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9 Signs Of Stress In Children And How To Help Them

Signs Of Stress In Kids

Children manifest stress through sudden changes in behavior. A stressed child may suddenly throw temper tantrums, or have a meltdown over simple tasks, or show apathy toward everything. Their eating and sleeping patterns too may change, and they may complain more frequently of headaches and stomach aches. They may even show tic disorders like excessive blinking or throat clearing.

If your child is suddenly behaving oddly, throwing tantrums, or experiencing meltdowns, do not dismiss this as a phase of bad behavior. Do not be quick to discipline them either. These are typical signs that your child is under stress. While we associate childhood with fun and frolick and zero worries, in reality, children feel easily stressed by anything unfamiliar or any change in routine. They may not always express this verbally, but stress shows up in their behavior. Here are the signs you need to watch out for to understand whether your child is undergoing stress.

1. Change In Appetite

The appetite is the first thing to take a hit when stress levels start rising. But when stress becomes chronic, it leads to bingeing on comfort foods like sugary, fatty treats.1 If you notice a similar change in your child’s appetite that cannot be caused by any other physical condition – say poor appetite because they are recovering from a flu or a raging appetite because they are engaging in more physical activities – it may be the doing of stress.

An interesting study found that kids aged 5–7 years tended to overeat when stressed, especially if their parents used food as a reward or kept them away from certain foods for health-related reasons when they were 3–5 years old.2

2. Reluctance To Attend School

Stay in contact with school authorities: Being in touch with the school teachers will help you updated about your child’s behavioral changes and academic status.

If your child repeatedly refuses to go to school, something or someone at school might be causing them stress. Children usually enjoy going to school where they can meet their friends. But they would want to skip school if they are not able to cope with school work or have consistently poor grades. They may also be traumatized by bullying or suffer from low self-esteem due to negative feedback from peers or teachers. Children typically become reluctant to attend a new school in the initial days, but if it continues longer, you’d have to address the underlying stress factor.3

3. Headache

Know your child’s activities: Know what activities your kids is involved in so that you can easily understand whether the aches and pains have a medical basis or are caused by stress. Also keep a check on TV programs and games they enjoy. Violent shows or games can worsen their stress.

Consider it a red flag when your child frequently complains of headache – say, several times a week – but the doctor cannot find any medical reason. Around 20% of kids in the U.S., aged between 5 and 17, suffer from headaches. Of them, 15% suffer from tension headaches and 5% from migraines. And stress is a major trigger. Indirectly, stress can also affect a child’s sleep and that itself might contribute to headaches.4

4. Stomach Ache

Remember how your stomach lurches or you get butterflies in the stomach when there’s a tough task ahead? Children feel pain in the stomach when they are stressed. Or they feel what you feel but term it pain because of their limited vocabulary. So if your children constantly complain of a stomach ache or say they are feeling funny in the tummy, stress may be a possible cause.

Make home a haven: Make your home a place where children feel safe and can relax. Avoid conflicts and arguments in front of them. Maintain family routines, like eating dinner together or watching a movie together every week to strengthen the family bond and make kids feel secure. When faced with a change in routine – for instance, shifting schools or cities – children find comfort in familiar things.

It could be because of an untoward event at school, an impending test, or separation anxiety. In fact, both separation anxiety and abdominal pain, as well as other symptoms like nausea or vomiting, seem to peak when the child is 7–9 years old.5

The human digestive system has a network of nerves that form the enteric nervous system. They respond to stress just like the brain does. Overeating to cope with the stress may also lead to a stomach ache, and stress itself might make the child extra-sensitive to any discomfort.6

5. Bedwetting

Stay alert: relapse of bedwetting in kids who had outgrown this health problem can be a sign of sexual abuse. This could be due to the trauma, a urinary tract infection, or a sexually transmitted infection.7

Bedwetting is fairly common in children above 5 years and it is not necessarily a psychological problem. While stress is not the primary reason behind bedwetting, studies have shown that about 60% of children who wet their bed in sleep suffer from at least one mental health problem, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, school phobia, social anxiety, and separation anxiety. Stress is, however, known to make the bedwetting situation worse, leading to bedwetting episodes even during the daytime.8 9 Stress that a child faces could range from exam worries to even serious problems like parental conflicts or sexual abuse.

6. Use Of Specific Words And Babytalk

Learn to listen: Listen to your child closely and without judgment to be able to interpret their happy moments and sad ones. You have to be aware of how your kids speak to notice the shift in tone or word usage when they are stressed.

Children cannot say they are stressed. But they can repeatedly use words like tired, mad, scared, sad, worried to express their distress. They may also say self-deprecatory statements like, “I am not good enough,” “I am not important,” “nobody likes me,” or “nothing is fun.”10 And not just what they say but the manner in which they say it may also indicate stress. If older kids start to speak in a baby voice or engage in baby talk, it may indicate an underlying sense of insecurity and low self-confidence. It is possible that they are seeking attention or are trying to regress to a more secure past.11

7. Tantrums Or Meltdowns

Manage your own stress well: If you have stress of your own, try to keep it low-key. Do not let your child see you having a meltdown or being aggressive when stressed. Manage your anger and find a creative outlet for your stress. Your child will be able to deal with stress positively too.

It’s quite natural for children to be cranky when they are not feeling their best. But if you notice a sudden change in their behavior that lasts for a few days, it’s a red flag. When stressed, some children may throw temper tantrums, display stubbornness, or even become aggressive, physically or verbally. Some kids may have a meltdown over a class assignment or with simple tasks like tying the shoe lace or buttoning up a shirt.12 Other kids may withdraw or show apathy toward activities they enjoyed before as well as anything new you may try to involve them into. Some kids may cling to their parents or a caregiver more than usual, cry, or show fear.

8. Tic Disorders

Build your child’s self-worth: Every child has a unique gift, whether in drawing or basketball. Encourage and show affection to help them succeed in what they are best at. Teach them to work on their weaknesses but not obsess over them. Use rewards and not punishments to help build their self-worth.

Stress may give rise to certain nervous tics in children or make any they had worse. Children with transient tic disorder tend to make one or many brief, repeated movements or noises. They may show facial tics or tics that involve the movement of the arms, legs, or other areas:

  • Blinking
  • Clenching the fists
  • Jerking the arms
  • Kicking
  • Raising the eyebrows
  • Sticking out the tongue
  • Licking the lips

Sounds or noises that children with the disorder show include:

  • Clicking
  • Grunting
  • Hissing
  • Moaning
  • Sniffing
  • Snorting
  • Squealing
  • Throat clearing

Although the causes of tics are not known, the tics appear to worsen with stress. Transient tic disorders usually resolve in a year. Doctors usually recommend family members to ignore the tics. Showing that the tic is worrying you will further distress your child.

9. Sleep Disturbances

Inform your child about changes: Keeping your child in the dark about something you may be dealing with in your personal or professional front is okay. However, all changes that involve your child, like migrating to a new city, should be communicated as early as possible.

If your child has been a sound sleeper, sudden changes in his or her sleep quality indicates an underlying health problem or stress. Sleep disturbances, teeth grinding at night, frequent nightmares, and even sleep paralysis are signs to watch out for. Lack of quality sleep in turn manifests in more stress, low mood, irritability, and poor concentration.13

Knowing that their child is going through a tough time can be overwhelming for any parent. But remember, kids draw their strength from their parents, a guardian, a favorite teacher, or a relative. You can help your child deal with a stressful situation, whether at home or at school, if you are alert and compassionate.

References   [ + ]

1. Why stress causes people to overeat. Harvard Medical School.
2. Farrow, Claire V., Emma Haycraft, and Jackie M. Blissett. “Teaching our children when to eat: how parental feeding practices inform the development of emotional eating—a longitudinal experimental design–.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 101, no. 5 (2015): 908-913.
3. Stress and school refusal. Kidsmatter, Australian Government Department of Health.
4. Children’s Headache Disorders. National Headache Foundation.
5. Walker, Lynn S., Joy Beck, and Julia Anderson. “Functional abdominal pain and separation anxiety: helping the child return to school.” Pediatric annals 38, no. 5 (2009): 267.
6. Understanding the Link between Stress and Stomach Aches in Children. Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego.
7. Pediatric Bedwetting. National Association for Continence.
8. Salehi, Bahman, Parsa Yousefichaijan, Mohammad Rafeei, and Mahssa Mostajeran. “The relationship between child anxiety related disorders and primary nocturnal enuresis.” Iranian journal of psychiatry and behavioral sciences 10, no. 2 (2016).
9. Joinson, Carol, Jon Heron, Alan Emond, and Richard Butler. “Psychological problems in children with bedwetting and combined (day and night) wetting: a UK population-based study.” Journal of Pediatric Psychology 32, no. 5 (2006): 605-616.
10. Identifying signs of stress in your children and teens. American Psychological Association.
11. Why Middle-School Girls Sometimes Talk Like Babies. The Atlantic.
12. Why Do Kids Have Tantrums and Meltdowns? Child Mind Institute.
13. Children’s Stress and Sleep. National Sleep Foundation.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.