Understanding stress in children & teenagers

Most adults think of their childhood as the happiest time of their life. But we forget too quickly that being a child – even as young as 1 – can be stressful.

Stress, of course, can have a direct effect on mood, which may explain why many experts believe it can lead to depression. So, is it any surprise that studies show almost 1 in 4 young people will experience depression before they’re 19 years old?

From peer pressure to academic expectations, there are many aspects of modern life that can lead a child or teenager to feel stressed, anxious and worried. The wellbeing experts at CABA reveal some of the common triggers and offer their tips on how to support a child who is experiencing stress.

  1. School and homework

Many children feel under pressure to do well at school. And for some, all the lessons they have to learn during the day – plus the homework they have to do in the evening – can seem overwhelming and if a child falls behind, this can lead to stress. It can often mean they don’t have enough free time to play or do other fun activities.

  1. Exams

Exams can put children and teenagers under pressure, so much so that a recent report by Childline revealed the service delivered more than 3,000 counselling sessions on exam stress during 2016 – 2017, which is 11% higher than the previous 2 years.

Those aged 12 – 15 were most likely to be asking for help about exam stress, with the top concerns centring around not wanting to disappoint their parents, fear of failure and general pressures linked to academic achievement. As a result, young people contacting Childline said exam stress can not only lead to depression but also anxiety, panic attacks and feelings of low self-esteem.

  1. Making friends & peer pressure

When children start a new school, making friends can put them under pressure. Those who don’t make friends easily may also feel isolated. Children can also worry when they argue and fall out with their friends. Additionally, making friends can be difficult and as such, many children feel under pressure to fit in – and sometimes, this means they do things they may not feel comfortable with or are unsure of.

  1. Bullying

During 2016/2017 there were more than 24,000 Childline counselling sessions with children about bullying. And according to the NSPCC, studies suggest there are more than 16,000 young people are absent from school due to bullying.

As a parent, there are certain things you can look out for that may suggest your child is having a problem with bullying. These include:

  • Becoming withdrawn, nervous and losing confidence
  • Performing badly at school
  • Not wanting to go to school (for instance, pretending to be ill)
  • Losing personal belongings (or personal belongings becoming damaged)
  • Not eating or sleeping well
  • Having unexplained injuries such as bruises


  1. World events

It’s impossible to keep disturbing news about things like war, natural disasters and terrorist atrocities from children these days. As a result, some children may worry about their safety as well as that of their parents, family members and friends.

  1. Family difficulties or changes

From moving to a new house to parents separating, family difficulties and changes to the norm can be tough on a child or teenager and can cause signs of stress.

How you can help…

If you suspect your child is under a lot of stress, here are some of the things you can do to help:

Make time for them  

All parents are busy these days, but it’s important to spend more time than usual with your children if you think they’re worried about something. Make yourself available for fun activities or just being in the same room as them. Ask them about their day and show an interest in things that are important to them. But try to avoid forcing them to talk about their worries – they’ll open up when they feel comfortable talking about it.

Encourage healthy sleep

Getting the right amount of sleep and rest can help children become more resilient to stress. Children need different amounts of sleep at different ages – find out how many hours your children need by visiting NHS Choices.

Feed them healthy food

Good nutrition is also essential if you want to boost your child’s coping skills. Try to make sure they’re eating at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. If your children are resistant to eating fruit and veg, there are lots of ways to get them into their diet (these tips by NHS Choices may help).

Make stress normal

It may be useful to remind your children that some level of stress is perfectly normal in life, and that everyone is affected by it and has to find ways of coping. Explaining that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling could give them the confidence they need to manage their stress levels. If it helps, try talking about times when you’ve been stressed, and explain how you tackled it.

Keep them active

Physical activity can help children and adults alike manage stress, so make sure your children are getting plenty of exercise. Other things you could try with them include relaxation techniques and even things like breathing exercises. Also try leading by example – if you use these methods to manage your own stress levels, your children are more likely to follow in your footsteps.

Meanwhile, if you think your child may be depressed, don’t try to handle it on your own – make an appointment for them to see their GP. Your child’s doctor can refer them to your local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) for specialist help. These services can provide access to a team of experts, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, support workers, occupational therapists and psychological therapists.

For more mental and physical wellbeing advice and tips, visit caba.org.uk/help-and-guides
You May Also Like