How to Tell If Your Child Is Overstressed

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Stress is affecting kids at younger and younger ages. Doctors report seeing children as young as six years with symptoms of stress and anxiety, often due to increased academic pressure in school (including lack of recess and an emphasis on standardized testing), family problems, and poverty. 

Everyone has problems sometimes, but when stress overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, it becomes toxic. And while kids can be remarkably resilient, they’re still as susceptible to stress as adults are. 

Here are five signs your child may be overstressed:

1. Changes in behavior

Pay attention to persistent changes in behavior. Very young children can’t effectively verbalize their frustration or stress, but that frustration may come out via temper tantrums or excessive neediness. Older kids might not tell you they’re stressed, but if they start avoiding their favorite activities and are having trouble sleeping (or sleeping more than normal), ask if something is bothering them. Other behavioral changes commonly associated with stress include increased complaining or worrying, crying, eating more or less than usual, and altering daily habits.

2. Frequent physical complaints

Stress commonly shows up physically. If your child is sick more often than usual (especially with vague, non-specific symptoms, and especially if there’s nothing “going around” your neighborhood), stress might be the culprit. Stomach aches and headaches are commonly associated with stress too.

3. Expressing negative thoughts and feelings

According to the American Psychological Association, “children are often not familiar with the word stress and its meaning, [so] they may express feelings of distress through other words.” Listen for words such as “worried” or “angry,” and pay attention to negative phrases such as, “I’m no good” or “Nothing is fun,” especially if such negative expressions are becoming common.

4. Regression

One of the most common signs of stress in children is regression to previous behaviors. A stressed-out child who is toilet-trained, for instance, might start wetting the bed again. One who has confidently and independently headed into daycare or school in the past might again cry or become clingy at drop off. Similarly, a child who brings their security object out of retirement or starts thumb sucking again after long ago kicking the habit may be stressed.

5. Withdrawal

Some stressed-out kids attempt to cope by withdrawing from the world as much as possible. If your child is suddenly spending more time alone, avoiding friends, and resisting going to school and other events, stress might be the culprit.

It’s important to note that all kids experience stress, and all kids exhibit these symptoms sometimes, even when they’re not experiencing overwhelming stress. What you’re really looking for is a change from your child’s baseline.

If your child is acting significantly different than usual, it’s worth investigating to see what’s going on. Ask your child. Talk to his teachers and friends, if necessary. Most importantly, let your child know you love and support him. Additional sources of support include your child’s pediatrician and licensed mental health professionals, especially child and adolescent psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 6
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Childhood stress. The Nemours Foundation. http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/feelings/stress.html

  2. Stress in childhood. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002059.htm

  3. Identifying signs of stress in your children and teens. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-children.aspx

  4. Children and stress: Caring strategies to guide children. Virginia Cooperative Extension. https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/350/350-054/350-054.html