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Big Stresses for Small People

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Where Does Stress Come From? | What Are the Signs of Stress? | What Can Parents Do?

Stress is no longer a problem that just plagues Type A adults. It has spread to children, sometimes even before they begin school.

As adults look back on their childhood, they often remember it as being a time of fun, a time of little stress. They had a carefree spirit and no real worries. Have they forgotten, or have times changed? Regardless, the small world of a child today is often filled with a tremendous amount of stress.

There are three basic types of stress:

  • Developmental, or normal, stress is caused by normal childhood experiences, such as separating from parents as infants or adjusting to puberty.
  • Critical stress involves stressors that do not occur in every child's life but are fairly common, such as moving to a new home or family financial problems. They are often more critical to a child's well-being than developmental stress.
  • Catastrophic stress is caused by serious unexpected events, such as a serious illness, death of a family member, or abuse. Children are at high risk for this type of stress.

Where Does Stress Come From?

Stress can result from information overload. You can help by limiting the amount of time your children watch TV, listen to music, play video games, and surf the web. By having these information sources located in a central part of the house, you can supervise what your children are hearing, and talk with them about anything that might be upsetting.

There are a variety of stressors that children experience at school. For preschoolers, it is the anticipation of the first field trip or simply a change in routine. For young school-age children, it may be riding the bus, being picked last on a team, or feeling left out at recess. Teens will often experience stress over tests, projects, friends, or peer pressure.

The family can be both the reliever of stress, as well as the cause. Changes such as a move, a new sibling, adjusting to a step-parent or step-siblings, disharmony among parents, and sibling rivalry all contribute to the stressful world of a child.

Parents are aware of the competitive world we live in and want to prepare their children to succeed. However, there is a risk involved when children are expected to perform a task before they are developmentally ready.

According to David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child and Miseducation—Preschoolers at Risk, "When we instruct children in academic subjects, or in swimming, gymnastics, or ballet, at too early an age, we miseducate them. We put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage for no useful purpose. There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm."

When a child is balancing enrichment programs, sports teams, private lessons, and household responsibilities, they are living a lifestyle that is better suited for adults. The need to achieve in each of these areas can result in burn-out, cheating, and/or fear.

You can best prepare your child for the world by being aware of the child's developmental stage and unique capabilities. Encouraging and supporting them to reach their potential within each stage will foster self-confidence and an on-going motivation for success.

What Are the Signs of Stress?

How children respond to stress has a great deal to do with their personalities and the support they get from family and/or friends. You should not rely on your children to tell you that they are feeling stressed. They will often deny that anything is wrong because they feel embarrassed, guilty, or unsure of their feelings.

Changes in behavior and personality are often the first indication of stress in children. Here are a few typical signs to watch for:

  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Temper tantrums
  • Head banging
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Bed wetting
  • Thumb sucking
  • Baby talk
  • Exaggerated fears
  • Night terrors
  • Racing heart
  • Crying spells
  • Aggressiveness
  • Clinging to parents
  • Nightmares
  • Bed wetting
  • Nail biting
  • Grinding teeth
  • Being accident prone
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nervous twitches
  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Changes in personality
  • Aggression
  • Indigestion
  • Destructive behavior
  • Drastic change in emotions
  • Depression
  • Withdrawal
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Excessive sleep
  • Obsessive-compulsive behavior

Many of these behaviors are common during normal child development. However, if they persist, worsen, or several persist over a long period of time, talk to the doctor.

What Can Parents Do?

Stress is a normal part of growing and living. As a parent you cannot—nor should you—try to, protect your child completely from stress. However, there are some things you can do to help prevent stress from reaching a dangerous level.

Many adults may respond to their child by saying, "Relax. There is nothing to worry about. You think you have problems now, wait until you are older." Remember, though, children feel as deeply about their problems as adults do; yet they have less control. Not getting a spot on the cheerleading squad can be just as traumatic for a child as being fired from a job would be for an adult. Parents should not deny or make light of their child's worries. They are real to the child and need attention.

Positive communication is not only a source of information, but provides comfort and security. Instead of saying, "Oh, you are over-reacting," or trying to solve the problem, lend a sympathetic ear and help children think of possible solutions.

Children are very observant of how parents handle stress. They imitate and learn from what they see. "I was shocked when I overheard my 10 year old son yelling profanities at the computer when he could not get something to work. Yet, he said exactly what his father and I say when we get frustrated with the computer," confesses a mother of three.

Everyone needs a source for relieving tension. Children need opportunities each day to play, run around, take a walk, go to the park, tell stupid jokes, sing, and laugh. It is during this unstructured time that children are free to reflect, be creative, experiment, and make choices. Most importantly this is a time for them to enjoy childhood.

For families today, it is a race against the clock as parents shuttle kids from one activity to the next. This juggling act often leads to frustration, anxiety, and stress overload. Participation in activities is beneficial, but parents and children need to make choices and set limits. Ask your children to decide which activities they like best. Let them prove they can handle one activity, homework, and household responsibilities before adding additional activities.

Not all stress is bad. It motivates, helps get things done, and provides the energy to take on new challenges. But when stress interferes with a child's normal development, it becomes a problem. With a little empathy, humor, logic, and balance, you can help your children cope with their small, yet stressful world.


American Psychological Association



Canadian Mental Health Association


Canadian Psychological Association



Childhood stress. Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/feelings/stress.html#. Accessed December 13, 2011.

Elkind D. The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishers; 1981.

Elkind D. Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishers; 1987.

Last reviewed December 2011 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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