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Managing Stress in Children


Normal stress helps us to prepare with challenges for greater learning and opportunity, such as the experience before meeting new people,  going to a new places or going to school.

However, constant stress leads to problems that can have long lasting consequence.  Many parents feel that children are only subjected to stress when they are going for exams.  However this is far from the truth as most children are facing stress and are unable to cope with it. It is also troubling to note that many of these children do not tell their parents for one reason or another.

Children these days are under a lot of stress, thus ,it would be important to find out the origins of their stress. It is comforting to note that much of the stress faced by children can be dealt with effectively with simple measures. The pressures faced by children often seem to stem from these areas; school and home. What is alright to one child may not be alright to another.

At school, stress  can come from a variety of sources; peers, teachers, education or the educations system itself. The limited public awareness of childhood disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and Dyslexia also contributes to this problem. Often these conditions are diagnosed late, when the children are in their teens. It is known that children with either  ADHD  or dyslexia can cause to children struggle in their school resulting in them performing poorly.  At home, children need to deal with the pressures from parents, siblings, relatives, neighbours and even from the tuition teachers!.

Often parents unknowingly place undue pressure on their children to compete with their peers. At other times they tend to compare one child with another thinking that it would encourage the child to study harder. In reality it only makes a child feel inferior and eventually develop low self esteem. 

Both negative and positive events can cause stress. Positive events that cause stress in children include birthday parties and the birth of new siblings. The breakup of a family is a all too common serious negative event that can cause stress in children. Unfortunately even young children are faced with this problem when their parents decide to divorce. Frequent fighting between parents is especially unsettling for children.. Children often believe that their “bad” behavior is the cause of the breakup of their mother and father. In cases of divorce children are often confronted with multiple stressful events which might include: a change in their circle of friends, a change in the standard of living, a splitting of the time spent with their parents. They have a tendency to assume guilt for situations that adults know are entirely beyond the child’s control. Events such as physical abuse, separation, rejection, and fights are some other negative sources of stress. Other events such as a parent losing a job, or the death of a parent, grandparent, or sibling can create stress.

Signs of Stress: Up to 5 Years Old

Young children can’t often tell you that they are feeling stressed. Often it is the changes to their behaviour that help to reveal their level of stress. Infants, toddlers, and preschool children demonstrate stress by often clinging to a parent, crying more than usual, having temper tantrums, displaying regressive behaviours (thumb sucking, bedwetting, fear of the dark, etc.), rocking, biting.

Signs of Stress: 6 to 11 Years Old

Children of school going age are more likely to tell you they are feeling stressed. However, whether they verbalise it or not, stress can also manifest as physical complaints and uncharacteristic behaviours.

School children who are stressed often have stomach aches, headaches, respiratory tract illness, sleep problems, disturbed appetite, stutter, need to go to the bathroom a lot, or grind their teeth, especially in their sleep. They also can pick also their noses a lot, bite their nails, and have nightmares. Children may also revert to infantile behaviours such as bedwetting, tantrums, or baby talk. Stressed children may also lie, bully, defy authority, express anger, be aggressive, be irritable, or engage in disruptive behaviour,

Signs of Stress: 12 to 18 Years Old

Pre-adolescents and adolescents, although the most communicative of all childhood, are often the least communicative when they are facing stress. They also may deny that anything is affecting them and refuse to talk. When stressed they may not be willing to take on more adult responsibilities or want to play. Stressed teenagers also may engage in dangerous behaviours that may put their health or lives at risk. They also may have suicidal tendencies and some adolescents tend to hurt or harm themselves. It is important to teach them to problem solve for themselves and come up with coping strategies. This builds their independence and mastery of coming up with options, finding solutions, or finding other ways to comfort themselves.

What Can Parents do

  • Most children look up to their parents as role models so parents should monitor their own stress levels and use effective techniques to deal with it. Children learn lessons from adults, whether these lessons are positive or negative. Keep in mind that children are imitators and may cope with stress in the same ways they see adults handle their stress. Parents need to be particularly aware of when their own stress levels contribute to marital conflict. Take care of yourself! Children often pick up stress from parents and caregivers. Keep calm and control your anger. Kids feel better about themselves when they have good relationships with their parents.
  • Parents should take the time and effort to schedule fun activities that encourage bonding with their children while they are still young. It is very difficult to form a relationship with an adolescent when there was minimum interaction between them in the past. Unfortunately this seems to be the greatest challenge with most parents; to spend time with their children. Many children are left to bond with their maids and due to work commitments, parents come back late and have but an hour or two with their children. There is no short cut to forming relationships with children. It takes time and effort to ensure that the foundation remains strong. When left unchecked the children tend to have closer relationships with friends instead of their own family.
  • Children of all ages need time to play and relax. However, many children now are burdened with tons or schoolwork and have so little time for play. Playtime is meant for children to learn about their world, explore ideas and soothe themselves. Plan plenty of time for play. Plan activities to allow children to express their feelings through play. Books, art activities, puppetry, play and drawing allow children to think through and label their feelings.
    Many children often end up moving from one tuition to another and keep such a busy schedule. It is truly sad to see that children in kindergarten are also subjected to tuition. Helping children to deal positively with stressful and tension causing events prepares them for healthy emotional and social development. This is an important responsibility of parents, teachers, and other caregivers: to effectively guide and help children. Thus it is important for adults to understand that not all children can take a busy schedule without having breaks. Help and allow children to plan for rest or breaks in between school and tuition or from one tuition class to another. 
  • Promote a positive environment – The most difficult human skill to acquire and learn is probably patience. We tend to say things that we often regret later and this most often happens to the ones we love. So it’s good to just wait for a second before we shoot from hip as it can make an immeasurable amount of difference. We need to remind ourselves to praise their children for the acceptable things that they do and not just put them down when things go wrong. Help children see and understand the positive things about themselves and that they are worthwhile persons. Listen without judging the child or the situation. Give children a lot of hugs, reassurances, and spend time as a family. It is important for children to have their say, or even to voice out their thoughts and being listened to. Many times, children just want to have some to listen to them – not to nag or constantly lecture them.
  • Children need help in learning to manage and function with the stress they feel. It is important that children understand what they are feeling, that we teach the word “stress” by letting them know that they may feel “butterflies in the stomach,” or that their heart may pound. Let children know that it is all right to feel angry, alone, scared, or lonely. Teach children names or words for their feelings and appropriate ways to express them.
  • Help children through stories – Sometimes children can’t explain or express what they feel. They may feel shy, embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed. If you try to talk to them using adult logic, most children will “turn off.” Sometimes it may be useful to use a character in a story to get them to open up.  In the story, the boy or girl finds ways of coping with and resolving troubling issues of concern to the child. As the child listens to the story, he or she is able to identify with the character. There is safety in the story. The child is free to listen and to learn without risking feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable


  • Parents can help children respond to stress in healthy ways. Healthy and happy parents make healthy and happy families. Provide a safe, secure, familiar, consistent, and dependable home.
  • Make sure that you are available for your kids at all times.
  • Be selective in the television programs that young children watch Spend calm, relaxed time with your children. Recognize signs of unresolved stress in your child.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions and encourage expression of concerns, worries, or fears. Listen to your child without being critical.
  • Build your child’s feelings of self confidence. Use encouragement and affection. Try to involve your child in situations where he or she can succeed.
  • Try to use positive encouragement and reward instead of punishment 
  • Allow the child opportunities to make choices and have some control in his or her life. This is particularly important, because research shows that the more people feel they have control over a situation, the better their response to stress will be.
  • Teach children tricks for calming themselves, such as taking deep breaths, thinking of a quiet place, etc.
  • Encourage physical activities, especially that which involves the family.
  • Seek professional help or advice when signs of stress do not decrease or disappear.
Last Reviewed : 14 Disember 2010
Writer : Dr. Nurashikin binti Ibrahim