How to Spot Stress and Anxiety in Children

Know how to recognize the causes and signs of this common problem in kids

Anxious Chinese student rubbing forehead doing homework

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Anxiety is an all-too-common problem faced by children today. As with adults, children respond differently to stress depending on their age, individual personalities, and coping skills. When it comes to childhood anxiety, younger grade-schoolers may not be able to fully understand or explain their own feelings. Older kids may be able to understand what’s bothering them, though that’s no guarantee that they’ll share that information with Mom or Dad.

For most children, fear, anxiety, and stress change or decrease with age. For instance, a kindergartener who experiences separation anxiety may become a social butterfly who bounds into school in the later grades. A second-grader who is afraid of the dark or of monsters may grow into a kid who loves ghost stories.

Childhood stress can manifest with difficult behavior, and it is important for parents to recognize the signs of stress and to look for the possible causes. Parents can usually help children manage stress and anxiety, but some children may have an anxiety disorder, and can benefit from professional help.

Signs of Anxiety in Children

Changes in behavior or temperament are common flags that may indicate your child may be experiencing stress and anxious feelings. Children may not recognize their own anxiety and often lack the maturity to explain their real or imagined stressful issues. This can cause a variety of physical and behavioral signs to emerge, and parents may be unsure whether these are symptoms anxiety or a health problem.

Some common signs of stress and anxiety include:

  • Complaints of stomach aches or headaches
  • Decreased or increased appetite
  • Sleep problems or nightmares
  • Bedwetting
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Behavioral changes, such as moodiness, a short temper, or clinginess
  • Development of a nervous habit, such as nail biting
  • Withdrawing from family or friends
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Getting into trouble at school

It can help to think about whether these signs typically occur before or after certain activities, and whether there are physical symptoms, such as fevers, rash, or diarrhea, that could signal a medical problem.

Common Causes of Childhood Stress

The source of anxiety and stress in children can be something external, such as a problem at school, changes in the family, or a conflict with a friend. Anxious feelings can also be caused by a child's internal feelings and pressures, such as wanting to do well in school or fit in with peers. Some common causes of stress in children include:

  • Big changes in the family: Major life changes that can lead to stress in children include divorce, a death in the family, moving, or the birth of a new sibling. These seismic shifts can rock your grade-schooler’s world. Major life changes can shake your child’s sense of security, leading to confusion and anxiety. For example, a new sibling can make a child feel threatened and jealous. A death in the family can create alarm and grief and may trigger fears about death and dying.
  • Parental instability: Money and job concerns, family turmoil, and parental agitation can lead to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness for children who may feel that they want to help, but don't have the means to do so.
  • Overly-packed schedules: Constantly running from one activity to another can cause a great deal of stress for children, who usually need some quiet downtime every once in a while.
  • Academic pressure: Many children experience anxiety about wanting to do well in school. Academic pressure is particularly common in children who are afraid of making mistakes or who are afraid of not being good at something.
  • Popularity: For younger grade-schoolers, separation anxiety can be a common problem. As they get older, most children want to fit in with other kids and be like, and the pressure to fit in and be popular can be agonizing. Cliques and the feeling of being excluded usually become an issue once kids enter grade school.
  • Bullying: Bullying is a serious problem for many children, It can be subtle, or obvious, and may lead to physical harm. Children who are bullied often feel embarrassed about being targeted, and they may hide the bullying from parents or teachers for fear of drawing attention to their perceived weaknesses.
  • A terrible news event: News headlines and images showing natural disasters, terrorism, and violence can be upsetting for children. When kids see and hear about terrible news events, they may worry that something bad might happen to them or to someone they love.
  • A scary movie or a book: Fictional stories can also cause distress or anxiety in children. Children are commonly affected by frightening, violent, or upsetting scenes from a movie or passages in a book. Some kids might be more sensitive to media content than others, and it's a good idea to know what might upset your child, to limit violent media content, and stick to age-appropriate movies, books, video games, and other media.
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