Helping your child grow can feel like building a Jenga tower. You do your best to help them build a strong and secure foundation, one block at a time, so that when life inevitably throws stress their way, they have the resiliency to stay balanced. But sometimes, just one block out of place can cause the whole tower to wobble.
From big changes and transitions for kids, like moving to a new home or starting a new school, to smaller things like homework and friendships, there are countless pieces in play that can cause childhood stress.
While you can’t eliminate the causes of childhood stress, you can provide your child with tools to cope with it. Understanding common childhood stressors and the signs of childhood stress is the first step to teaching your child to manage it, so they can learn to stand tall and strong no matter what life throws at them.
Common Childhood Stressors
For many of us, early childhood is a time we remember through rose-colored glasses. It can be hard to realize that children face many stressors in their lives—often just as many as adults do. Here are some of the most common sources of stress for children:
- School-related stressors – Not surprisingly, school is one of the biggest sources of stress for kids. A school stressor can include worrying about getting good grades, meeting the expectations of parents and teachers, following a daily schedule and routine, navigating peer conflict, and making friends. This can be especially challenging for students who struggle with time management, executive functioning, or other developmental challenges.
- Family-related stressors – Naturally, family has the largest impact on a child's well-being and can add to your own feelings of parental stress. A stressful situation regarding family can have an impact on a young child. One of the most common sources of stress in this category is divorce or separation of parents. Children may feel like they are caught in the middle of their parents' conflicts, or they may worry about the changes that will come with the separation. Moving to a new home or school, illness or death in the family, and the arrival of a new sibling are also common causes of stress within the family dynamic.
- Social stressors – Stress on a young child doesn't have to result from a traumatic event. Social situations can also be a common stressor in early childhood. Problems with socializing can be particularly challenging for children, as they are still developing their social skills and sense of identity. Bullying or teasing from peers is a common source of stress and can lead to feelings of isolation and low self-esteem. Children who have difficulty making friends may also experience stress, as they may feel left out or excluded from social activities. Signs of bullying, like feeling left out or excluded, can be especially hard for children, making them feel like they don't fit in with their peers. Learn more about what to do if your kid is being bullied.
- Environmental, societal, and cultural stressors – Stressors that come from the larger world around them can be especially frightening for kids. The COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters like hurricanes or wildfires, and other events in the news cause children much more stress and worry than we realize.1 Exposure to the harmful impacts of systemic racism, classicism, and sexism can also be significant stressors for children.2,3
What Are ACEs?
The most severe types of stressors children go through are known as ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). ACEs are a way of measuring the effects of traumatic experiences that children may face in their lives, including:3
- Physical or emotional abuse
- Substance abuse in the home
- Parental separation or divorce
- Suicide of a family member
- Incarceration of a family member
The more adverse experiences a child faces, the higher their risk of developing negative outcomes such as chronic disease, mental health issues, and problems with relationships and learning later in life.
Childhood development experts believe understanding and addressing ACEs early can help improve children's long-term health and well-being. While traumatic events are often unavoidable, being aware of ACEs can help you support your child. If your family has experienced death, divorce, or other serious traumatic events listed above, your child could benefit from professional help to cope.
Signs and Factors of Childhood Stress
Childhood stress can be caused by many factors and situations. However, most instances of childhood anxiety and stress fall into one of three large categories:
- Changes in the family, such as parents getting divorced or moving to a new home
- School or social situations
- Systemic factors like poverty or discrimination2
While you can’t make these stressors disappear, you can keep an eye out for signs that your child is struggling to handle the stress factors in their life. Below, we’ll take a look at signs of stress in more detail.
Behavioral and Emotional Signs of Stress
According to the American Psychological Association, stress in kids can show up in slightly different ways than in adults, and every child’s reaction to stress is unique.1 However, there are some common behavioral and emotional signs your child is stressed that you should watch for:
- Withdrawal or avoidance – Like adults, sometimes kids feel so overwhelmed by stress that they start to withdraw from their usual activities or avoid social situations. For example, they might stop playing with their friends or lose interest in hobbies they used to enjoy.
- Aggressive or defiant behavior – Some kids respond to stress by acting out or becoming more defiant or aggressive than usual. This can include tantrums, yelling, or even physical aggression toward others.
- Changes in eating habits – It’s very common for stress to affect the appetite. You might notice your child picking at meals or eating more than usual. This can likely be due to stress. However, you may consider consulting with a healthcare professional to rule out other health-related reasons for a decrease in appetite.
- Changes in mood – Kids who are stressed may be more irritable, argumentative, or have sudden mood swings. They might seem like they're on edge all the time, cry easily, or have other outbursts of emotion.
- Regression in behavior – Stress often causes children to act younger than their age. For example, a child who is potty-trained might start having accidents again. Older children may begin bed-wetting or return to thumb-sucking. When it comes to regression, it can be normal in certain situations. However, at other times, it’s not always a good sign. For example, your child might ‘act babyish’ or use a baby voice when a sibling is born. But if they’re having frequent bed-wetting incidents, it may be due to a distressing experience they’ve had. If you are concerned, don’t hesitate to seek a second opinion from a professional.4
If you notice any of these signs in your child, it’s time to find out what might be causing the stress. Remember, it's normal for kids to experience tolerable stress from time to time.
However, when normal stressors continue long-term, it becomes chronic stress—a significant risk factor for numerous health problems in later life.2 In these cases, consider reaching out to a healthcare professional for support and guidance.
When to Seek Help
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, children may need additional help managing stress. And while there are ways you can help a child with stress and anxiety, you must be aware of red flags that may indicate it’s time to seek help from a counselor or therapist.
It could be time to see a professional if:
- Stress is impacting their daily life, such as their ability to eat, sleep, or engage in regular activities
- Your child displays severe behavioral or emotional signs of stress, such as extreme irritability, aggression, depression, or anxiety
- Your child has thoughts of hurting themselves or is self-harming (in young children, this often appears as hitting their head on a wall or hitting, biting, or pinching themselves)5
- Your child shows severe regression in developmental milestones
help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Handle Childhood Stress with Help from Slumberkins
Every child will experience stress during their lives—it’s a normal part of growing up, and it’s good practice for the challenges of adulthood. But when kids become overwhelmed with stress that’s too much for their coping skills, it’s up to the adults in their lives to help them build their strength.
To do this, parents and caregivers need to be aware of the signs of stress in children so they can recognize what’s normal—and what’s not.
If you need some support of your own to handle your child’s stress, Slumberkins has your back. From family bonding to connecting with kids, our research-backed resources and cuddly characters make it easy for your child to practice skills like coping with change and managing their worries. With Slumberkins, you and your child can grow together.
- "How to help children and teens manage their stress." American Psychological Association. Updated 19 October, 2022. https://www.apa.org/topics/children/stress
- Thompson, Ross. "Stress and child development." The Future of Children. Spring 2014. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23723382
- "Fast facts: Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/fastfact.html
- "It’s not regression." Janet Landsbury. https://www.janetlansbury.com/2020/06/its-not-regression/
- "Head banging, punching, biting: Handling self-harm behaviors in kids." Riley Children’s Health. 24 January. 2017. https://www.rileychildrens.org/connections/head-banging-punching-biting-handling-self-harm-behaviors-in-kids
- Cascio, Christopher N et al. “Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience vol. 11,4 (2016): 621-9. doi:10.1093/scan/nsv136