How to recognize when your child is stressed—and what to do.

Teens have a ringside seat to their parents’ stress: They sense when we’re struggling with bills, work, chores, busy schedules and other obligations.

But they also feel stress of their own. Their anxieties might include schoolwork, making friends, pleasing parents, peer pressure and college applications, for example.

Kids won’t always come out and say, “I’m stressed,” so it’s up to parents to keep an eye out for signs of trouble. Too much stress can cause headaches, stomachaches, sleepless nights, nightmares, teeth-grinding, or a tendency to get colds or other common illnesses, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Overstressed preteens and teens might also be:

  • Restless, tired and agitated.
  • Irritable and negative.
  • Unexcited about things they’d typically be interested in.

What parents can do

Parents should take an active role when helping preteens and teens understand stress and how to manage it. By providing support and teaching coping skills, you’ll help your child grow to become a resilient adult—one who is likely to bounce back from adversity.

How can you help? Here are some tips from the AAP, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and other experts:

1. Build a foundation of wellness. Kids can handle stress better if they’re eating healthy meals and snacks, getting enough sleep, limiting screen time, and getting an appropriate amount of exercise. As a parent, you have a lot of influence on those habits.

2. Schedule face time. A high schooler helping make dinner might share something about his or her day. A middle schooler taking an after-dinner walk might open up about a fear. Create opportunities for your kids to talk to you.

3. Ask questions. Then listen carefully for signs of stress. Try open-ended questions that encourage more than a single-word answer.

4. Encourage daily downtime. Help your child find healthy ways to relax and take stress-free breaks, such as:

  • Reading a book.
  • Listening to music.
  • Taking a walk.
  • Working on an art project.
  • Keeping a journal.
  • Spending time with friends.

5. Help find practical solutions. With your help, kids can learn to make to-do lists and break big problems into small, doable tasks. Or they may need help organizing homework schedules or their room—or help prioritizing their activities if they’re overbooked.

6. Practice role-playing. Help kids try out what to say and do in stressful situations, such as making a speech, diffusing an argument, responding to a bully, or saying no when someone offers tobacco or other drugs.

7. Know when to hold back. Some stressors—like a lost homework assignment—provide opportunities for kids to learn to work through their own challenges, with your love and support.

8. Build confidence. Praise your child for a job well done. Don’t compare your child’s abilities to their siblings or other children—or demand perfection. Just show them you appreciate what’s unique about them.

When to get help

Stress is a part of life. In the right amounts, it can motivate kids. But sometimes professional help is needed. Watch for any signs that stress threatens your child’s health, safety or well-being, such as:

  • Sustained changes in eating patterns, such as obsession with dieting.
  • Severe mood swings.
  • Acting out in sexual ways.
  • Using drugs or alcohol.
  • Ongoing temper tantrums.
  • Any sustained, unusual thoughts, beliefs or behaviors.

And if coaches, teachers, grandparents or other people in your child’s life raise concerns, listen. They see your child in different situations and may spot something you miss.

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