Crying is one way of Coping with StressCredit: photo courtesy of the United States Library of Congress

Research about kids indicates that children are bombarded with external stimuli that can cause anxiety and stress but many can’t adequately cope; parents can help. As with adults, the tolerance for stress is just as varied in children.  However, with children, their ability to cope with stressful situations not only depends on genetics; it also depends on their developmental age.  The younger the child, the greater the impact of new events, and the higher the potential for stress to become negative. 

How Stress Manifests Itself in Children

The majority of the time, children will display overt physical reactions to stressful situations.  They cry, run away, become aggressive, or engage in self-soothing behaviors such as rocking.  They may complain of headaches or stomachaches or present with nervous behaviors such as nail biting, hair pulling or twirling, or chewing lips or the inside of their cheeks.  Reactions may advance to depression, avoidance, hyper-vigilance, excessive worrying, or obsessions.

Some children experience a high level of anxiety when faced with unfamiliar circumstances.  Unchecked, the anxiety can build until the child has a full-blown problem requiring some professional help.  One such example is going to school for the first time.  In some children, the anxiety created builds and can create separation anxiety. 

How Parents can Help Their Stressed Out Children

There are ways parents can help reduce stress in their children.  Following are some suggestions for parents to help their children cope with new situations which might be stressful.

  • Provide a safe, secure environment. Parents need to be consistent and dependable.  When things are predictable, children feel safer.
  • Be selective in what children watch on television and at the theater.  Monitor the video games they play.  Research indicates that children are influenced by what they see from media sources. 
  • Spend calm relaxed time with children.  Spending relaxed time with children not only is good role modeling; it offers parents the opportunity to connect with their children.
  • Encourage child to share feelings, concerns, worries, fears.  When children express their feelings parents need to acknowledge the feelings and assist the children with comfort and encouragement.
  • Listen without being critical.  Acknowledge how the children are feeling; openly discuss their fears and concerns keeping criticism out of the equation.
  • Build child’s self-esteem.   Help children become stronger emotionally by building their self-esteem.  The more confident children are, the less vulnerable to stress and the more likely they will develop coping skills to manage low levels of stress.
  • Discipline rather than punish.  Discipline means “to teach” and that is what parenting entails.  Punishment on the other hand is more about intimidation and fear to acquire a result and thus can actually create more stress.  Physical Play Helps Reduce Stress - photo by Cheryl WeldonCredit: photo by Cheryl Weldon
  • Encourage physical activity.   Physical activity helps relieve stress by releasing endorphins.   Research has shown that when children are physically fit it aids in being mentally fit and it helps them cope with stress more efficiently.
  • Role model.  Children learn by example.  Children will learn how to handle stressful situations by watching their parents cope with different events that arise. 
  • Recognize the signs.  Parents need to be aware of the signs that their children are under stress.  Children won’t always say what is bothering them; parents to be monitor their children for signs of undue stress so they can take action to assist.
  • Help child build knowledge and learned preparedness.  As children experience events and learn how to handle them; they will add to their repertoire of skills.  Parents can help children prepare for specific situations by practice and anticipation.
  • Keep child informed of transitions coming up (keep things predictable).  Again, keeping things predictable for children help lessen potential stress.  Keep routines and prepare children for changes in those routines.  When moving from one situation to another, prepare children in advance so they know what to expect.

As children grow and experience life, they will incorporate those experiences into their knowledge base and use the experiences to help them cope.  When they are having difficulty; it is important for them to ask for help and though not all children will, parents need to be there to step in when needed.



 Milgard, Virginia. Stress: Taking Charge. Iowa State University: 1996

 DeBord, Karen. Helping Children Cope with Stress.  North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service  “Stress and Young Children.” (accessed March 6, 2010) “Childhood Stress.” (accessed March 6, 2010) “Stress in Children and Adolescents: Tips for Parents.” (accessed March 6, 2010)


  The copyright of the article “Children Need Help Coping with Stress” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.