What are the warning signs of stress in children and young people and how to deal with it?

Find tips and advice for tackling stress in children from pre-schoolers and pre-teens to adolescents and young adults

Knowing what to look out for is half the battle won

  • Pre-schoolers (aged 5 and below)

There are many reasons why a young child might feel stressed – things like moving home, going to nursery and the arrival of a brother or sister can be daunting for little minds. Some children may manage these big life changes with ease but for others it can be an extremely difficult period of adjustment and often it is heightened by the stress they see in their busy parents who are coping with the changes themselves.

The NHS says to look out for the following signs of stress in young children:

  • Thumb sucking after they have grown out of that period
  • Hair twiddling and hiding face with hair
  • Irritable, tearful
  • Bed wetting after growing out of that period
  • Excessive clingyness

It’s easy to put these behaviours down to a child feeling a little unsettled and children can be unbelievably resilient but be sure these feelings don’t turn into anything more serious. Sometimes bad behaviour is a coping mechanism for grabbing attention too so be sure to go easy on them if they do misbehave. Make the time to explain any big changes to your little ones using books, drawings, toys or just a cuddle. They need to be made to feel safe and secure.

Read more: How to deal with stress in children 

  • Pre-teens (aged 5-12 years)

Once children reach primary school age they do tend to be much more vocal with their discomforts and fears but there are still warning signs for those that are not coping very well. They have some big changes to deal with during this period from starting school to making new friends and becoming more independent overall, and these developments all come with their own set of worries. Other factors can include divorce, the loss of a grandparent or the death of a family pet which can all be terribly hard emotionally for children at any age.

The NHS has these signs to look out for in older children:

  • Changes in mood quickly
  • Bullying
  • Nightmares
  • Significant drop in academic performance
  • Isolation and drifting away from support networks
  • Persistent negative thoughts that impact on day-to-day life actions

The key is to always give your children the opportunity to open up, whether that’s while they play in the bath one night or while you watch a film together. Sometimes, especially with younger children, they will open up to you when they feel most comfortable and often by surprise. Let them share with you, listen and reassure them that you can work through it together.

  •  Adolescents and Teens (aged 13-17 years)

According to the World Health Organization, 20% of adolescents may experience mental health problems in any given year and studies in the last 20 years have also found that 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14. There are many reasons which can contribute to stress in teenagers, including academic pressures at school, external pressures from music exams or dance performances, parental divorce, emotional changes and physical and geographical changes.

It’s easy for children at this age to dismiss feelings of anxiety or become more introverted, and it’s also easy for parents to put these changes down to a dose of ‘moody teenager,’ especially in early teens facing puberty or hormonal changes.

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Dr Su Sukumaran says: “Try not to immediately contradict or dismiss their negative thoughts but acknowledge they are feeling fed up or down. You can support your teenager by making face-to-to-face time a priority where possible. For example, the family eating dinner at the table every evening or inviting family members over on a regular basis. Do what you can to keep them connected to friends and family but give them breathing space and don’t push them into situations.”

  • Young Adults (18-21 years)

When children reach this age, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to notice the signs of stress. They may live away from home or live at home but lead a very independent life, so spending enough time with them to notice any significant problems is hard. And, while you may still consider them still ‘your baby,’ during this stage of life, children are building the foundations of their adult lifestyle and rely less on the emotional support of parents. They may grab the independence with open arms but it still comes with its fair share of pressure – from university life to sex and relationships – and there are signs to watch out for, including excessive weight loss, or gain, an unusual lack of communication and unpredictable behaviour. The good thing about this age is that the ability to talk to about problems face-to-face becomes much easier. Reassure them that you are always here if and when they need to talk.

Read more: How do children deal with stress and how should parents respond? Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg answers

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