Symptoms of stress in children

Symptoms of stress in children

Children may not have eat-work-sleep routines and responsibilities like adult do, but they can be just as affected by stress.

Let’s take a look at the signs that can tip you off that your child is stressed.

What is stress?

Stress is an alarm signal for the body to gear up for reacting to a new situation or threat.

It’s a defence and survival mechanism that allows us to gather our forces and adapt to our environment.


You just barely avoided a car accident by braking hard.

Your heart is pounding. Your pupils are dilated. You’re breathing fast.

All these bodily sensations are a response to stress for fleeing from danger and protecting yourself. They are triggered by hormones such as cortisol and catecholamines.

Stress is part of our lives. We encounter it every day. In small amounts, it contributes to a child’s learning and development.

Stress is also relative, since our response to it depends on individual perception. The only thing that is universal is our reaction: the feeling of a loss of control due to a new or unforeseen situation.

When stress becomes toxic

Unfortunately, the effects of stress can become negative. Sometimes our reactions exceed normal stress levels.

This is then referred to as toxic stress. How do you know if your child suffers from toxic stress?

Researchers classify responses to stress as three types:

  • Positive stress level: This is a light to mild stress level and only lasts for moments. For example, your child has an oral presentation. He is relieved when it’s over.
  • Tolerable stress level: This is caused by an uncommon event, such as the death of your dog. In spite of the difficulties, the child is able to function with the support of adults.
  • Toxic stress level: This is experienced over a prolonged period with episodes that are frequent or intense. Adults are not able to mitigate the symptoms.

When stress is permanently embedded in the child’s life, it compromises learning and well-being.

It can damage physical and mental health in adulthood. It can take over the immune system, causing inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation is a risk factor for the following diseases:

  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Certain types of cancer and diabetes
  • Auto-immune diseases
  • Cardiovascular diseases, etc.

Anxiety or fear?

Anxiety takes root when we anticipate a real or potential situation. Often the person’s sentences begin with “What if...” They imagine catastrophic scenarios. It’s not surprising that anxiety is sometimes referred to as the fear of being afraid.

People suffering anxiety often fear events that haven’t occurred. This state frequently causes distress.

Fear, on the other hand, is the feeling experienced when a child leaves their comfort zone. This zone represents known ground and is reassuring.

To avoid fear, the child does everything possible to remain in their comfort zone. Avoidance behaviour means the more the child doesn’t confront their fears, the more their comfort zone shrinks.

The other side of the coin is that the more the child faces their fears, the more their comfort zone expands. It has a snowball effect. The child becomes more open to change and adapts to it like a fish in water.

To help your child, you need to distinguish between the concepts of stress, anxiety and fear. If you understand the nuances, you’ll be able to ask your child the right questions and help them verbalize the emotions that are dominating them.

What are symptoms of stress in children?

Contrary to adults, children are more vulnerable to stress. Since they have not yet developed the mechanisms for defending themselves against stress or adapting to it, they depend on adults to resolve the situation.

Children are not immune to stress. They feel the effects during events such as moving, writing a test or changing their routine.

Learn how to read the signals.

A roller coaster of emotions

Abrupt changes in mood or behaviour are the first signs you will most likely observe when your child is over-stressed.

Pay attention to the following:

  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Scowling
  • Isolation

Stress can also manifest as wailing or other intense emotional reactions that are disproportionate to events.

Among smaller children, stress can manifest as the anxiety of separation. We see this fear when it’s time to begin childcare or go back to school. Usually it fades with time. However, if separation anxiety is prolonged and intense, your child may be having difficulties adapting to stress.

Mommy, I don’t feel well

Sometimes words aren’t said, it’s the body that talks and shows the elevated stress levels. This is especially true for young children who can’t verbalize stress symptoms as well as older children.

Many manifestations of physical discomfort can be observed:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches, nausea and diarrhea
  • Shivering
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Eczema, rashes or itching
  • More frequent asthma attacks
  • Enuresis (bed wetting)

If you think your child is becoming sicker than previously, it’s perhaps a sign of a strong reaction to stress.

Interrupted sleep

Is Sandy unable to close his eyes at night when previously he slept soundly? Does Mia wake up during the night, sometimes crying? Is she having nightmares? Is Nathan scared of the dark and asks for a night light to keep the ghosts away when this phase should have been over a long time ago?

Sleep is one aspect of life that is most affected by stress. If your child is always tired and often needs to nap, it might be a warning sign.

Problems concentrating

Stress and concentration don’t go together. Concentration can be disrupted by worries of all kinds.

Lack of concentration not only means forgetting but there are many other signs:

  • Incomplete homework
  • Perpetual movements and agitation
  • Rapidly becoming weary during activities
  • Inability to complete tasks
  • Absent-minded listening

These concentration problems can interfere with your child’s ability to learn. They often lead to failing at school or receiving lower grades. These problems need to be addressed rapidly.

Stress at dinner time

Here you need to pay attention to extremes. Stress can increase or decrease your child’s appetite.

Check if their weight has changed by comparing it to their weight at the last visit to the doctor.

If their weight fluctuates by 10% or they are under the normal body mass index, stress might be the cause. You should consult a healthcare professional as a precaution.


The concept of avoidance is often linked to stress in children. You'll get the impression that your child is kicking the can down the road instead of confronting their problems.

Here are several dependable clues:

  • Refusal to go to school or childcare
  • Procrastination or acting in “last minute” mode
  • Forgetting important things or events
  • Disorganization

Clamming up

Your outgoing child has become a loner. They don’t say much.

Withdrawal is a symptom of stress.

Try to dig a little deeper to find out what’s behind this. Don’t forget that the positive effects of relationships protect children against toxic stress.

How do you help?

Many strategies can reduce your child’s stress or, at least help them to better adapt to stressful situations.

Your role as a parent and your support are the key to success. Build a support network of adults your child can trust: teachers, family members, health care professionals, etc.

When should you consult a healthcare professional?

Healthcare professionals are there to get you through when you feel your child’s stress is increasing.

You should see a healthcare professional when:

  • Symptoms persist or become more intense.
  • Your child seems incapable of functioning normally.
  • Stress has become toxic.

You suspect your child suffers from exhaustion, depression or anxiety.

Note: This article is intended for information purposes only and should not be construed as professional advice.