Tantrums, nail biting, stomach aches, and cries of “I don’t wanna go” can all be signs of stress.  In our younger kids where expressive language has not yet fully developed, these physical, mental and emotional signs can be a common way for our toddlers and younger kids to tell us that they are just not coping.  In our primary school kids, similar responses can be seen in those that have not yet learnt how to recognise and manage their own stress and anxiety.

As some stress is a necessary part of everyday life, we don’t want to save our kids from every stressful situation that will come their way (micro managing their lives just does not work and actually creates more stress for all involved). Instead, we want to empower our kids with the ability to recognise their own stress symptoms, triggers and behaviours and equip them with the tools necessary to manage them.

Recognising how our kids respond to stress is a great place to start.  A thought, a place, an event or a person (whether real or imagined) can all evoke a “fight or flight” stress response in our kids that can vary in intensity and frequency.

So what can symptoms of stress look like:

1.         Nail Biting / Nail Picking

2.         School/Child Care Refusal
Not wanting to go to school with no clear answers as to “why”.

3.         Stomach Aches
More than the usual number of stomach aches with no medical reasons.

4.         Irritability and anger
Sudden and/or more frequent bouts of irritability or anger as our kids are experiencing strong emotions and are unable to cope with them.

5.         Sleeping Problems
Insomnia, nightmares, constant waking or trouble falling asleep.  Too much or too little sleep.  Bedwetting

6.         Loss of confidence

7.         Changes in appetite
Eating more or less and craving high fat/high sugar foods.

8.         Frequent Headaches
More than the usual number of headaches with no medical explanation.

9.         Rapid heartbeat/palpitations

10.      Avoidance
Avoiding tasks or events that will cause stress like trying out for the school choir even though they love to sing at home and can sing quite well.

11.      Clinginess or separation anxiety
Clinging to a parent or specific teachers.

12.      Excess Fidgeting

13.      Obsessive Worry
“What if”?  Worrying about every little detail of the day


What can cause these symptoms or behaviours?

1.            Nightmares/bad dreams

2.            TV programs (a glimpse of the news as they walk through the loungeroom can be enough)

3.            Some Computer/Playstation/Xbox games

4.            Some YouTube Videos

5.            Death in the family

6.            Divorce

7.            Moving house

8.            Sudden changes to household routines like a parent starting night shift

9.            Starting school/starting a new school or child care facility

10.         Overwhelming schedules

11.         Upcoming school test, dance recital, sporting final

12.         Genetics and family history

13.         Scary movie or book


As the parent what can you do?

Observe and listen.  A child will not always be able to say “I am stressed”.  Look for signs as already mentioned, observe their body language and listen to what they have to say.  Statements like “I don’t feel well” or “I have a sore stomach” or a child who is continually apologising can often be code for “I am stressed”.  Remember this, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.”  Your child needs age appropriate strategies that empower them to manage their own stress and anxiety and not to be told to just “calm down” or “you’ll be fine”.

Some simple strategies that you can employ yourself include teaching your child some breath work and mindfulness activities.  Teach them to stay in the moment and not fret about what may or may not happen next.  If your child is having trouble sleeping then set up a good bedtime routine (this starts 3-4 hours before sleep) and use guided meditations to help them drift off.  The calmer your child is before sleep then the better quality of sleep they will have.  Look at your stress levels and how you cope with the stressors of day to day life.  What examples are you setting for them?

Lastly, if you need help then seek it out.  Enlist the services of a Counsellor or Psychologist to help you develop an action plan that will investigate your child’s symptoms of stress, the causes behind them, the initial symptoms and the implementation of individualised strategies that will work for them and the family as a whole.


© copyright. May not be reproduced without acknowledgement to the author. Written by Kim Norton 22 January 2019.

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