How Stress Affects Children & How to Manage It

By Jennifer Paterson, ARCT

As grown-ups, we all suffer from stress at one point or another, but do your children?

Science says yes.

According to the American Psychological Association, about 20% of children report worrying a great deal. Unfortunately, parents greatly underestimate their child’s emotions. Only 3% of parents rate their child’s stress as extreme, and while 33% of kids experienced headaches in the month prior to the study, just 13% of parents thought these headaches were stress-related.

Here’s how you can help your kids manage stress.

How Stress Affects Children

Kids may experience different stresses than their parents — such as worrying about doing well in school, relationships with their siblings and peers, and their family’s financial situation — but they still experience the emotions. Mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and stress can have a detrimental impact on your child’s long-term development, especially because their brains are still developing. Stress affects biological processes, taking its toll on the brain and body.

Stress is your body’s natural response to demanding or adverse circumstances. Biologically speaking, it’s meant to help us deal with life-or-death situations. This fight-or-flight response causes a shift in hormones — including the release of cortisol and adrenaline — which elevates blood pressure and heart rate. Stress is beneficial in short-term situations, but when that stress response is always “on,” it can lead to problems. People can start to suffer from heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, not to mention mental issues like depression, fear, neediness, and the inability to learn new behaviors. This prolonged activation of the stress response is called “toxic stress.”

How to Help Your Kids Manage Stress

Adults have their own tricks for managing stress, but your kids have yet to develop the habits and discover the activities that can help reduce their worries. Put their health and development on the right track by giving them a helping hand. These following tips will get you started.

Talk with Your Kids

The first step to helping your kids is to understand what’s bothering them and stressing them out. That way you can combat the stress at the source. For example, while 30% of kids worry about family financial difficulties, only 18% of parents believe it’s a source of their child’s stress. If you discover they’re worried about money, you can talk through your finances with them. You can even help them set up their own bank account and budget so they feel more in control. What’s more, talking to your kids shows them it’s okay to approach you about their worries so they don’t have to face them alone.

Play with Your Kids

These days, children are spending less and less time playing. According to Forbes, an increasing number of schools are reducing recess time, or cutting it completely, in order to allow more time for instruction in the classroom. That, combined with screen time, leaves many kids with physical play completely absent from their day.

The problem with this is that playtime, especially physical play, is significant in a child’s development. Not only does a lack of exercise lead to higher obesity rates and other health conditions, but it can also impact cognitive abilities, attention, problem-solving skills, and overall academic performance.

This ties back to one of your child’s biggest stressors: homework and grades. If they can’t concentrate in the classroom, it will only increase their stress. Getting outside to play comes with countless direct and indirect benefits on your child’s stress. Exercise naturally relieves stress by releasing feel-good hormones called endorphins. Along with that, children who exercise more tend to eat better, which can also have a biological effect on stress. Outdoor playtime gives them a break from their stressors and boosts productivity when they return to their responsibilities.

So what’s the key? Get outside and play with your kids. Go to the park. Go on a hike. Play tag football in the backyard or Frisbee at the park. As an added bonus, you’ll strengthen your relationship with them, which will further reduce their stress.

Enroll Your Kids in Music Lessons

Another stress-busting activity that will come with numerous benefits is to enroll your kids in music lessons. Music has a strong connection to our emotions. In one 2013 study, researchers found that music impacts the stress system and leads to faster recovery from stress. Playing and creating music acts as a kind of medicine that can help reduce blood pressure and decrease heart rate to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.

Not only that, but learning music from a young age can have incredible benefits in academic areas. For example, music teaches children how to listen for certain sounds, which can help them in with speech, language, and reading. So enrolling your kids in music lessons isn’t just great for their stress levels; it promotes a well-rounded development, too.

You can use this concept in multiple aspects of life, even outside the classroom. Play music while cleaning or helping with homework, join community musicals together, or attend concerts with your kids.

Encourage Sleep

These days, fewer and fewer kids are getting enough sleep. Part of this trend is due to an increase in screen time. Forty percent of kids have a TV or iPad in their bedroom, and 57% don’t have a regular bedtime. That leads to 60% of kids who don’t get enough sleep. The problem? Studies show that this can have a great impact on their irritability and stress.

“Enough sleep” depends on your child’s age. Toddlers need about 11 to 14 hours of sleep per day, preschoolers need 10 to 13, and school-aged kids need 9 to 11 hours of sleep per day. Your teenagers should be getting at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night. Be sure your kids have a scheduled bed time and understand the importance of sleep.