Is My Child OK? Warning Signs Kids and Teens are Stressed

How to Tell if Your Kid is Struggling – Plus 5 Ways You Can Help

Over the past decade, youth mental health has steadily declined, a crisis exacerbated by a myriad of factors from the pandemic to social media use. Boys & Girls Clubs, which serve youth ages 6-18 after school and during the summer, are on the frontlines helping youth navigate emotions, challenges and social situations.

“Young people are having a hard time with mental health,” says Carlyn Andrew, Chief Culture Officer at Boys & Girls Clubs of the Fox Valley. “We’re especially seeing that show up in experiences they have related to bullying and in social media interactions.”

Childhood anxiety and stress in particular are on the rise. While small amounts of stress are a normal part of life, some young people may experience toxic stress which can have some adverse effects to their mental health and wellbeing.

With the support of Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies, Boys & Girls Clubs throughout the nation are adopting a trauma-informed approach to create emotionally and psychologically safe environments that support youth mental health. Trained youth development staff work with caregivers, schools, therapists and communities in a wrap-around response to ensure young people have the tools needed to manage their emotions.

“This partnership allows us to bring Clubs together to learn in community,” says Carlyn, “to more deeply understand the widespread impact and prevalence of trauma, and to learn how to apply new approaches and practices.”

Parents, family members and mentors are often the first to recognize signs of anxiety in children and teens and to help them learn coping skills to navigate challenging times.

Stress vs. Anxiety – What’s the Difference?

Stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably, but there is a fine line between the two. Both are emotional responses, but stress is caused by an external trigger. Triggers can be anything from a big test at school, a disagreement with a friend or loved one, to not having a date to the school dance or even a classmate’s post on social media. Stress is best resolved by addressing the problem and utilizing healthy coping skills.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even when there isn’t a trigger. Anxiety is the body’s reaction to stress and comes from within. Understanding the difference between stress and anxiety in teens and kids can help parents and caregivers provide support and know when to seek more professional help, especially as stress and anxiety share many of the same physical symptoms. Kate Endries, National Director of Trauma Informed Practice at Boys & Girls Clubs of America advises caregivers to get familiar with what’s normal and what’s not. “It’s important to know your child and their baseline. As you begin to understand the different domains of your young person’s life – their relationships, their friends, their self-esteem, their hobbies, how they feel about school, their challenges and triumphs – you’ll be more attuned to what’s going well and what’s not.”

Physical Signs and Emotional Symptoms of Stress

How do kids and teens show they’re stressed or experiencing anxiety? Stress and anxiety in children and teens can show up in physical, emotional and behavioral ways. These signs are relatively consistent throughout children of all ages; however, some indicators are less obvious than others. Pay special attention to any sudden shifts in behavior or unusual complaints your child brings up to you.

Physical signs of stress in children

  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations or increased heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Bedwetting
  • Decreased appetite, comfort-eating, or bingeing
  • Pretending to be sick to avoid activities

Emotional symptoms of stress in children

  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Restlessness
  • Clinginess
  • New or recurring fears
  • Increased crying, anger, stubbornness, or aggression
  • Decreased concentration or motivation
  • Emotional overreactions to minor incidents
  • Regressing toward comforting behaviors from early childhood (i.e. thumb-sucking, nail-biting, sleeping with a stuffed animal)
  • Social isolation, withdrawal, or unwillingness to participate in formerly enjoyed activities

Common Stressors in Children and Teens

If you notice any of the physical, behavioral or emotional symptoms of stress, take a minute to consider what may be causing these reactions. This is especially important as the main difference between stress and anxiety is whether there is an external trigger.

Stress in teens and children is commonly caused by significant life changes, both positive, like starting a new grade, and negative, like family turmoil or classroom bullying. In fact, 40% of youth say they were bullied on school property in the past year.

And not everyone responds the same. “There are youth that feel more forthcoming and are able to talk a little bit about what they’re experiencing,” says Taylor Berken, Behavioral Support Services Director at Boys & Girls Club of the Fox Valley. “But there are also youth who are more closed off.” If you notice any of the symptoms of stress, but there isn’t a clear cause, your child could be experiencing anxiety.

To help you troubleshoot for possible causes, we’ve listed common familial, academic and social stresses that children of all ages can experience. While you’re reading, remember that all kids are unique in what they find stressful. Younger children, preteens and teens react differently to triggers in their environment. So, an incident causing stress to an 8-year-old boy may not trouble his 15-year-old sister.

Potential stressors for kids of all ages

  • Conflict with friends, bullying, and peer pressure
  • Changing schools
  • Struggling in school (i.e. curriculum, grades, homework, socializing)
  • Balancing responsibilities (i.e. school and extracurricular activities)
  • Disappointing their parents
  • Parental divorce or separation
  • Financial difficulties within the family
  • Unsafe or precarious living situation

Potential stressors for children

  • New experiences and places
  • Being away from home
  • Performing in front of others (i.e. sports, speeches, recitals)
  • Getting picked last for sports teams
  • Perceived dangers (i.e. kidnapping, fires, burglars, natural disasters, the dark)

Potential stressors for preteens and teens

  • Going through puberty and bodily changes
  • Poor self-esteem and negative thoughts about themselves
  • Fear of the future (i.e. going off to college, getting a job)
  • Exploring identity (i.e. gender, sexuality)
  • Cyberbullying
  • Romantic relationships and dating
  • Pressure to try drugs and alcohol with friends
  • Community violence
  • Cultural alienation

How to Help Alleviate Childhood Stress

  1. #1 icon

    Ensure your child feels safe. When faced with parental separation, a precarious living situation or illness or death in the family, kids of all ages may begin to question their physical security and adults’ ability to take care of them. During these instances, it’s important to reassure the child that you will keep them safe and loved, and then take the necessary steps to ensure you can uphold your promises.

  2. #2 icon

    Talk to your child. Communicate in an open, supportive manner. Ask your child directly how they’re feeling and really listen to their answers. No matter what they tell you, remember to stay calm and avoid making them feel judged or self-conscious. Also, don’t get upset if your child can’t or won’t open up. Some kids need more time and encouragement than others.

    One way that Boys & Girls Clubs help young people communicate and process their emotions is through youth voice and choice. “Sometimes, youth might not know what they need in that moment,” says Taylor. “We want to ensure that staff are helping our youth advocate for their needs and are telling them that all feelings are okay, no matter what they’re feeling.”

    Younger children typically don’t have the vocabulary necessary to say “I feel stressed,” so they will use other words like “scared,” “sad,” “confused,” or “mad.” Meanwhile, preteens and teens may say dismissive things about themselves like “I can’t do anything right,” “no one likes me,” or “I have no friends.” Gently prompt the child to keep talking and try to pinpoint the driving force behind these statements. Emotional check-ins can be fun and easy too.

  3. #3 icon

    Develop healthy coping methods. Kids often aren’t equipped with the tools needed to lower their stress levels. Teaching mindfulness techniques or breathing exercises can be very beneficial in promoting relaxation. Additionally, you can explain how physical exercise can help combat the feeling of stress. Promoting a healthy lifestyle with balanced meals, time outdoors, and limits on their screen usage, including TV, cellphone and laptops, is also recommended.

  4. #4 icon

    Spend quality time together. If your child is going through stressful changes in their life, show them that you’ll always be their pillar of support. Try to reduce their anxiety by planning a kid-focused mental health day and fun activities together. Regularly offering praise, hugs, and affection to boost their feelings of self-worth. Having family routines, like weekday dinners together or Sunday movie nights, can also bring stability and comfort to a child’s week.

  5. #5 icon

    Manage your own stress. Children often follow the emotional cues of the adults in their lives. If you’ve been going through a stressful time and you’re feeling the negative effects of stress, anxiety or depression, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Parents and caregivers need to prioritize their own happiness too, so they’re able to serve as loving, attentive presences in their children’s lives.

Finally, don’t pressure your child into immediately telling you what’s wrong. If they are feeling scared or anxious, they may take longer to confide in you. Remember to always be loving and patient, and allow your kid to talk openly when they’re ready.

With younger children, they may truly not know or understand why they’re feeling stressed. In these cases, consider speaking to their teacher or after-school youth mentor if you’re unable to pinpoint a stressor in your child’s home life.

When to Seek Professional Help

Childhood anxiety and stress can still be difficult to manage despite the best efforts of parents and loved ones. If your child or teen won’t disclose or doesn’t know the source of their stress, or you observe their symptoms worsening, it’s time to seek out professional help.

Don’t hesitate to contact your family doctor or get in touch with a trained therapist who specializes in treating children and adolescents. A child in crisis deserves your immediate help and support so they can return to enjoying their childhood to the fullest.

Our programmatic partner The Kids Mental Health Foundation shares when to speak to a therapist:


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Boys & Girls Clubs of America provides mentorship, programs and meaningful life experiences that boost youth self-esteem, build confidence and contribute to overall positive and healthy wellbeing. Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest resources and stories.

This article was previously published on 6/16/2020.



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