situation cards for parents to role-play. Provide feedback on role-plays.

Meditation and Relaxation

  • Nervousness

  • Complaints (headaches, stomachaches, vomiting)

  • Fearful, panicky and excessive worrying

  • Moody and temperamental

  • Crying spells

  • Anger

  • Hitting

  • Lack of motivation

  • Appetite disturbance

  • Anxiety

  • Bed-wetting

  • Clinging behavior

  • Grades slipping

  • Stuttering

  • Insomnia

Seven Strategies for Helping Stressed-Out Kids

By LaRonta Upson, Ph.D.

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