Some people might think children these days have it easy. Kids and stress shouldn’t go together, right? Childhoods should be idyllic and fun. And yet, we know that the majority of children are more stressed than ever. This skyrocketed at an even faster pace since the pandemic. So how stressed is your child right now, on a scale of 0 to 10? As you will learn in this article, managing stress in children takes a multi-pronged approach and I will show you what to do.
Stress can emerge suddenly in the adolescent years, or you may actually struggle to remember a time when your child wasn’t stressed. In this article I look at common causes of stress in children, teens and young adults. Then I’ll take a look at how, using the right techniques, your child can thrive despite our stressful modern world.
Why Is Childhood Stress Increasing?
There is a double-squeeze causing stress to surge in children and teenagers. On one side, they are under more pressure than ever before, owing to a number of factors such as increased academic expectations and social media. On the other side, they are getting less of the essential ingredients for successful stress management. These include enough sleep, enough physical activity, and eating wholesome, fresh foods rather than processed foods.
Stress is a normal part of life, but the amount and severity of it can make or break your child’s mental health. too much stress is also known as “toxic stress“. It can be life-threatening in the longer term.
As you can see, stress in kids is an area parents need to actively manage because of the demanding society we live in.
Lifestyle Factors in Childhood Stress
Stress can emerge when it is not managed well on a day to day basis through healthy daily routines. The following lifestyle factors are some of the key contributors to increased stress in young people.
Take a look, and see if you can relate to some or all of these.
1. Less Physical Activity
Many children these days have less opportunity to get outside and freely burn off their stress and energy by running or cycling around with friends.
Things are different than they were say, twenty or thirty years ago. We are more safety conscious, we have less outdoor space as the population and amount of housing has grown, and also children are busier with structured clubs and activities.
Increased screen time is also related to less physical activity.
On the whole, many children are more sedentary.
2. More Academic Pressure
There is no doubt in my mind that our culture has changed and there is much more emphasis on exams and outcomes, than when I was at school in the 1980s and 90s.
Many of my GCSEs (UK exams taken at age 16), for example, had a large coursework component. This took a lot of pressure off. My daughter completed her GCSEs last year and they were almost exclusively exam-based.
In my opinion, the education system is going in the wrong direction.
3. Less/ Poorer Quality Sleep
Sleep is essential for a healthy brain and nervous system. Without enough sleep of good quality, it is very difficult to bounce back from life’s stresses and challenges. They are more likely to build up and feel overwhelming.
This article by The Guardian documents the rise in admissions to sleep disorder clinics and prescriptions for melatonin (a drug which copies the natural hormone that triggers sleep).
4. Screen Time
Screen time can be hugely enjoyable. I know from personal experience though, that too much time gaming (or in my case, on social media) can soon tip over into a stressful experience and it can be highly addictive for children. There’s constantly something on the screen grabbing your attention and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Not to mention that electronic devices cause us to stay in one static position for extended period of time, so we don’t burn off the stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline through movement. This article looks at the links between screen time and stress.
If you’re unsure whether your child is spending too much time on devices, have a look at our article: How Much is Too Much Screen Time?
5. Social Media/Social Pressure
Social media is often a supportive environment which can do wonders for some teenagers’ confidence and social lives. It is heartwarming to see the positive comments my daughter gets on Instagram from her friends, when she posts something about her dance, singing, or something pet-related. Of course, it is also a place where sometimes:
- People post before thinking through the consequences.
- We see only a one-dimensional snapshot of others’ lives (sometimes creating unrealistic aspirations for others).
- People hide behind anonymity to make judgments about others. Bullying is rife.
Social pressures, whether online or in real life, are a huge source of stress for many children. Social support and social connection are primal needs. As cavemen, we couldn’t survive alone. As a result, being accepted by others is of the utmost importance to most people.
6. Food and Stress
I passionately believe that a healthy diet has a positive effect on our mental health, ability to manage stress, and brain health in general.
There are particular nutrients that children in the UK and USA do not get enough of, and yet these are crucial for a healthy nervous system. These nutrients include magnesium and omega 3 essential fatty acids.
If you want to read more about food, mood and brain health in children I recommend the book They Are What You Feed Them by Dr Alex Richardson.
If you’re looking for a simple strategy to get you started, then use the “Eat the Rainbow” strategy. Try to get fruits and vegetables into your child’s diet in a wide range of colours.
The effect of this increase will be two-fold. Firstly it will reduce the amount of processed food in your child’s diet (which contains far fewer brain nutrients). Secondly it will vastly improve the range of nutrients your child is taking into their body. They are much more likely to get all the essential nutrients their brain needs to function well.
7. Parental Stress
Not only are children more stressed, but adults are too. For example, one study found that adults were more stressed in the 2010s than in the 1990s. Children experience stress vicariously through their parents. So it’s vital you develop more effective or different ways to deal with your own stress.
Children cannot have optimum mental health if they don’t feel safe at home. I explain why this is the case in my article about the importance of attachment in children. High stress households are associated with increased anxiety, and separation anxiety in particular.
If adults have positive mental health, then they have the space and quality time to support the needs of their children. You need to manage your stress to ensure your child feels safe and secure.
We can’t control or remove stressful situations, but we can have effective strategies to minimise their effects on us as parents, young children and teens, and other family members.
Extra Stress on An Already Stressed Nervous System
Each child’s circumstances are different. There may be other factors causing stress, such as friendship difficulties or conflict, family illness, bereavement or divorce.
Many families face not only the “standard stress” of every day living, but additional traumatic events on top.
Major life events or traumatic experiences are a risk factor for mental health problems including stress-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Your child will be more resilient to severe symptoms if they already have effective strategies to manage stress. You will learn one such technique (the stress cup technique) below. A healthy lifestyle will act as a buffer to too much stress. Stress management strategies also play a critical role in recovery. Having effective strategies in place makes it less likely your child will turn to more risky strategies such as alcohol or substance use / substance abuse.
What are the Signs of Stress in a Child?
You may have already noticed some physical symptoms of stress in your child. Increased stress hormones in the body can contribute to physical health ailments such as tummy aches and headaches. Of course, more sudden physical effects such as panic attacks and increased heart rate are also triggered much more easily when a child is stressed. Other signs of stress in children include:
- Persistent worry, often at night.
- Separation anxiety or clinginess.
- New or recurring fears.
- Aggressive or irritable behaviour.
- Poor planning skills.
- Mood swings/difficulty regulating emotions.
- Sleep difficulties (worsening of quantity or quality of sleep).
- Poorer standard of school work.
Effects of Stress on Child Development
Chronic stress in children has a negative impact on their cognitive function. In essence, if your child is regularly stressed their brain function will change. The brain will be on the lookout for danger and will be frequently in “fight or flight” mode. This causes the brain to focus on survival. It de-prioritises concentration, learning and rational thinking.
According to Nationwide Children’s:
“Toxic stress weakens the architecture of the developing brain, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.”
Childhood Stress, Health and the Immune System
The effects of chronic childhood stress can be very serious. A stressed child is more likely to grow up into a stressed adult with associated health problems. For example, stress is associated with increased incidence of high blood pressure, heart disease (cardiovascular disease) and heart attack in adulthood.
In the shorter term, an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone) causes inflammation in the body and affects the immune system. This can have a serious impact on your child’s health.
The great news is that the negative effects of chronic stress are not inevitable if your child is stressed at the moment. You can help them change the course of their lives by learning some stress management techniques. These techniques, along with lifestyle changes, will have a drastic positive impact on their current and future health.
How to Help a Child With Stress and Anxiety
Does your stressed child seem to fly off the handle at the slightest thing? Do they “hold it together” at school, then explode or have a meltdown when they arrive home? These are signs of stress in children.
Using the instructions below you are going to identify your child’s sources of stress, and also what helps them with stress. Then you will make a specific plan, increasing the things that help, and reducing any areas which cause a heavy stress load for your child.
Each little stress leads to the release of more cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is not always a negative thing: we need a certain amount to keep us alert and focused. Too much however, and our bodies tip into “fight or flight” mode. You can read more about that in aur article on anxiety symptoms in children.
Positive psychology is a field of psychology that explores how humans can thrive, achieving optimum wellbeing. Successful stress management is vital. The stress cup technique is a fantastic tool for stress management.
How to Explain Stress to a Child
Children need to understand what stress is and how too much stress can make them feel. They need a lot of help to manage it, but it’s going to be a team effort. The best way to explain stress to a child is to use the stress cup analogy.
During each day, small things are filling up your child’s cup. Some of these are not even noticeable to them. A little bit of stress is good. It can keep us alert and focused. It’s normal for us to feel some stress. The problem comes when the “cup” gets filled up, either with lots of little bits of stress, or a few big bits. Here are some examples:
- Friendship group conflict.
- Worry about my family.
- Worry about my grades.
- Told off in maths.
- Running late for my dance class.
- My friend criticized me.
- I don’t understand my homework.
- The classroom is too noisy.
- I slept badly and I’m still stressed from yesterday.
Take a few moments to think about what might be filling up YOUR child’s stress cup…
Next, think about all the sources of stress that could be hidden – that your child hasn’t told you about, or perhaps isn’t consciously aware of.
You can see how easily the cup fills up and childhood stress emerges.
How Stressed is Your Child? Time to Measure
One way to gauge stress levels in a young person is to measure cortisol levels in their saliva. A more realistic way is to draw a stress cup! Use my free pdf to analyse what’s causing your child’s stress (cup fillers) and what’s helping them manage stress (cup emptiers).
Download Your Child Stress PDF Guide HERE
You can also use a blank piece of paper. Draw an empty cup. Ask your child to write in it, what is making them feel stressed, just like the examples above. How stressed is your child today? Is their cup overflowing or only half full? This will give you valuable insights into how stressed your child is and what is triggering stress. It might not be what you think!
If you do these exercises regularly – perhaps once a week or once a fortnight- you and your child will become much more attuned to your child’s stressors.
If your child is not comfortable sharing their stress cup with you, that’s okay too. They can do it in private. It will help increase their self-awareness about what is creating stress in their life. They may open up to you – or another trusted person – at a later stage.
Minimize What Fills the Cup
Try to take one or two things that are filling up your child’s cup, and make a plan. You might need to reduce some of the things that fill up the cup. For example, if maths is incredibly stressful for your child, could the school reduce the amount of maths homework your child gets, at least temporarily?
Is it time to set up a meeting with your child’s school to ask for more support?
If your child is anxious about school in general and morning anxiety is a problem, do you need to refresh your child’s evening routine to help prepare the brain and nervous system for sleep? Read this article about healthy evening routines if this is one of your priorities.
You may need to remove some things completely if you have a very stressed child. If your child goes to drama club but the stress of performing outweighs the pleasure they get from it, remove it from their cup.
Maximise What Empties the Cup
What works to empty the cup for your child? What leaves them feeling regenerated, calm and focused, ready to face the world?
The answer to the question above will be different for every single child. For example, if a lot of stress is generated by worry about the future, then your child may benefit from regular special one-to-one time with you, chatting whilst engaging in something relaxing such as baking or watching a movie.
If much of your child’s stress comes from sensory overwhelm at school, then you may need the school’s help to adjust your child’s environment. For example, quiet spaces where your child can go when feeling overwhelmed, to calm their nervous system.
Kids and stress do not have to go hand in hand. Even if you can’t remember a time when your child wasn’t stressed, you can help them learn to flourish. For most children, the following healthy lifestyle ideas will help empty their stress cup in a healthy way:
- Intense exercise (running or bouncing on a trampoline, swimming).
- A few nights in a row of good quality sleep.
- “Flow” activities: Activities that are so absorbing and enjoyable, they take all your attention and focus away from the sources of stress in children. These can be as diverse as singing, football or painting.
- Regular, healthy meals containing plenty of varied fruits and vegetables. When the brain and nervous system are under stress, they need to draw on a wide variety of nutrients to replenish and recover. Certain nutrients such as magnesium and Omega 3 essential fatty acids are particularly important for a healthy nervous system.
- A technology/screen “detox” for a couple of days. If you need help with this take a look at our article: Screen Time: Managing the Boundaries
- Learning mindfulness, yoga or deep breathing. A regular mindfulness practice can have a very positive impact on stress. You can also read our article about the positive impact of yoga for young people’s mental health.
Stress Management for Children
Stress management for children isn’t just about teaching them coping skills. Two other factors are equally important: helping them contain their stressed and anxious feelings (co-regulating) and adapting their environment to make it less stressful.
Arguably, adapting the environment for your stressed child is the most powerful factor.
Summary: Stress in Children
Childhood stress is increasing owing to the demands of modern society. Children and teens can learn potent strategies to manage stress and thrive in their everyday lives. They need a lot of help from adults to manage stress and regulate their emotions. Adults must consider how to adapt a child’s environment to reduce stress. The stress cup technique is one of the simplest and most effective methods for taking all these factors into account and developing a personalised strategy to meet your child’s needs.
When it comes to managing stress in children, always focus on making one adjustment at a time. Choose one area to focus on, and support your child to do it well. For example, plan a week’s worth of wholesome meals together and work together to ensure your child is eating regularly. Put a particular emphasis on changes that you and your child can sustain in the long term.
Need More Help?
If your child is experiencing extreme stress they may need professional help. In the first instance, speak to your family doctor. They will explore possible next steps with you including a referral to your local CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health) service if you are in the UK. Unfortunately, NHS services are under great pressure and if your child is accepted, they may have to wait for support.
Many private services are also under pressure, so paying for therapeutic support for childhood stress doesn’t necessarily guarantee easier access. You can find your local clinical psychologist in the UK by searching the Association for Child Psychologists in Private Practice’s directory.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
To learn more tips for helping your child manage stress, join my Facebook group, Parent Tips For Positive Child Mental health UK.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist and Clinical Director at Everlief Child Psychology.