Helping Your Child With Stress
Stress is normally not a significant problem for children. Kids can normally think things
through and figure them out for themselves, despite some stress. They can usually handle their
feelings whether they are feeling good or not and can do what they need to do. They have some
stress but handle it fine. Nonetheless, your children may experience more stress than they can
comfortably handle. When they do, there are normally observable signs that their stress is getting
to them. Listen to Cathy's internal struggle as she tries to mentally manage her building stress and
then visualize her behavior as she abruptly leaves the room.
Cathy is feeling very restless and cannot get herself to calm down. She cannot
concentrate on anything and is feeling the start of a headache. The past few nights, she tossed and
turned for what seemed like hours before falling asleep. Last night, she woke up several times
and it took forever to go back to sleep. Waking up was not that bad; but the bad dreams upset her
and kept her from going back to sleep. She could not get them off her mind.
'Calm down,' Cathy tells herself. 'I think I'm going to be sick.' She thinks her
upset stomach is because of something she ate but the more upset she gets, the worse it gets.
'Don't start crying again. I've got to get out of here,' she screams to herself. Between her upset
stomach and a growing headache, there is no way she can pay attention to what her mother is
saying. Without a word, Cathy turns and bolts out of the room.
Signs of stress
The following questions highlight common signs of stress that you might see in your
child. Even if they are not of specific concern to you today, you should still consider whether
your child is having any of these problems. This will facilitate your developing a broad
perspective for thinking about problems your child may experience. You are initiating the
process of exploring multiple areas within which signs of maladjustment and potential causes of
those difficulties may be identified.
Consider whether your youngster has had the problem within the past week or so. If not,
go to the next question. If he (or she) has experienced the problem, put a check mark beside the
question and then go to the next question. Repeat the process until you have considered each
Does your child;
Become restless and unable to calm down?
Have unusual trouble concentrating and paying attention?
Take more than an hour to go to sleep or awakened during the night, taking more
than a half hour to go back to sleep?
Have bad dreams or nightmares?
Have trouble with an upset stomach?
Cry for no apparent reason or have crying spells?
Lose his temper with little or no provocation?
If you did not check any of the questions, the likelihood is that stress is not a significant
problem for your child at this time. If you checked one or more questions, there may be
stress-related difficulties. The following sections will help you determine whether problematic
stress is present and facilitate your pinpointing the issues.
Restlessness and trouble calming down
Children can be restless and unable to calm down when they are just full of energy. They
are only being very active. It is really hard to sit still, stand still, or be still. Their problem is not
stress, it is having to be calm and quiet.
School and the dinner table are good examples. The only stress is adults who expect them
to quit fooling around. The children are just being children. The adults are the ones with the
When restlessness and trouble calming down are because of stress, it does not feel good.
The young person is having thoughts and feelings that are keeping him upset. He is confused and
feels afraid, angry, and frustrated at the same time. He cannot manage these thoughts and feelings
very well and is up-tight and uneasy.
If this sign is present for your child, think about whether your child has a problem or if
perhaps you are simply having difficulty coping with his energy and normal behavior. If the issue
actually reflects parental stress, share your problem with him. You might say, 'I want to talk with
you about slowing down and settling down a little, especially at dinner and when we're having
quiet time in the evening. You're too noisy; and I find it hard to handle.'
If you think your child may be restless and having trouble calming down because of
stress, offer to talk with him about whatever is bothering him, assure him that you want to try to
help him if he wants, and then give him a little more space. You may simply need to be more
patient and tolerant. It also helps to understand that your children probably handle the big stresses
in their lives fairly well; and you likely know what those are. It is the little stresses that build and
accumulate for your children, as they do for you. Understanding this helps you to be more
patient, to not expect your child to specifically know what is bothering him, and to give him
more personal and emotional freedom to work through his unique stresses.
You might say, 'I can tell you have a lot on your mind. I'll give you as much time and
space as you need to work it out. If you want to talk, I'm here for you.'
If he is not noticeably more relaxed in a day or so, become somewhat more insistent. You
might say, 'Whatever you are struggling with seems like a big problem for you. I can't tell
whether you are winning or if whatever is bothering you is winning. It's time to talk. Let me help.
I know the two of us can handle any problem better than either of us by ourselves. Can we talk?'
If he refuses to talk, keep trying, not right then but from time-to-time and at least once a
day. Do not become frustrated and up-tight just because he will not talk to you. Helping your
youngster with stress can be stressful. Nonetheless, it is important for you to model good stress
Trouble concentrating and paying attention
This sign of stress is a lot like restlessness and trouble calming down; but it is more of a
problem for the youngster. Some children (about 1 in twenty) have a condition called Attention
Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. These young people have abnormal problems
concentrating and paying attention. Though this probably is not your child's problem, be sure to
consider the possibility. If your child has ADHD, he can do nothing about it by himself and you
will likely be ineffective as you try to deal with him. Only a pediatrician and child psychologist
working in collaboration with you and your child's teachers can diagnose ADHD with certainty.
It then needs managed medically, behaviorally, and through special teaching and learning
techniques. Importantly, simply prescribing medication without other types of behavior and
learning interventions is an incomplete and inadequate response. There may be short-term
benefits; but achieving long-term benefits requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Your child and
you cannot successfully cope with ADHD without this type of cooperative approach.
At home and school, problems concentrating and paying attention often are read wrong
by adults. They read them as daydreaming and willfully not paying attention. A teacher might tell
you, 'She spends all her time daydreaming, not paying attention, fooling around, and wasting
time.' When misread this way, a serious stress problem can be easily overlooked. If this happens,
your child is more likely to be punished than helped.
If you are feeling frustrated by your child's behavior, think about this. Have you ever had
to be somewhere that was uninteresting, boring, and no fun? What if it were even worse? You
have trouble understanding anything being said and do not know what is happening. Do you get
Now, What if you were told that it is important and good for you? What if you were told
that you will understand how important it really is in ten or twenty or thirty years? What if you
were told that you will be in big trouble if you do not pay attention and make the most of the
opportunity? What will it take to get you to concentrate and pay attention? Most children are in
these kinds of situations often and do about as well or as badly as their parents. Before you take
any action, think about how reasonable you are being when you expect your child to concentrate
and pay attention.
Most children who have trouble concentrating and paying attention because of stress are
ignored. Even worse for them, they are treated as if they were misbehaving. What's more, parents
often think they were misbehaving on purpose.
Take time to look for underlying causes and explanations. If your child often has trouble
concentrating and paying attention, ADHD needs to be considered. If the problem mostly comes
up at school or when your child needs to listen carefully or read, a learning disability may be part
of his problem. A school or child psychologist is the best resource for evaluating the possibility
of learning problems. If, alternatively, the sign mostly occurs when the youngster has no choice
about where to be or what to do, take a minute to think about how hard it is for him to pretend to
be interested or to act like he cares when he does not.
If the problem suddenly comes up or especially if it had been there but is getting worse,
stress is the most likely cause. You need to talk with your child about your concerns. The
conversation might, for example, start like this.
'I'm concerned about you. It seems like you're having trouble concentrating and paying
attention. I noticed this when you were working on your homework, just as an example. It seems
like you have a lot on your mind. It's hard to concentrate when we're thinking about important
stuff. It's a problem for me sometimes too. Can we talk about what's getting to you?'
If the youngster does not want to talk, this follow-up sometimes helps. 'Let me try again.
I respect the fact that you don't want to talk about whatever is bothering you. Here's my problem.
I'm worried and am uncomfortable just letting go of it. If you really want me to back off, I will;
but I'll feel better if you can share just a little with me about what's got you so upset.'
If your child chooses to talk some, listen patiently, acknowledge his feelings, and resist
any temptation to criticize, give uninvited advice, or tell him that he is getting upset over
'nothing.' He is the judge of what is stressful for him. If he feels stressed, it is stressful. It is as
simple as that. If your child continues not to talk and especially if he becomes angry or
withdraws, you need to keep some emotional and physical distance but check back with him
every day or two to see how he is doing.
Trouble going to sleep or awakening during the night
This sign is usually not particularly important unless it goes on for a while. Children
normally go to sleep in about fifteen minutes to an hour. The average is approximately twenty
minutes or so. Some youngsters go to sleep quickly and others take longer to settle and fall
asleep. It is only a problem if it takes a lot longer than is typical for the specific child. If this
happens several nights in a row or if your youngster cannot fall asleep for three or four hours
some night, there might be a problem. Excitement, not feeling tired, and thinking about
day-to-day things can keep children awake as they can adults. Be sure not to make too much of it
unless your child's sleeping problem is severe or persistent. Still, you need to be open to the
possibility of too much stress.
Waking up during the night once in a while is not a problem either. Everyone does this
sometimes. Usually, it is from dreaming or from needing to go to the bathroom. Not going back
to sleep fairly quickly is more of a problem. If your youngster often wakes up but cannot go back
to sleep easily, stress is the likely cause.
If your school-age child's sleeping does not improve in two weeks, arrange for a medical
evaluation. This may lead to the physician's recommending counseling. For younger children, a
week is long enough to justify concern. When your child is taking his stress to bed with him, he
needs some extra help.
Bad dreams and nightmares
Stress can be a problem for children all the time or just once in a while. It also can be
mild or more serious. As it gets worse, the child's fear, anger, and frustration start to take over. At
this level, stress is with the child whether he is awake or asleep.
A bad dream or restless night once in a while are not cause for concern. Even a nightmare
on rare occasion is not something about which you should worry; but if the bad dreams happen
often and especially if they are bad enough to call nightmares, your child is experiencing
There are some strategies you can use that will comfort your child. First, encourage your
youngster to have a quiet time before bed. You might talk with him for fifteen or twenty minutes
about something positive and not stressful. The idea is to help him slow down and calm down
before trying to go to sleep. This slowing down time combined with a regular bedtime helps
establish a going to sleep routine that facilitates your child's being relaxed and calm as he falls
You also should see if sometime during the day you can get him to talk with you about
his fears and frustrations. Talking is always the best medicine for stress; but talking specifically
about the dreams or nightmares will not help much.
Your conversation could start like this. 'Nightmares like the ones you have been having
aren't much fun. They usually mean that we're upset or unhappy about something. At least, that's
what it's like when I have bad dreams. What's the one thing that's bothering you the most right
It is important to know that nightmares are not uncommon for children three to
five-years-old or so and are normally not related to unusual stress. For these children, it is
typically enough to help them learn to awaken completely after a bad dream and especially after a
nightmare. Also, encourage your child to try to go to the bathroom and to always awaken you
when he has a bad dream. Your reassurance while he is still afraid will help. Talking about
something to get his mind off the dream often is just the right touch. If things do not get better for
schoolage children in a couple weeks or if younger children's nightmares persist and do not
gradually reduce or are extreme, be sure to consult with your child's physician about the problem.
Headaches caused by stress and tension are not especially unusual for children but are
somewhat more common in teens. Nonetheless, when your child has a headache, it is most likely
caused by a minor illness, allergies, undiagnosed vision problems, or getting too hot or tired. If
your child has a headache more than once a month or so, it needs assessed by a physician. Of
course, if the headache is severe or is accompanied by vomiting, check with a physician
immediately. It is important to rule out possible medical causes before considering stress as a
likely cause of your child's headaches.
Trouble with an upset stomach
Like headaches, your child's upset stomach is probably caused by something other than
stress. It may be from eating too much or eating something that disagreed with him. A minor
illness, needing to go to the bathroom, or not feeling well may be the cause. If the discomfort is
not severe or continuing, rest, a little sympathy, and some personal space are usually right on
An upset stomach is more likely to be caused by stress than are headaches. When the sign
is caused by stress, your child is feeling edgy and afraid of something or someone. Sensitivity on
your part is important. Gently encouraging him to talk about what is wrong usually helps a lot.
If talking is not easy for him, this is a good approach. 'I'll bet your stomach is telling us
you are afraid or a little uptight about something or someone. Does it have something to do with
things here at home, or at school, or maybe with your friends?' If this gets a response, it is
important to listen, being careful not to pass judgement. Not criticizing your child and not
inadvertently implying that his feelings are wrong or unimportant are the keys to supportive
Cries easily or has crying spells
This sign works much like stomach aches, although the feelings are usually stronger and
more confusing for your child. When this sign is observed, try giving your child a little more
space and do not push too hard to get him to talk. You want him to know it is okay to sometimes
cry and feel upset. You should ask him if he wants to talk about the painful thoughts and
feelings. Talking and thinking things through is most always a better alternative for him than
crying and his very real pain. Nonetheless, if he does not want to talk, you need to give him a
little time and space and then go back quietly to sit for a few minutes and maybe talk. If his
crying goes on for more than a couple days, try to get him to talk with a counselor at school or
with another specialist he trusts.
Loses his temper easily and quickly
This is typically the most difficult sign of stress to handle and the easiest to
misunderstand. If you are like most adults, you react to your youngster's anger by getting angry.
This reaction is followed by trying to stop your child's behavior. With other signs of stress, it is
easier to see your child's unhappy feelings and frustration and not so hard to respond to his
feelings instead of reacting to his behavior. With temper and anger, you can find yourself
reacting to your child's angry behavior and not responding to his feelings at all.
The best response may be very difficult for you. Your child's temper outburst will run its
course. If he is not hitting someone or breaking things, the outburst does not hurt anything.
However you respond, do not get into an argument with him. You need to use all of your adult
restraint to avoid yelling or making threats.
Instead, calmly say, 'I can see you're angry. You have a right to feel how you feel. I'm
going to wait here with you until you get it out however much you need to blow.' Now, stop
talking and wait until your child starts quieting down and calming down. If the tantrum persists
or if you are unable to wait quietly, leave the room for a while, returning when your child is
When it gets a little quieter, say, 'Being angry is okay sometimes. Losing your temper
doesn't work very well for any of us. You're trying very hard to tell me something important.
Please try again. When your temper isn't getting in the way, I can hear and understand better.
What has you so upset?'
Whatever it is, do not react, blame your child, give advice, or defend yourself or anyone
else. You might say, 'Thank you for sharing that with me. I'll think about it and we can talk about
it a little later.' You need to be sure to think about it and actually go back later and offer to talk
about his frustrations and concerns.