Is your kid acting funny and you’re wondering why? Perhaps they’re sleeping poorly (and therefore, so are you.) Or maybe they’re unwilling to eat or play in their usual ways.
Other readers may be parents who are watching for signs of stress because their kids have been through a difficult experience lately and want to care for their child’s emotional needs.
Understanding the way stress impacts kids and some common signs of stress can help caretakers respond to their kids’ underlying needs.
A word from the author
I’m motivated to research this topic as my kids have recently been through a move to a new state and are starting up at new schools. I read several scholarly articles and synopses of such articles to inform this piece. These sources are linked within the text.
Sometimes learning about the way stress impacts kids can be frightening. We know we can’t keep adverse experiences totally out of our kids’ lives, even though we try! It feels as though the world is conspiring with kids’ brain chemistry to make life hard for them.
Consider that loving caretakers such as yourself have been placed in children’s lives to help them grow and overcome adversity. Human beings have not been designed to fare life’s storms alone. So if you find your child needing your help to cope with stress, please don’t think of this as a failure. It’s a normal part of caring for children.
Stress itself isn’t the enemy
Stress isn’t all bad. Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is a necessary chemical, designed to help us respond at our best to intense situations, whether we’re in danger or called upon to perform some feat.
Cortisol works in Golidlocks fashion. Not too little, not too much. A moderate amount is just right to help us function at our best.
Consider the child who has a big test coming up. Most kids will feel a little nervous, especially on test day. This indicates their cortisol levels are helping them out. They’re in intense-response mode, helping them to access all the information they’ve learned and to stay focused on the test.
A child under too high stress levels may respond with debilitating anxiety. She’s too nervous to focus, too worried about failing, etc. A child with too low cortisol levels may feel apathetic about the test and won’t perform as well as he’s capable.
Helping your kids work through the stressors in their lives will enable to them succeed in the things that are important to them. And when caretakers understand how stress impacts children, they can better help the kids in their lives to respond to stress in healthy ways.
Digging deeper: how cortisol works in kids
[Feel free to skip this bit if you’re just looking for the signs of stress.]
Cortisol levels that are too low are associated with lower cognitive function (in other words, kids who just don’t care don’t learn as well as they could — common sense!)
Cortisol levels that are too high are also associated with lower cognitive function (in other words, kids who are preoccupied with survival, constantly in stress mode, also don’t learn as well as they could. More common sense.)
Kids with a moderate level of cortisol learn well and translate this learning into high cognitive function, attaining their best in school and other aspects of life.
When kids experience high cortisol levels — from some stressful event or other — and these levels persist over a long period of time, eventually their body works to blunt the impact of this stress by creating abnormally low levels of cortisol.
So when you’re assessing your child’s stress levels, consider the tenor of their behavior and words. Do they seem to be responding to high intensity stress or to lower levels, indicating an, “I don’t care” attitude? If it’s the latter, you may look to older sources of stress to help them cope.
The authors of a study published in August, 2019, found that kids who experienced high-stress events when they were ages 1–5 were more likely to have behavioral problems at age 9. This helps us understand that sometimes the expressions of stress might not be directly related to what’s happening now or in the recent past.
Behavioral problems could be related to things that have happened in the distant past (for a child, even 4 years might be half a lifetime ago). Without the help of logic or self-understanding, children find themselves responding inappropriately to something that happened to them before they could even speak.
Another factor to consider is that children grieve differently from adults. They tend to “jump in and out” of grief, seemingly feeling fine for a while until they’re ready to be “all in” and grieve like the subject of their pain is the only thing happening in their lives. They also tend to grieve the same event through the lens of different developmental phases.
For example, my kids seemed sad when we left their friends at the beginning of the summer, but they quickly turned their attention to other things after we moved. Now that they’re going back to school, it’s sinking in deeper that their old friends will not be part of their lives in the same way. I need to acknowledge that, while those friends have been gone all this time, my kids are feeling the stress of the change more keenly now.
Signs of stressed out kids
Several helpful articles summarize the likely symptoms of stress in children. Below are the most common I found. Obviously, each of these items could be attributed to other factors, such as a virus causing a stomachache. But if you observe symptoms from several categories without clear explanation, these symptoms are likely due to stress.
- Difficulty falling asleep or disrupted sleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Tense muscles or shaking in intense situations
- Acting out — bullying, damaging things, etc.
- Spending unusual amounts of time alone
- New habits like thumb sucking, nose picking, or nail biting
- Clinging to parents more than usual
- Decreased academic performance
- Sudden changes in eating patterns
- Hoarding items that seem insignificant
- Overreacting to minor problems
- New or recurring fears
- Short temper
- Talking about certain situations, people, or feelings in an anxious way
- Saying negative things about themselves or others
How to help
Usually, parents have the skills needed to help their kids deal with stress.
Embrace the drama
Don’t expect your kids to be level-headed. Why should they be? Children are small, and the bigness of the world impacts them differently than it does adults. Validate your child’s fears and difficulties, even if they seem petty to you. This way you can teach them to deal with stress in small steps, before the bigger stuff comes along.
Allow for dislocated responses
Much of your child’s behavior is not a conscious “acting out” on stress. As the cortisol is raging through their system, they’re acting weird and they don’t know why. Use natural consequences to discipline calmly, and then try to address the underlying stress that might be connected with unusual levels of misbehavior.
Encourage (even illogical) talking
Let them be absurd for a little bit. In a storybook I read with my four-year-old recently, a girl who loves pink is berated by her friends for liking such a childish color. She stomps off to her room and declares, “No one understands me! I am the only one in the whole world who likes pink!” Pinkalicious’ parents probably thought that was ridiculous, but it needed to be said. Better to let her say it if that’s what she’s feeling.
The APA suggests that we “listen and translate” when our kids’ language is illogical or dramatic. Their complaints or emotional words may be directly related to the biggest stressors in their life, but then again, they may be side issues that are easier to talk about than the big stuff.
Give space for conversation
Since my kids are starting at a new school, I wanted to give them extra time to process with me. I took them school shopping individually, and then took them for ice cream. I asked questions about how they were feeling about school, what they were excited about, worried about, etc.
We had some good talks, but the most needed conversation didn’t happen until the next day, when I was making dinner with my 7-year-old. He confessed to something he’d been holding onto since the end of last school year. (I respect his privacy too much to share it here!)
I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have shared these concerns with me if I hadn’t made space to talk the previous day. So don’t be discouraged if your attempts to have deep talks don’t materialize right away. Another take-away from this moment for me was that this middle son may feel more open to talking when we’re doing something together, rather than just eating or sitting across from one another.
Articles sourced in “Signs” and “How to help” sections:
Childhood Stress at Kids Health
Signs of Anxiety in Children at Medline Plus
Signs of Anxiety in Young Kids at Understood.org
When to seek help
- Persistent behavioral changes
- Problems that are very disruptive to your home life
- Serious and intense anxiety that persists in spite of comforting and seeking to address the situation
Sometimes stress feels contagious. Helping your child deal with the difficulties in his life can induce stress of your own. In our “helicopter parent” world, we can imagine that it’s our job to keep stress from happening to our kids.
Rather, our job as parents is to teach them to handle stress well, so they’re equipped to face whatever life brings them. Watching our kids overcome adversity is one of the most rewarding aspects of parenthood. The world can applaud many of their accomplishments. But only those who love them the most can celebrate their “ordinary” acts of bravery, compassion, and honesty.