Whether it is the constant connection to technology, a busier schedule than ever before or other factors, today's children are facing higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than previous generations.
"The lifestyles of today's children reflect a changing landscape characterized by heightened academic demands and significant social pressures that are worsened by social media," says Kristin Scott, Ph.D., a psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. "Although there are many factors that could cause stress, such pressures appear to be among those more unique to children today."
With children feeling higher levels of stress, it's more important than ever to teach self-care and stress management skills to nurture mental health.
How does stress affect children and teens?
Stress can impact a child's health and lifestyle in many different ways. Children may have trouble in school and see a decrease in academic performance. Stress can also affect their performance in sports or other activities.
"Stress can affect a number of biological processes, including one's ability to effectively regulate emotions and respond to situations or challenges in healthy and productive ways," says Dr. Scott. "This is especially true of children and teens because their brains are still developing, which adds an additional obstacle in their ability to engage in healthy decision-making and coping."
Chronic stress in children could affect their physical health. Children who are often stressed may see an increase or decrease in weight. They may be at a higher risk for obesity, diabetes and heart problems. Tackling stress early can help your child improve their long-term mental and physical health.
What are signs of stress in children and teens?
Stress can show up in many different ways depending on the child.
"It is important to be aware of your child's behaviors and emotions and to better identify when they are experiencing stress," says Dr. Scott. "You need to be able to notice changes in their behavior."
Signs of stress in a child may include:
- Lack of energy
- Increased complaints of pain (e.g., stomach ache, headache)
- Difficulty paying attention or concentrating at school or at home
- Change in eating habits
- Change in sleeping habits
- Avoiding activities they enjoy or withdrawing from social interaction
While in adults, stress and depression most often manifest as sadness, in teens and children, stress can show up as anger or irritability. Your child may not be just an "angsty teen," he or she may be experiencing stress.
How can I help my child manage stress?
It's important to work together as a family to identify stress and find ways to reduce it. Communicate regularly with your child, ask how they are doing and listen. Reassure your child that you are there for them.
"It can be very powerful for parents to do a check-in with their child," says Dr. Scott. "Listening carefully to children about what emotions or stress they are experiencing and finding out if there are any areas where they are overwhelmed is important."
Once you identify areas of stress, such as too much schoolwork, too many activities or bullying on social media, you can work with your child to find ways to reduce these stressors. Perhaps your child may need to drop an advanced class or limit the amount of extracurricular activities they participate in. You may also need to help them learn how to use social media in healthier ways and find ways to disconnect from electronics.
Parents should also teach their children proactive stress management strategies. These strategies may include:
- Improving sleep hygiene by ensuring your child's room is cool, dark, quiet and free of screens
- Incorporating stretches, deep breathing, meditation or exercise into their daily routine to relieve anxiety
- Making room in schedules for self-care, whether that is playtime, reading or other activities they find relaxing. Allowing time for your child to just be themselves, without homework, soccer practice or social pressures, can go a long way in improving their mental health.
"While it is important for children to stay active, eat healthy and get enough sleep, you want to also build in opportunities for your child to engage in activities that reflect their interests and give them a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment," explains Dr. Scott. "Encourage time management strategies and limit over scheduling. Once you become more aware of times your child may become stressed, build in some relaxation techniques around those times."
Dr. Scott also encourages parents that one of the best ways to teach children how to handle stress is to model healthy behaviors and practices.
"It's instrumental for parents to teach and model healthy emotional responses to stress," says Dr. Scott. "By creating healthier habits, encouraging emotional expression and establishing a lifestyle that better accommodates changes, parents can help contribute to their children's resilience."
Share this information
Children are facing higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than previous generations. A psychologist @Childrens shares causes for this and why it's important to teach self-care and stress management skills. Click to tweet.
When stress becomes too much for your child, pediatric psychologists at Children's Health can help. Learn more about our psychology and psychiatry services.
You can also access emotional care and support from the comfort of your home with Virtual Visit Behavioral Health. With a behavioral health care appointment, you can speak to a board-certified psychiatrist or licensed therapist using video technology. Learn more about Virtual Visit Behavioral Health.
Stay current on the health and wellness information that makes a difference to you and your family. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more expert tips and insights sent directly to your inbox.