8 signs of stress in children—and when to seek expert help
How do you separate normal kid adjustment behavior from something more significant? Here's how to tell when extra support may be needed.
[This story was originally published on July 20, 2020. It has been updated.]
Between the ongoing pandemic, war in Ukraine, and shifting everyday life, these times have been stressful for everyone, including children. While children are known for their resilience and their ability to adapt—especially in a loving home with thoughtful caregivers—it’s understandable (and expected) for kids to show some signs of stress when the world feels a little scary.
If those signs of stress are emerging in a way that feels particularly noticeable or detrimental to your child’s day-to-day functioning, however, it might be time to check in with a mental health professional.
How do you separate normal kid adjustment behavior from something more significant? The National Institute of Mental Health lists behaviors to look for in young children that indicate a child could benefit from evaluation.
Learn more about these 8 signs of stress in children, and how to spot them.
1. Your child’s mood is more irritable, including more frequent tantrums
All kids have tantrums, but when tantrums get especially intense, it may be time to seek extra help. Really intense tantrums involve intentionally trying to hurt others or themselves, meltdowns that last more than 20 to 30 minutes or tantrums that occur many times each day. Every child has an off day when they just can’t pull it together, but if your child’s “off days” are every day, it could be time to get some help.
2. Your child talks about their anxieties frequently
When kids are able to tell us about their fears, that’s a great sign! It means they can identify what’s upsetting them and know how to seek help. But if these conversations happen frequently, it may be a sign that your child has more fears or anxieties than is typical. If they have trouble doing standard daily tasks (sleeping, going outside the home, being around people) because of their worries, that’s a sign that they may benefit from some extra support.
Related: 6 signs your child might have anxiety—and how to help
3. Your child often reports headaches or stomach aches
Anxiety often shows up as physical symptoms—we’ve all had tension headaches or felt butterflies in our stomach. Kids often don’t have the language to discuss their feelings, but they can let you know their tummy hurts. If your child consistently complains of physical symptoms, it’s a good idea to check with your physician to ensure there’s no medical cause. If the symptoms persist after your physician gives the all clear, consider that it could be anxiety or another emotional trigger needing to be addressed.
4. Your child is extremely active and struggles to sit quietly for even a few minutes (without screen time)
Lots of kids are active, and that can be a good thing! Active kids are often healthy kids. If, however, your child is unable to stop when it’s time to stop, it could be a signal something more is going on. Children should be able to pay attention for certain blocks of time—five minutes for preschoolers and older children for 15 minutes—before they get antsy. If they struggle to sit, wait or listen, it may be worth getting a quick medical consult.
Related: Can’t sit still? 7 expert ways to help your child focus
5. Your child’s sleep patterns are suddenly off
Sleep is a great measure of what’s going on in a child; children with unusual sleep patterns are often struggling with something else. Depression may show up as sleeping too much or as an inability to sleep. Anxiety might include nightmares or struggling to fall asleep. Many other childhood diagnoses impact sleep as well. Additionally, without adequate sleep, it’s hard for little bodies to handle stressors throughout the day. So even if the sleep issue isn’t caused by anything else, you may see behavior problems because of sleep deprivation. If your child experiences difficulty sleeping on more than just a few nights, it may be time to seek help.
6. Your child struggles to connect with other kids the same age
Kids are all different—some are super outgoing and others a bit more shy. Although differences in personality are normal, if your child struggles significantly with peers, it could be a sign of something more. If your child struggles to follow rules, play age-appropriate games, make same-age friends or talk with others, there could be something else going on. Children with these difficulties usually have long-lasting struggles with socialization, so don’t panic if it’s just a few days. But if they have always struggled with friends, or suddenly lose interest in friends for a few weeks, consider checking in with a mental health professional.
Related: 4 ways to help your child be a good friend
7. Your child is struggling in school
Frequently children with behavioral or learning difficulties show struggles in school. If your child has always had to work harder than their peers, it could be a sign there’s something impacting learning. Additionally, if your child suddenly begins to struggle, it could mean something new is impacting them. These changes may mean they are struggling with friends, with a new emotional stressor or simply with harder academic material. The only way to know for sure is to seek out expert support.
8. Your child worries that something bad will happen if they don’t complete a certain action or do things multiple times
If you notice that your child always has to do things a certain way, likes to do things repeatedly, or has to check on things to make sure they were done right, consider getting an assessment. These behaviors often happen when kids are feeling anxious and want to build in a sense of security for themselves. Wanting to play the same game or read the same story are standard kid behaviors, but if your kid becomes upset if you play the game slightly differently or if you read a new story, those are potential flags. All kids like repetition, but if you find yourself working extra hard to ensure things stay exactly the same to avoid a meltdown, it’s time to reach out.
A note from Motherly
If your child is showing any of the signs above, remember that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a psychological, educational or behavioral disorder, but it does suggest there could be something beyond typical child development going on. The best way to find out is to seek professional guidance and let the experts tell you whether the behaviors are typical or a sign of something more significant. Keep in mind, many doctors are currently offering virtual visits, so you could get answers without an in-person office visit. If you’re seeing any of the signs above, it may be time to reach out for more information.