The Experience of Stress in Children: Warning Signs for Parents

The Experience of Stress in Children: Warning Signs for Parents

UNICEF describes stress as “a common feeling that affects children as much as adults, just differently.”

Stress as an experience has only been focused on in the adult population. We tend to assume that due to the age or seeming simplicity of life for children, they are stress-free. However, that is not true. Studies indicate that adults often perceive childhood as uncomplicated, possibly because they are familiar with life events and developmental stages. However, for children, encountering these milestones for the first time can be just as stressful as significant experiences in adulthood.

What is Stress?

Stress is usually experienced when there is a different, novel, pleasant or unpleasant experience. It is an emotion experienced when the demands made by the environment supersede an individual’s ability to cope with or fulfil them.

Children have a constantly developing brain. This means, their ability for language, communication and understanding emotions too is developing as the brain matures. This is a key developmental factor that makes the experience and expression of stress different for children. Any positive or negative event, interaction or experience can lead to stress if it overwhelms the child’s current capacity to cope with it.

For young children, tensions at home, quarrels, death, academic goals, disagreements with friends, examinations in severe cases abuse and death in the family can be some causes of stress. As children grow, alongside family discord, the sources for stress are larger changes in life like changes in friend groups, increased school work, social media and larger worldly happenings like discrimination and injustice.

Stress in Children and its Impact.

Based on research, there are three types of stresses experienced by children, namely, positive, tolerable, and toxic. Positive stress, also known as eustress, fosters resilience by helping individuals function effectively under pressure. It arises from mild to moderate stressful situations, typically for a short duration and accompanied by supportive adult guidance. Examples include the first day of school, family celebrations, or making new friends. This type of stress triggers minor, temporary physiological changes such as increased heart rate and altered cortisol levels.

Tolerable stress stems from more intense but short-lived adverse events like family disruptions, accidents, or loss of a loved one. Though the body’s stress response is heightened, it remains adaptive and temporary.

In contrast, toxic stress, as defined by paediatrician Jack P. Shonkoff, refers to chronic, overwhelming stress that surpasses a child’s coping abilities without adequate adult support. Prolonged exposure to such stress without buffering relationships can harm bodily and brain systems, leading to long-term physical and mental health issues.

Experts suggest that prolonged or excessive stress can become detrimental, leading to significant health repercussions. When stress accumulates during early childhood, it can impact neurobiological processes, causing cortisol levels (stress hormones) to rise beyond normal limits. As a result of heightened cortisol levels, children may experience a range of physical, emotional, and social symptoms. Physically, they might suffer from cardiovascular issues, skin problems, increased vulnerability to illnesses, as well as complaints like headaches or stomach aches. Emotionally, they may exhibit signs of anxiety, depression, aggression, or feeling overwhelmed. Socially, they might withdraw from interactions, display aggressive behaviour towards others, or develop new habits like nail-biting or skin-picking.

Signs of Stress in Children

Children and adolescents may not have developed the vocabulary to express their discomfort fully. Some may lack a complete understanding of what is happening, and others may get overwhelmed by the situation. Recognizing stress in children can ensure quicker support. Here are few stress warning signs for parents to look out for:


  • Shallow breathing, sweating and a racing heart.
  • Headaches, dizziness, and difficulty sleeping.
  • Nausea, indigestion, or digestive problems
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Aches and pains and falling sick more often.


  • Trouble sleeping
  • Acting out
  • Changes in level of physical activity or play.
  • Neglecting or forgetting responsibilities like homework
  • Procrastination
  • Changes in eating patterns


  • Irritability and anger causing temper outbursts or withdrawing from family and friends.
  • Neglecting responsibilities,
  • Emotional distress such as continuously feeling sad or being tearful.


  • Overthinking
  • Difficulty in making decisions.
  • Difficulty to focus and concentrate.
  • Feeling blank
  • Inability to remember tasks.

How to Support a Child who Experiences Stress

As parents, its often possible to misinterpret the signs of stress as bad behaviour or disrespect. Now that we know certain behaviours can indicate stress, it is also necessary to support a child in a beneficial manner. Here are things you can try!

  1. Spot the Triggers– identify patterns in situations, experiences or people that cause a stress response in your child to recognise what overwhelms them.
  2. Respond with Love, avoid Dismissing– the child needs to feel loved and accepted when they are confused about their emotions. Due to their limited capacity of expression, they need to feel that all their feelings are valid and accepted.
  3. Empathy, Patience and Understanding– as an adult, we may feel like the child’s concern is petty or menial, however we need to see the situation from their worldview. Parents can try to patiently discover how certain things may impact their child leading them to feel intense emotions.
  4. Facilitate Dialogue and Listen- It is essential to actively listen to what your child is saying without losing your cool or interrupting them. Parents can curiously ask questions to build connection with their child and hold space for them to share their thoughts.
  5. Support Healthy Habits– Stress impacts the body’s immune system. Encouraging healthy habits around eating, exercise and sleep can foster physical health.
  6. Teach Healthy Coping Strategies– Strategies like time management, problem solving, exercise, deep breathing and talking about emotions can help the child learn effective skills to cope with their emotions.
  7. Model Healthy Coping– Children are observant. Not only teaching, but also practicing healthy coping rather than turning to substances or other avoidance strategies can further learning to manage emotions in an appropriate manner.
  8. Be Mindful of Labelling– using labels like ‘dramatic’ or ‘oversensitive,’ ‘can be detrimental to a child’s sense of self. Try to use language specific to situations rather than an overarching adjective. For instance, ‘you did a silly thing’ rather than ‘you’re so stupid.’
  9. Promote Media Literacy– social media can lead to comparisons and other stressful experiences. Empower your child to assess and evaluate the content on social media and use the platforms wisely and in limited quantities.
  10. Seek Professional Help– Sometimes, the stress experience of a child may be much more deep-rooted and complex, than what a parent might be able to support them through. Based on the duration and intensity of emotions, do not hesitate to reach out to a child mental health professional to provide the right kind of assistance to your child.

It is evident that supporting children through times of stress is crucial for their overall well-being and development. By recognizing and acknowledging the challenges they face, parents can provide the necessary guidance, reassurance, and comfort to help them navigate through tricky situations. Whether it is positive stress, tolerable stress, or toxic stress, having a caring and supportive adult presence can make all the difference in how children learn to cope and thrive. Through open communication, active listening, and fostering a nurturing environment, parents can empower their children to build resilience and face life’s challenges with confidence and strength. Let’s build a supportive network to prioritize children’s mental health, ensuring a brighter future.


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UNICEF. (2023, February 13). Supporting children with depression, stress, and anxiety. UNICEF South Asia.

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Written By
Shreya Makhija
Counselling Psychologist

Ms. Shreya Makhija is an Assistant Professor at Smt. P.N Doshi Women's College, Ghatkopar, affiliated to SNDT Women's University. She completed her Masters in Applied Psychology (Clinical and Counseling Practices) from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in 2021 and has been practicing as a counselling psychologist eversince. She currently runs her own private practice and is a trauma-informed and queer affirmative practitioner. Her areas of expertise include anxiety, depression, self-esteem, relationship related concerns, adjustment related difficulties and work stress. She has facilitated multiple workshops and is a research enthusiast. In her free time, you will find her looking up different recipes to try or at zumba classes

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