How stress affects children and what parents can do about it

Children in stress
©Jean Kobben /

Stress in children

We adults are often stressed. The many tasks at work, private appointments and since we have children are still a lot of additional challenges. But stressed children? Yes, because stress has long since arrived in the children’s room. Children who play freely and carefree outside in the woods probably belong more to the classic wishful thinking. Instead, the pressure often starts in kindergarten. They have to study hard to get into high school, learn to play a variety of instruments, and pursue sports and other hobbies.
Scientific studies have shown that every sixth child and every fifth teenager in Germany suffers from high stress. The study “Burn-Out in the Children’s Room” by the University of Bielefeld brings alarming facts to light.

Signs of stress in children

Especially in children, the symptoms of stress can be enormous. Depression and fear of failure can result. The most common symptoms are also loss of appetite, aggression and sleep disorders. The signs of stress in children can be quite different depending on the child. Girls tend to be withdrawn and often withdraw. They become quieter, do not talk as much about what they have experienced, and are in a bad mood. Another sign may be an unexplained drop in academic performance.

Most common stress symptoms: Abdominal pain and headaches

According to scientists, headaches and stomach aches are among the most common symptoms of stress. But other physical complaints can also be a sign. Such as tension, severe restlessness, a dry mouth and palpitations. The body shows and when it adjusts to stress. In general, the younger the child, the more physically the organism reacts to stress. For example, with headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea or nausea. Later, anxiety and depression may be added.

What happens in our body during stress

Our body produces noradrenaline and adrenaline in stressful situations. The messenger substances are distributed throughout the body in an instant. This results in an accelerated heartbeat and increased alertness. The body is on alert. Breathing speeds up, muscles tense up. Because of the acceleration of metabolism, the distribution of fluids in the body is also divided differently. Our hands become wet and mouth dry. When stress and tension are followed by a recovery period, the body comes back into balance and recovers. However, if there is a continuous stress situation and no relaxation phases follow, stress symptoms develop.

Where does stress come from in children?

In the 2015 stress study, scientists took a very close look at what causes stress in children. Most often, it was too little time without “obligations,” parents’ expectations or self-imposed expectations, and high deadline pressure from doctor’s appointments or hobbies. Most parents do not even consciously perceive stress in their own children. Not even a quarter of parents of children with a particularly high stress level said in a survey that they suspected the child was suffering from stress. Parents are not always to blame for the situation. Often, children set themselves too high goals or think that their parents have corresponding expectations that they have difficulty meeting. In addition, media overstimulation, the pure pressure to perform at school and other things can contribute to the stress.

Stress can make you sick

Stress ensures that the body is on alert. This enables us to perform at our best mentally. So stress is not always harmful. However, it becomes problematic when children are under constant stress. Stress management measures are enormously important in such a situation. A stressed childhood can have strong effects on the future. Mental illness, crime, drug use and diabetes are just a few examples.

What to do about stress in children?

As always, insight is the first road to recovery. To do something about stress, it must first be recognized and perceived. Most parents are not really aware of the situation. This is also due to the fact that children cannot complain about stress and put into words that they are feeling overwhelmed and unhappy at the moment.

Ask yourself self-critically whether the child could be stressed by everyday life. Is this strongly determined by looking at the clock? How does the morning go? Does the child have to brush his teeth and eat breakfast quickly, while you hang up the laundry, get ready and quickly make sandwiches for the break, or is the situation quite relaxed in the morning? What about the afternoon? Is there time in between for a quiet walk, a little cuddle, a book, a radio play or a game, or is the time after school strictly scheduled with doctor’s appointments and hobbies?

All parents want only the best for their own flesh and blood. However, the child itself should not be overlooked. Perhaps the child would like it better if instead of piano lessons, soccer and scout meetings, an hour of playtime with parents were on the schedule for once.

If you already suspect that your child is stressed and overwhelmed by everyday life, do some self-critical research into the causes. You don’t have to blame yourself, because often several factors come together to drive up stress levels in children. Here are a few basic tips and questions for stress in children:


Take a critical look at the child’s schedule. How full is it? Take a close look at each activity and consider how important it is, whether the child enjoys doing it, or whether he or she has perhaps been going to ballet class again and again for a long time without being satisfied. During the week, there should be plenty of free time besides school.


Talk to the children about afternoon activities and upcoming weekend schedules. What do the children particularly enjoy? What is seen as more of a chore? Start an experiment and let your child do the planning for a week. The child can plan for itself whether it wants to go to sports, music lessons or arts and crafts classes. This shows quite well what the child sees as overload. According to studies, children find appointments that they don’t really enjoy particularly stressful.


Does that even happen anymore? What does the child do on an afternoon that is once at their complete free disposal? Make sure that not every free afternoon is immediately filled with appointments with friends. The child should also have a few hours with himself or herself to rest. If the child complains about boredom, don’t immediately offer things to distract him or her. Let the child come up with ideas on his own and learn how to deal with boredom properly.

A little stress is necessary

Stress is part of our lives, and coping with stress is not about preventing all stressful situations. Children must independently develop individual concepts to deal with such situations. As parents, you can provide support in this process. For example, with tips on how they can clean up their room especially quickly and well, or how they can make up with their best friend again after an argument.


How is the situation at school? Are there any problems? Has academic performance dropped or are there interpersonal problems with classmates or teachers? Does the child perhaps have a fear of failure and often wake up with stomach pains? Talk to the child about school and contact educators or teachers if you suspect this.


Ask yourself how you handle stress? Do you keep stress away from the children or do you emphasize in every other sentence that they don’t have time right now because they are terribly stressed at the moment? Try to model some serenity and keep the stress away from the children if possible.


Certain rituals bring calm and order to the life of any family and, by extension, to the life of any child. This can be, for example, a meal at the same time every night, reading aloud before sleep, or praying together before dinner.

Media use

One of the most common reasons for high stress levels is media overload. So limit TV consumption and set clear rules. Children should also be exposed to tablets and smartphones as late as possible, if possible – although peer pressure plays its part.

Anti-stress coaching

Coaching allows children to practice various useful relaxation techniques. Some health insurance companies offer such courses to prevent stress in children. Here, children learn how to deal with stress in the right way.