Stress is the natural way the body responds to a challenging or threatening experience. A moderate amount of anxiety and stress is normal in our lives and this also applies to children and young people.
Children are individuals who react to everyday circumstances or changes in their life in very different ways – a situation which one young person finds exciting, e.g. going to secondary school, might be highly stressful for another. One young person might be overwhelmed with anxiety over their parents’ divorce, while another might breeze through the whole episode without undue concerns.
It’s fair to say that the majority of children and young people will feel stressed at some point in their lives, often when they experience big changes or face decisions about their future. When a young person is struggling to cope with their level of anxiety on a day-to-day basis, however, then it’s time to talk to them, and perhaps seek professional support.
Causes of stress
There is no one reason that young people suffer from stress, although the demands of school, relationships and physical appearance often feature.
When a child is very stressed about going to school it could be because they are falling behind or perhaps being bullied.
In some situations, the young person has placed impossible demands on themselves and can never be satisfied with what they are actually able to do or achieve. There is a link between a young person’s inability to deal with stressful situations and eating disorders.
Children may also become stressed and upset over things which make them unhappy but over which they have no control over, e.g. a parent’s illness, family money worries or the future job market. Television news is full of disasters, war and terrorism and this can be very frightening and anxiety-inducing for children.
Signs a child’s stress is not normal
These are certain signs which indicate your child might not be coping well with their stress and anxiety levels:
- Behavioural signs: irritability, anger, anxiety, avoiding friends, tearfulness, mood swings, lack of confidence, lack of concentration, low self-esteem, depression.
- Physical signs: upset stomach, headache, sleeplessness, eating too much, eating too little, bed-wetting, spending a lot of time alone.
When to get help
A young person’s stress can build up gradually until it is very harmful to their mental and physical health. If they try to talk to you, pay attention to what they say. Trust your instincts and seek professional support if you feel out of your depth or think it would help.
Visit your GP and, if the child’s emotional distress is affecting their school life, talk to their school too.
Some children and young people may go on to need support from the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAHMS).