Taking care of your mental health is essential no matter how old you are. But for children and teenagers in particular, experiencing high levels of stress can have long-term, adverse effects on their brain development and social functioning. High stress levels can come from various sources, including academic performance, social media, maintaining friendships, and managing expectations. Small doses of acute stress can be healthy, motivating young people to study for an important exam or prepare for a presentation.
However, without healthy coping strategies, high stress levels can create unnecessary physical and mental health problems. If left unchecked, long-term stress can cause high blood pressure, weaken the immune system, and contribute to physical health conditions like heart disease and digestive disorders. It can also lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression—which are mental health conditions that are increasingly common in young people.
Although stress in young children and adolescents doesn't always look like stress in adults, it's essential to tune into behavioral and emotional cues to identify potential problems and provide guidance in difficult situations. Here's how to identify possible signs of stress so you can promote healthy stress management.
Understand the signs and symptoms of stress
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), children and adolescents may not recognize that they're stressed. As a result, understanding the early signs of stress is key to promoting good mental health and supporting your child during stressful situations.
Although stress affects everyone differently, it typically involves a combination of psychological and physical symptoms, including:
- Irritability, anger, and mood swings: Sometimes, tension and high stress levels lead to a low mood. In addition, high stress can make it harder for children and teens to manage their emotions.
- Changes in behavior: Sudden changes in behavior can indicate that stress levels are high. For example, a teenager might stop spending time with friends and family members, or a child who was doing well at school might start refusing to do homework.
- Sleeping problems: Children and teenagers might experience insomnia, have trouble getting enough sleep, complain about feeling tired all the time, or sleep more than usual.
- Neglecting responsibilities: If an adolescent suddenly starts skipping class, forgetting to turn in homework, or procrastinating more than usual, poor mental health might be a factor.
- Eating changes: Eating too much or too little can both be reactions to ongoing stress or signs of other mental health issues.
- Getting sick more often: Chronic stress often presents as physical symptoms. Children and adolescents who experience high stress levels might complain of nausea, headaches, unexplained pains, or other physical health problems.
Create a safe space for communication
Maintain an open line of communication by making time for your kids each day. Whether they need to talk or just be in the same room as you, make yourself available. Don't pressure them into talking, even if you know what they're stressing about. If they reach out for support, offer your compassion and listen to what they have to say.
In addition, spending more time together can help you notice potential behaviors and emotions that indicate stress. Because children are often unfamiliar with the word "stress" and its meaning, they may express emotional distress with other words, such as "worried" or "mad."
Children and adolescents may also express stress by sharing negative thoughts about themselves (i.e., "I'm so stupid" or "I'll never make the team."). Ask them to think about whether what they're saying is really true, and remind them of their strengths. Learning to frame negative thoughts more positively can help them develop psychological resilience to cope with times of stress.
Reach out for professional mental health care
Healthy lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise and getting enough sleep, can promote lower levels of stress and positive mental health—but you don't have to tackle stress on your own. If your child or teen is regularly experiencing high stress levels or significant symptoms of stress, consider reaching out to your health care provider or a licensed mental health professional for support.
Sometimes, high stress levels contribute to specific mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and major depression. Licensed mental health professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists, and family therapists, have special training to help children and teens build resilience and develop healthy stress management techniques.
If you or your child is experiencing a mental health crisis, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) for immediate mental health support.
Stress is a normal part of life, and everyone experiences it. Healthy stress management strategies can help children and teens make positive changes in their mental health, giving them the skills they need to bounce back and cope with stressful events.
At Charlie Health, we offer virtual mental health treatment for teenagers, young adults, and their families. Our comprehensive intensive outpatient treatment program combines personalized individual talk therapy, family therapy, group therapy, and (if needed) guided psychiatric support based on each client's needs. Our experienced mental health professionals will help you establish a treatment plan and work toward mental wellness. We are here to support you through every step of your or your loved one’s journey toward sustainable recovery. Please reach out. You are not alone.