Children and stress

With thanks to Drs Yiming and Fung, authors of ‘Help your child to cope: Understanding childhood stress’


We all experience stress in varying amounts in our lifetimes.  Adults under stress are advised to talk to others, get help in managing stress, increase physical activity to work it off and so on.  Children don’t have as many options. They need the help of caring adults to cope.


Stress is reaction to a situation seen as being threatening and fearful.  We react with a ‘fight or flight’ response which triggers an outpouring of adrenaline and cortisol.  This results in changes to our physiology, including increased heartrate and breathing, more rapid blood circulation and the closing down of oxygen supply to various areas of the brain and body.  In times of danger, we need oxygen to be sent to our muscles to help us flee or fight, so blood supply, with the oxygen it carries, is sent in less amounts to higher brain levels and other bodily systems.  This is why young people so often experience a ‘blank’ in an exam situation.  They simply don’t have enough oxygen in the higher brain areas to access the information learned and stored there. They also experience tummy aches, because their digestive systems stop working under stress.


What stresses children?

Stress is part of the daily life of all of us and is not limited to only a few really traumatic events. The same goes for children.  They, like us, have to adjust to coping with all kinds of minor stressful events, such as missing a bus, failing a test, fighting with a friend and so on. 


More serious, damaging stress can be caused by:


  • Being rejected, neglected or treated badly by parents
  • Unbalanced parents (with mental conditions or personality disorders)
  • Marital disharmony and parents divorcing
  • Sibling rivalry and birth of a sibling
  • Death of parents and close relatives
  • Being hospitalized or having a parent hospitalized



  • Beginning pre- primary and high school
  • Bad relationship with a teacher
  • Frequent change of teachers
  • Poor discipline at school, leading to insecurity
  • High expectation from school
  • Homework overload
  • Learning difficulties
  • Tests and exams



  • Bad peer influences in the community
  • Rejection and non-acceptance by the peer group
  • Bullying and teasing
  • Highly competitive atmosphere in the classroom
  • Jealousy
  • Relationship conflicts with peers


The signs of stress

Children show stress in many different ways.  Typically boys and girls may react differently. Boys tend to act out and become disruptive while girls become withdrawn and take refuge in daydreaming.  These are, of course, generalisations but nevertheless it is worth keeping this in mind because boys’ behavior will more readily lead to help being offered, while a girl under stress may go unnoticed.


Some of the many signs of stress may include emotional signs such as fear, anxiety, refusal to attend school, depression, anger, irritability and mood swings, loss of interest and lack of ability to get pleasure out of things.


Behavioural signs include aggression and violence, or withdrawal and quietness, destructiveness, hyperactivity, truancy, shoplifting, lying, hair-pulling, obsessiveness and compulsiveness.


Mentally, children may seem unable to think, concentrate or remember.


Physical signs of stress should also be noted.  These include headaches, tummy aches, blinking of eyes, tics on face, neck and body, nausea and vomiting, a feeling of not being able to breathe, ringing in the ears, loss of appetite, frequent toilet visits and difficulties falling and staying asleep.   Very often these symptoms result in visits to the doctor.  No diagnosis of physical disease can be made so they may be dismissed as ‘naughty’ or ‘attention-seeking’ behaviours. Be aware that physical symptoms can have psychological causes and should be taken very seriously indeed.


How you can help your child


  • Recognise distress signals children send out
  • Avoid labelling children wrongly: realise distress signals can be misinterpreted
  • Remove the source of stress from children (or the child from the source of stress) if at all possible
  • Help children learn coping mechanisms (exercise, meditation, deep breathing)
  • Work on your parent-child relationship for child to feel supported and secure
  • Reach out to professionals about how to help your child
  • Call on relatives and teachers to help the child feel supported





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