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Stress in Children and Teens

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KEY POINTS

  • When your child feels stressed, his body releases chemicals into his blood. Too much stress or stress that goes on for too long cause the chemicals to build up. This is harmful to your child’s physical and emotional health.
  • Stress can be treated with exercise and learning relaxation techniques. Medicine may used for a short time to help with anxiety or depression until the stress resolves. Individual, group, and family therapy may offer support and help reduce fears and worries.
  • Try to help your child find healthy ways to deal with stress. Seeing a therapist can help when your child is under a lot of stress.

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What is stress?

Stress is the body's way of responding to any kind of demand or change. When your child feels stressed, his body releases chemicals into the blood. These chemicals provide the energy to fight or to escape. This helps your child focus and increases his energy, if he is in physical danger. But stress caused by things your child cannot fight or escape mean that these chemicals don't have anywhere to go. Your child’s body responds by raising blood pressure and making the heart work harder. This kind of stress can affect your child’s physical and mental health. Many office visits to healthcare providers are for conditions related to stress.

What is the cause?

Stress can be caused by both good and bad experiences. Going to school, starting a new job, dating, and facing illness can all be stressful. We all have some stress in our lives, and a little may even be good for us. Some children claim they can get more done if they have a deadline. But too much stress or stress that goes on for too long is harmful.

Anything your child sees as a problem can cause stress. Different things may cause stress for other children. Stress can be caused by everyday matters, such as doing homework or taking tests, as well as by major problems including:

  • A change in the family, such as a move, divorce, major illness, death, or birth
  • Abuse
  • Being bullied
  • Concerns about performance and what other people think
  • Family arguments
  • Grief or loss
  • Making new friends or arguments with current friends
  • Peer pressure to shoplift, smoke cigarettes, or use drugs
  • Problems with family finances
  • Alcohol or substance abuse by family members
  • Social events such as parties or dating
  • Natural or man-made disasters

Many stressful events in a short period of time can have a greater effect on your child. Caffeine and some medicines, such as stimulants, can make stress worse.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of stress may include:

  • Back pain, headache, or stomachache
  • Change in appetite, heartburn, or upset stomach
  • Change in bowel and bladder habits
  • Irritability, anger, or defiance
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Low energy
  • Muscle tension
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • Trouble sleeping and tiredness
  • Weight gain or weight loss

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and examine your child. Stress can cause common symptoms, such as headaches or digestive problems, that have many possible causes. Your provider will make sure your child does not have a medical illness that could cause the symptoms.

How is it treated?

Therapy

Therapy (individual, group, or family) may offer support, help your child learn more effective ways of dealing with stress, and help reduce fears and worries.

Medicine

Medicine may be prescribed to help reduce symptoms of depression or anxiety and help your child cope with stress. Medicine may be used for a short time to help until the stress resolves.

Exercise

Exercise is a great way to relieve stress. Physical activity boosts chemicals in the body, called endorphins, that help your child feel good. Focusing on playing soccer or doing aerobics can also help your child forget what is bothering him for a while. Exercise can also relieve muscle tension, help your child feel more energetic, and help your child sleep better.

Encourage your child to take up a sport, join an exercise group, or walk at least a mile a day. Find an activity that your child enjoys and that helps him unwind. It won't help if trying to fit in an exercise program makes your child feel more stressed!

Relaxation

Relaxation skills take practice to learn. Learning to relax can:

  • Help your child sleep better
  • Take your child’s mind off what is bothering him
  • Help with physical symptoms by decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension

Relaxation skills include:

  • Deep breathing (focusing on taking slow deep breaths)
  • Mental imaging (picturing a calm place and letting muscles relax)
  • Mindfulness (focusing only on the now, without judging, and not thinking of the past or future)
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing the body, one muscle group at a time)

How can I take care of my child?

  • Support your child. Let your child talk about stressful events or changes. The support and understanding that you provide can help your child manage stress. Make sure there is time for friends. Talking things over with others helps.
  • Help your child learn to manage stress.
    • Try to identify the source of the stress. Then problem-solve together about how to best manage the stress.
    • Teach your child ways to resolve conflicts. Tell your child about times when you have been angry and stressed, and what you did. Give examples of what your child could do in a similar situation.
    • Let your child make simple decisions when appropriate. Because stress often makes a child feel powerless, you can help children by showing them that they have control over certain parts of life. For example, you might consider letting your child decide what to have for dinner or how to spend the day.
    • Encourage your children to do as well as they can, but try not to pressure them or make them feel that you will be very disappointed if they don't do well. Help them to set goals they can achieve. Help them learn to say "no."
    • Help them to balance their time and to allow time for exercise, rest, staying in touch with friends and going out and having fun.
    • Keep a regular schedule, such as eating meals at the same time every day and going to bed at the same time every night.
  • Take care of your child’s physical health. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet and gets enough sleep and exercise every day. Teach children and teens to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs.
  • Check your child’s medicines. To help prevent problems, tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist about all of the medicines, natural remedies, vitamins, and other supplements that your child takes.
  • Contact your healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your child’s symptoms aren’t getting better or seem to be getting worse.

Get emergency care if your child or teenager has ideas of suicide, harming himself, or harming others.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2016.4 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2016-03-01
Last reviewed: 2016-08-05
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright © 2016 RelayHealth, a division of McKesson Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.
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