Signs of Stress in Kids

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

Oh to be young again, with not a care in the world. Sounds good but unfortunately such romantic notions tend to blur the reality. Many kids have a pretty stressful time of it not helped, it must be said, by the behavior of adults around them. Difficult teachers and bickering parents are obvious candidates but add in the life stressors like powerlessness, not understanding why things happen, not being able to influence change, bullying, parental expectations, and so on and the picture begins to develop.

Kids often don’t know how to conceptualize stress let alone articulate the fact they are experiencing it. It’s up to parents to pick up on the signs. Some of these are more obvious and overt than others and some may be mistaken for bad behavior because that’s exactly how it’s being presented. Stress messages from kids come in different forms but here are a few of the more common:

Kids sometimes look worried and if this is the case they probably are. When you learn the nature of the worry it may be tempting to dismiss it as trivial or even laughable – try not to be dismissive. At the stage of development a child is at certain things need explaining and reassurance is something adults can offer in abundance. It may be all it takes to stop something that’s been eating away at the little person for a long time.

Behavior change such as aggression or being withdrawn or sullen are often signs that something is wrong. Withdrawing into a world of social media or online gaming may seem like normal behavior but it’s all about context. When kids struggle to make sense of what’s happening to them or what’s going through their mind they sometimes hit out verbally or physically. This is something any parent should take seriously.

Physical signs of stress are as common in children as they are in adults. An upset tummy before school is a very common sign of anxiety. It may be something about the school or it may be something like separation anxiety. Just as common are those somewhat vague feelings of being unwell. Neck ache, feeling sick and tummy aches are all stress signs.

As with adults, dietary changes during stressful periods may include over-eating, secret eating, eating less than usual or excessively picky eating.

When adults are under stress they often experience changes to their sleeping pattern. Kids are no different. They may fall to sleep easily but keep waking up. They may have bad dreams. They may have difficulties getting to sleep. Broken sleep is an unfortunate consequence of stress partly because broken sleep makes anxiety worse. Bed wetting when normally dry may be another sign.

During times of stress kids may fall back on times when they felt more nurtured. Regressive forms of behavior might include finding an old toy or doll, thumb sucking, speaking in baby language, or perhaps becoming either clingy or difficult.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of