With social pressures, school challenges, and scary current events, children can feel anxious and frazzled too.  Read on to learn how stress manifests in children, teens, and tweens.
An image of a teenager concerned at her desk.
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It should come as no surprise that children get stressed. From the pressures of school and social life to external factors, like growing up in the middle of a war or even a global pandemic, our kids face many challenges—and will continue to face them, time and time again. But how can you tell if the youngest members of your family are frazzled? What are the signs of stress in teens, tweens, and young adults?

Here's everything you need to know about stress in children, from how to help them to what to expect.

What Are the Signs of Stress in Toddlers and Young Children?

Most children experience stress, at least from time to time. But the manifestation of said stress will differ. "Every child is unique and will display her own personal signs of stress," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution. "Parents need to be on the lookout for unusual or suspect behaviors and actions."

Rene Hackney, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and founder of Parenting Playgroups and Parenting by Dr. Rene, agrees. "Changes in normal behavior are significant indicators of stress in young children" Pantley advises.

The following signs may suggest that your toddler and/or young child is feeling stressed:

  • Change in regular sleep and eating habits
  • Change in emotions (showing signs of being sad, clingy, withdrawn, or angry)
  • Increase in crying or tantrums
  • Nightmares and fears at bedtime
  • Physical ailments, such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Anxious tics, coughs, or body movements
  • Frequent reliance on habits such as hair chewing or thumb-sucking
  • Change in bowel movements

Although "these symptoms don't always indicate stress, they could be related to misbehavior, habits or growth. If a child's behavior worsens, it could be a sign of something more," Pantley says. If there's any concern that a child's behavior is becoming more extreme, seek advice from a professional.

What Are the Signs of Stress in Teens, Tweens, and Young Adults?

As with young children, the signs of stress in teens, tweens, and young adults vary—from person to person and age to age. However, if your child is stressed, they will likely exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Nausea
  • Sleep issues, including insomnia, hypersomnia, and/or difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability
  • Educational issues
  • Changes to their social behavior

What Causes Stress in Children?

Numerous factors can cause stress in children. As mentioned, everything from academic worries to a full social calendar can cause panic, fear, and overwhelm. Below are some of the most common causes of stress in children, from 18 months to 18 years.

Parents, take heed: Separation anxiety can be a major cause of stress for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers."Though separation anxiety is often a healthy response to being separated, it can also be a reaction to an unrelated stressor, such as a new day care," Dr. Hackney explains. "When there's a life stressor, kids' tolerance for other frustrations tends to go down." This can lead to increased clinginess, difficulties with goodbyes, or nervousness about being away from primary caregivers.

Familial Changes

Major family changes such as death, divorce, a parent's job loss, or a new home can stress children of all ages. "The combination of heightened emotions, disrupted schedules, and unfamiliar routines can make even the most relaxed child feel some tension," Pantley says. Even positive changes, like the birth of a sibling, can be stressful. "Change equals stress," Dr. Hackney explains. If there is a significant impact on the way life has normally been, stress can result.


According to Medline Plus, a website from the National Library of Medicine and National Institute of Health, school can be a major stressor for children, teens, tweens, and young adults. "Worrying about schoolwork or grades, juggling responsibilities... [and navigating] problems with friends, bullying, or peer group pressures" can all cause a child to feel stressed out.

Overwhelming Schedules

Children live in the present and enjoy taking the time to experience the world around them, so overscheduling them for different activities or rushing from place to place can create stress. If a parent's agenda or busy to-do list disregards a child's rhythm, stress will occur.

Unexpected World Events

Big scary events (natural disasters, school shootings, and terrorist attacks) or exposure to violence on the evening news can affect children of every age. Even accidental exposure to a scary movie or commercials on television can influence your child. "It's common for children to pick up on the stress around them," Pantley explains. Pay attention to any frightening or violent images surrounding a child's environment on a daily basis, and monitor older children's internet activity.


Going through bodily changes and/or hitting puberty can also be stressful. This time is full of uncomfortable unknowns and—in some cases—awkwardness, and both can lead to stress.

How Can You Help Your Child Destress?

Keep Calm and Carry On

"It's important to stay calm and acknowledge your child's feelings," Pantley says. "But don't go overboard. You want to convey that you understand your child's feelings, but that nothing bad will happen when you are apart. Your child can learn that he doesn't have to be immobilized by stress or fear." Dr. Hackney suggests a tactic she describes as "matter-of-fact empathy," where the message is conveyed through words, body language, and tone of voice that you understand how your child feels but you're not changing course. If a child doesn't want to go to day care, say, 'I know, this is really hard. I know you really don't want to go, you're having fun at home,' but continue your usual routine and then head out the door as planned. This way, "all of your language is basically saying 'I completely understand, but we're still going,'" Dr. Hackney says.

Stick to the Schedule

Maintain daily routines, such as going to school, daycare, or preschool; feeding; and/or preparing for bedtime. Routines are particularly important for toddlers and young children, as schedules help them to feel in control and "go a long way in creating a sense of calm," Dr. Hackney says. What's more, keeping a consistent bedtime is particularly important because children of all ages can become stressed when they are overtired. "To help your child cope with the stressors of life, make certain that she is getting a good night's sleep, adequate naptime, healthy meals, and plenty of daily activity," Pantley says.

Allot Time for Breaks

Build in adequate time for rest breaks, naps, and preparation for activities. "Children live according to a much slower clock than adults do," Pantley explains. "They don't give a thought to what they might be doing next. They pause as they watch the cat sleep, examine the color patterns in the carpet, and stare out the window. So examine your schedule to make sure you're focusing on priorities and taking time to enjoy your child's company. Make sure that you're not taking away any special moments by rushing to the next item on the schedule.

Plan Ahead and Allow for Processing

"How parents present a stressor, how they frame and discuss it, and how they answer questions gives children boundaries on how to perceive it," Dr. Hackney explains. "The idea is to start honest and small. If you need to tell your child about someone passing away, try saying, 'We wanted to let you know that Grandma was very sick and she died." If they have questions, you can then decide how to describe it, depending on their age, maturity, and your comfort level. Then give them time to process said information.

Monitor TV Exposure

Be mindful about what programs your child is absorbing. "When a parent is watching the news and a child is in the room, they're exposed to all kinds of violence," Hackney says. Reserve certain TV shows for after the kids are in bed or limit how long you watch the evening news. Exposure can often be unintentional, so try scheduling different TV times for different-aged kids or make sure all the programming is geared toward a younger child if she's in a room with others. Visit websites like kids-in-mind.com or commonsensemedia.org to see the reviews and ratings of various programs so you can make informed decisions about TV viewing.

Give Extra Love, Hugs, and Kisses

When adjusting to change, some extra one-on-one attention and a few more daily cuddles and kisses can be helpful, for young children and older ones. Extra love and support can help your child feel more comfortable and to get settled into new patterns, Pantley says. Whether the stressor is a negative or positive one, the added affection can help boost the child's confidence and self-regulation skills, enabling them to be more flexible and resilient to change.