Childhood stress has increased in the past few decades, with around 40 per cent of kids reporting that they worry too much. Jasmina Rowe, Clinical Practice Supervisor at Kids Helpline, looks at the most common stressors faced by today’s children, and support strategies for schools and families. 

What is stress in the context of childhood?

Stress is considered to be an unavoidable part of life. A certain amount of stress is normal and necessary for survival as it helps children develop the skills they need to cope with new situations and build resilience. Childhood stress can present with a large number of physical and emotional signs and symptoms, and usually occurs when the child is experiencing a situation that requires changing and adapting. Children can experience stress early in their lives, even before they are born, and can cope in different ways. Generally, we can see three types of stress responses in children:

  • Positive stress response - is considered as a normal part of healthy development, for example, going to school camp or starting at a new school. When experienced in a supportive environment, it can provide important opportunities to learn and practise healthy responses to life changes.  

  • Tolerable stress response - activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting stressors, for example, parental divorce, illness or injury, or bullying at school.

  • Toxic stress response - can occur when a child experiences strong and/or prolonged multiples stressful events without adequate adult support, for example, physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, parental mental illness, or exposure to violence. It can disrupt early brain development and lead to many health problems.

The good news is that the damaging effects of toxic stress can be prevented or reversed if the child is placed in a supportive environment with caring adults as early in life as possible. Children experiencing tolerable (and especially toxic) stress may require the support from a mental health specialist who can provide ongoing therapeutic support and counselling. Telephone and online counselling services like Kids Helpline can also be helpful for children (and parents).  

How prevalent is stress in early childhood/primary school?

It seems that everyday life stressors have increased in the last few decades and, certainly, we at Kids Helpline talk to a large number of children and young adults who report feeling significantly stressed and worried. A 2011 survey of 10,000 students across the country (commissioned by the Australian Scholarships Group) found that 40 per cent of students worry too much, and one-in-five have experienced an episode of depression.

What are common stressors for kids these days? Are they very different to 10 or 20 years ago?

Today's children face many pressures from external and internal sources, for example:

  • Stress in schools - There is a lot of pressure on students today to perform at school, and there seem to be even more pressure within the peer group. The increase in the amount of homework students receive, fear of failure, worrying about fitting in, self-identity, and bullying are some of the more common reasons for stress in schools.

  • Stress in the family - There are many issues within a family unit that can cause stress in children, for example, parental separation, remarriage (blended family), financial problems, poverty, parental stress, coping with parents who have a mental illness and, commonly, unreasonably high family expectations being placed on children.

  • Media stress and environmental dangers - Some children can become worried about things they hear and see on the news or by a generalised fear of strangers, burglars and street violence.       

Many of the above-mentioned concerns, such as school stress, have been around for a long time. The main difference now, compared to 10 or 20 years ago, is that today's children have increased access to media. Television, internet and cell phones have contributed to the break-down of barriers that protect children from crime, violence and catastrophic events in media coverage. This exposure may contribute to, and have a significant impact on, increasing children’s stress levels and their fears around safety. Cyber-bullying is another big stressor, which can be very aggressive and pervasive and often causes serious emotional distress and harm to children.

Are there times in a child's life where they may be more likely to experience stress?

Many internal and external factors can influence a child's susceptibility to stress. Children are more likely to experience stress in the following situations:

  • Multiple stressful situations (particularly those that the young person cannot easily control).

  • Transitions (life changes).

  • Stress accompanying a serious illness or injury.

  • Isolation or loneliness.

  • Abuse (past or current).

  • Parental stress (especially in mothers). 

What behaviours might you see in stressed-out kids?

Youth of all ages, but especially younger children, may find it difficult to recognise and verbalise when they are experiencing stress. For children, stress can manifest itself through changes in behaviour. Some of those behavioural symptoms may include:

  • irritability or moodiness

  • withdrawing from activities that used to give them pleasure

  • clinging; being unwilling to let parents out of sight 

  • crying

  • aggressive behaviour

  • regression to earlier behaviours (ie thumb-sucking or bed-wetting)

  • school refusal

  • unwillingness to participate in family or school activities. 

How do you know when stress levels for children are getting too much or are developing into something more concerning (like an anxiety disorder)?

When the strain and pressure becomes too much to handle, a child can develop a range of physical, emotional or behavioural symptoms, and can even be at risk of developing an anxiety disorder or other mental health issue. Some of the following symptoms, particularly if ongoing and severe, may indicate that child could be developing an anxiety disorder:

  • Persistent and excessive worry (to the point it is impacting negatively on their day-to-day functioning).

  • Ongoing physical symptoms (eg stomach pain, vomiting or headaches).

  • Significant sleep disturbances.

  • Extreme fearfulness.

  • Significant changes in eating habits (poor appetite, overeating or binging).

  • Inability to control emotions (eg uncontrollable crying or aggression).

  • Withdrawal from friends and family.

  • Extreme behaviours or comments (ie self-harm or suicidal ideation).

How can primary schools help student cope with stress

Schools can be really active in supporting students to deal with stress, for example, they can:

  • help students  learn more about their  emotions by  incorporating emotional learning into the curriculum at all levels of school

  • teach students how to recognise their personal signs and symptoms of stress and develop positive ways to cope with stress (eg through healthy eating or exercise)

  • create supportive, positive and safe classroom environments

  • communicate more frequently with student’s parents and caregivers (eg information-sharing at parent/teacher evenings) 

  • ensure that students get the individual support they need with learning and achieving their academic goals 

  • allow time for students during school hours to receive adequate exercise and have play/relaxation time

  • implement anti-bullying practices and policies

  • encourage students to be creative and express themselves (eg through art, sport and music)        

  • provide counselling and actively promote the importance of children speaking up and accessing support when stressed or worried

  • develop and implement mentoring support programs in school (eg Peer Skills). 

How can parents help their kids cope with stress?

It is important for parents to teach kids to recognise and express their emotions, and to use healthy ways to cope with the stress they experience. Parents can:

  • regularly spend calm and relaxing time with their children

  • listen to their children and encourage them to talk about their feelings and worries            

  • provide a safe and nurturing family environment

  • encourage physical activity and healthy eating habits

  • use positive encouragement and rewards instead of punitive measures

  • avoid being critical and negative towards their children

  • show active interest in their children's activities and hobbies and participate when possible 

  • demonstrate active interest in their children’s school progress and support them with their learning and homework 

  • monitor their children's access to media and ensure they are aware of  safe online practices

  • support their children if they are exposed to bullying

  • manage their own stress and be a positive role model

  • avoid over-scheduling children and allow them free time to play, read, listen to music or just 'veg–out’ 

  • help build children's sense of self-worth by recognising their achievements and avoid placing unrealistic expectations on them

  • seek professional help if signs of stress do not decrease.

See the following free information and services provided by Kids Helpline: