How to Spot Stress and Anxiety in Children

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

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 anxiety in children, younger grade-schoolers may not be able to fully explain their feelings, whereas older kids may be able to say exactly what’s bothering them and why (though that’s no guarantee that they’ll share that information with Mom or Dad).

In most cases, fear and anxiety and stress in children change or disappear 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.

Once parents determine whether what their child is experiencing is something temporary or a more deeply-rooted anxiety disorder, they can then find ways to help their child manage stress and anxiety.

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. Some common signs include:

  • Complaints of stomach aches or headaches

  • Sleep problems or difficulty concentrating

  • Behavioral changes, such as moodiness, a short temper, or clinginess

  • Development of a nervous habit, such as nail biting

  • Refusal to go to school or getting into trouble at school

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 even the birth of a new sibling. These seismic shifts can rock your grade-schooler’s world and turn it upside down. Major life changes can shake your child’s sense of security, and make her feel confused and anxious. For example, a new sibling can make a child feel threatened and jealous. A death in the family, particularly of a grandparent or someone else close to the child, can create confusion and grief, as well as anxiety and stress.

  • Overly-packed schedules. If your child is constantly running from one activity to another, he may feel stressed, especially if he’s the kind of kid who needs some quiet downtime to himself every once in a while.

  • Self-inflicted pressure. Many children can experience anxiety about wanting to do well in school. They may want to fit in with other kids and be liked. Self-generated pressure is particularly common in children who are afraid of making mistakes or not being good at something.

  • Stress caused by something at school. Bullies or cliques can become an issue once kids enter grade school. Even if a child isn’t being bullied, the pressure to fit in and be popular can be stressful and lead to stress in children. For younger grade-schoolers, separation anxiety can be a common problem.

  • A terrible news event. News headlines and television news images about natural disasters, terrorism, and violence can be upsetting and can often cause stress in 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. While some kids might be more sensitive to some media content than others – what's scary or upsetting for one child might have no affect on another – it's a good idea to know what might upset your child, limit violent media content, and stick to age-appropriate movies, books, video games, and other media.

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