Help Your Child Manage Stress: Warning Signs & Strategies

“A man who suffers or stresses before it is necessary, suffers more than is necessary.” – Seneca

Just as we, as adults, experience stress and emotional tension from both internal and external experiences, so do children. The content of children’s worries may look a bit different from ours, but those worries are often rooted in similar core beliefs and fears that we experience as adults. Children may witness you and your partner arguing at home, and feel afraid about what this means, if it’s their “fault,” or if they might lose one of you somehow. They may experience stress at school, worries about being bullied, having friends, or doing well in their classes.

In case there was any doubt about the reality that children experience emotional distress, consider the following basic statistics:

  • More than 160,000 children skip school every day due to fear of being bullied
  • 77% of children are bullied (physically, mentally, or emotionally), but only 10% tell their parents
  • At any given time, 1 in 33 children and 1 in 8 adolescents may be experiencing clinical depression
  • Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds and the 6th leading cause of death for 5-15 year olds

Children learn how to identity, manage, and respond to their emotions through the way in which they witness you handle your own emotions (social learning theory) and through their repetitive interactions with you. Take a moment to slow down and reflect on what messages you may be (perhaps unintentionally) sending your children about what stress “means” and how to deal with emotional stress when it arises. Being more mindful in your daily interactions with your children may not only help you be more attuned to your own emotional expressions, but also more attuned to your children’s well-being.

Identify Signs of Stress in Children & Teens

The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests the following 5 tips to help identify signs of stress in children and teens:

(1) Watch out for negative changes in behavior

Children and adolescents may have difficulty identifying and vocalizing times when they are under stress. As a mindfully attuned parent, you can be vigilant for noteworthy negative changes in your child’s behavior. Common behavioral changes to be aware of include:

  • Withdrawing from activities that your child used to enjoy
  • Acting uncharacteristically irritable or moody
  • Complaining more than usual about school or friends
  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Excessive hostility toward or avoidance of family members

Negative behaviors don’t necessarily mean that your child is under severe stress, but negative changes in behavior are almost always a clear sign that something is wrong.

(2) “Feeling sick” may be a manifestation of stress

Emotional distress can manifest itself outwardly through physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches. Notice if your child seems to want to stay home from school often or makes frequent visits to the school nurse. Be sure to rule out physical problems with a trip to your physician. If your child is given a clean bill of health and the physical complaints persist or seem to increase during certain times (e.g., before a big test), this may be a sign that a deeper level of emotional distress is occurring.

(3) Be mindful of how your child interacts with others

It is possible for your child to act one way at home and quite differently in other settings (e.g., at school or with friends). While on many levels it is not unusual at all (and healthy) to show different sides of ourselves in different situations, this may become problematic if your child is acting out in unhealthy/destructive ways when he or she is not around you. You can be vigilant to this possibility by having open lines of communication with other parents, school administrators, teachers, and leaders of extra-curricular activities.

(4) Listen and translate

Children generally don’t have the same understanding of “stress” that we do as adults, which may result in children trying to express their experience of distress to you by using language that makes sense to them. For example, your child may try to express their stress to you by using words like mad, scared, annoyed, or worried. It is not uncommon for children and adolescents to outwardly express their stress by making self-deprecating statements like “no one likes me,” “this is stupid,” or “nothing is any fun.” When you develop a mindfully attuned presence to your child’s communication strategies, you can begin the process of making sense of what he or she is trying to tell you and how you can most effectively respond.

(5) Seek support

If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing significant stress, you don’t need to feel alone in the process of understanding what may be going on and how to help your child. Explore the mental health resources available in your community. There are psychologists and other mental health professionals who have specialized training in identifying and treating child and adolescent emotional, mental, and behavioral issues. Many of these mental health professionals may be skilled in offering you specific strategies that you can implement with your child to help alleviate suffering.

Help Children Become Mindful of Emotions

In her book “The Power of Your Child’s Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety, ” child psychologist and UCLA professor, Dr. Charlotte Reznick, shares tips on how to help children become more mindful of their emotional states. Just a few of many strategies are listed here:

Balloon breath:

Try teaching your child to use deep diaphragmatic breathing to help them calm down and focus. Show your child how to place their hands gently on their stomach and visualize a balloon slowly filling up with air with each deep breath in. This mindful breathing technique can help your child deescalate and recenter in the present moment.

Discover your special place:

You can teach your child how visualize a special and safe place in their minds that they can “go to” when they are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or unsure. Create as much detail as possible and reassure your child this place exists within them at all times. Perhaps this place looks like a castle, outer space, or a garden. The idea is that this special place is safe, secure, and comforting.

Use color for healing:

Children can use color to describe their emotions and reduce emotional suffering. When it’s difficult to verbalize what an emotion looks like or feels like, describing the emotion through color and drawing can be a way to express and process the emotional experience.

Help Teens Deal with Stress

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry provides specialized tips to help teenagers deal with stress:

As you develop mindfulness within yourself, you may become increasing attuned to your child’s emotional state and be better equipped to respond more effectively. Remember, children notice the way that you handle your own emotions and interact with others. The notion of “do as I say, not as I do” may allow you to feel off the hook in this respect, but it is most likely an illusion. Your children internalize aspects of you and your interactions with them. Try to be mindful of the ways that you show your children how to handle emotional distress and be prepared to effectively support them during difficult times.

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American Psychological Association (APA). Retrieved from

Tartakovsky, M. (2012). 9 Tools to Help Kids Cope Creatively with Stress.Psych Central. Retrieved on March 25, 2012, from

Featured image: A little worried by allspice1 / CC BY-ND 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Mary Ross on March 26, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    This is one of the best articles you have done… maybe because I care about the topic so much. I so enjoyed it. Thank you!

    • Laura on April 15, 2012 at 9:06 pm

      Mary – I’m glad to hear that you so enjoyed this article on helping your child manage stress. It strikes me that many parents of children and adolescents experience heartfelt concern and empathy for their child’s stress, but may be unsure of what warning signs to look out for and what particular strategies may be effective/helpful. I hope that this article and the resources provided within are useful to parents interested in helping their children manage stress. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Kathy White-Webster on March 28, 2012 at 2:55 am

    Thankyou for this succinct article. I am a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction teacher .I have known young students from the point of view of being a drama teacher and a youth theatre director all of my working life I appreciate the clarity and rigour of your work.
    I taught drama at Tashi Lhunpo Tibetan monastic school in India using Dorothy Heathcote’s techniques and throughout the programme the students’ core buddhist beliefs became apparent .I felt I was teaching in a sea of compassion.
    It is essential to be able to cultivate attitudes of gentleness,kindness and self-compassion as we discover our core beliefs otherwise we can add another layer of self criticism and suffering. Perhaps we can then respond with responsibility for what is known to us rather than simply reacting.Kathy.

    • Laura on April 15, 2012 at 9:17 pm

      Kathy – You are most welcome! I would love to know more about your personal experiences as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher. I can imagine how the multiple perspectives of working with young people as a drama teacher and a youth theater director may have uniquely impacted your path toward MBSR and experience as an MBSR teacher. Your experience of recognizing that you were “teaching in a sea of compassion” while in India strikes me as powerfully moving.

      I absolutely agree with you regarding the importance of cultivating attitudes of gentleness, kindness, and self-compassion along the path toward discovery of our core beliefs. Those core beliefs have the potential to be frightening and/or intense, and actively approaching self-discovery with this type of attitude certainly seems to lessen to unnecessary suffering that can be created by coming face-to-face with these long held beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world.

      Mindfulness seems to operate from the general foundation of responding (yes, with responsibility!), rather than reacting. It strikes me that when we live our lives and make our choices from a persistent place of fear or plagued by self-doubt, it can be quite difficult to be still within ourselves and allow a compassionate and mindful response to come forth. Thank you for your comment and again, I welcome further thoughts and feelings regarding your journey toward teaching MBSR.

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