4 signs of stress to look for in children (and how to help)

January 18, 2022

Children go through a lot of changes as they grow and learn, and with those changes often comes stress. The past two years during the pandemic have been difficult for everyone, and especially for our children: They have spent formative years away from normal social situations, such as school, hanging out with their friends and spending time with extended family.

With the frequent need to adjust how we live our lives keeping us in a state of ambiguity and as we transition from one safety protocol to another, you might notice your child acting differently.

“Stress is normal for everyone, including children,” said Iliniza (Nisa) Baty, Venice Family Clinic’s director of behavioral health. “Especially after a traumatic event, or in this case a sustained global crisis, it’s typical for a child to experience the same range of emotions an adult might feel, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and worry.”

There are ways to help your child feel better. Below, Baty identifies four signs of stress to look for in children and how to help.

1. Difficulty concentrating

When we are stressed, we can have a harder time concentrating, even on activities that we do on a regular basis. For kids, stress can present as difficulty with schoolwork, underperforming in school, increased distractibility and difficulty completing tasks. If this is out of the ordinary for your child, there are steps you can take. Start a conversation by telling your child that you have noticed the changes, asking them how they’re feeling and why they might be feeling that way. You can acknowledge the cumulative stress of the pandemic, and the possible impact of this chronic stress. Then you can ask about specifics, including what they’re learning, what aspects of school may be giving them trouble, as well as positives like what they enjoy learning, all of which can help children feel supported. Helping kids break tasks into smaller steps, setting a schedule with built-in movement breaks, offering empathy and listening can also help reduce the impact of stress.

2. Changes in appetite

Stress can often affect how we eat. Is your child eating more or less than usual? Are they showing less interest in eating their favorite foods? Acknowledge what you are noticing and wonder with your child what may be impacting their eating habits. If stress is implicated, try eliminating mealtime distractions, such as TV, tablets and smartphones, and involving your child in meal planning and preparation. They may take more interest if they’re a part of the cooking process, especially if it’s a new dish. Remember to avoid criticizing or pressuring your child at meals. When we get angry, we actually increase the level of stress they are feeling. Share your methods of self-care and inquire about what makes your child feel more relaxed. If eating challenges become more severe, talk with your child’s doctor for support.

3. Trouble sleeping

Your child may have difficulty sleeping if they’re stressed. When our brains can’t relax, often our bodies can’t either. Nightmares are also common when young people feel stressed, especially after a traumatic or unsettling event. Disrupted sleep can affect mood and functioning during waking hours. Help your child relax a couple of hours before bedtime to reduce any high levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” Baths or showers, non-caffeinated tea in the evening, avoidance of chocolate desserts after dinner, and turning off screens 30 minutes before bed can help. Talking with your child about their worries and helping them identify safety practices they can control as well as offering reassurance of your presence can also help. There are free relaxation and meditation apps that many find helpful, including guided breathing practices. Establishing a nighttime routine can also help your child sleep, especially for younger kids.

4. Feeling angry

Anger is a common reaction to stress and trauma, especially when you feel like you can’t control something. Your child may be more irritable than usual and could even have outbursts. Baty says you can help your child deal with this frustration by acknowledging the emotion and creating space to explore stressors. Sometimes kids cannot identify what is provoking them, so acknowledging that there is an impact of chronic stress on all of us that may be causing more irritability can feel validating to your child. Teens’ mood and behavioral changes may be even more heightened, as the pandemic has been very disruptive to their development. Sometimes children show anger when they’re avoiding something that upsets or scares them. Wait to discuss the problem until your child is a bit calmer. You can then ask them to help you better pinpoint the reason for stress and offer other ways of dealing with the problem that they can use next time.