How to spot stress in your child

Aug 10, 2022 • 4 min

The pandemic has caused many people to feel stress—and that includes children, who have a harder time identifying and sharing these feelings. Child and family psychotherapist Katie Augustyn helps us to recognize physical symptoms, as well as emotional and behavioral issues, that manifest in children from stress—but often look like something else.


Hi, I'm Katie Augustyn. I'm a psychotherapist specializing in working with children and families. The pandemic can be really stressful for all of us, but particularly for children. It's important to look out for signs and symptoms of stress. One thing to look out for is physical symptoms.

And this can be vague, like, mommy, my tummy hurts. I don't feel well, they can be very specific. I have a headache. I can't go to school. Another thing is sleep disruption. So it might be some type of insomnia, sleep onset insomnia, where your child has trouble falling asleep.

Stress really impacts our gastrointestinal system and especially in children. So if your child is suddenly having diarrhea, constipation, if there's any eating or appetite changes, stress also shows up in emotional and behavioral issues. And any behavioral regression can be associated with stress.

So maybe baby talk, thumb sucking your child might be a little more clingy, if they have any new or recurring fears or suddenly your kid is very afraid of thunder storms or the neighbor's dog. The fears can also show up in worried thoughts.

Mom, what if you get the coronavirus? What if grandma gets it? What if everybody gets it? That's typically a pretty good sign that your child is feeling pretty worried. A very common way that we see stress manifest in children is irritability.

And this can look like a behavior issue, but it's really an emotional stress issue where small stressors lead to very big feelings for them. And any repetitive behaviors are pretty highly associated with stress and anxiety in children, thumb sucking, rocking, hair twirling, and then changes in the way your child is interacting with you if they suddenly becomevery, very clingy or don't want to be close to you at all.

That can also let you know that they might be having a hard time. It's very important to note that all of these things can be caused by things other than stress.

So it is vitally important that you first check with your pediatrician just to rule out any other problem that might be going on. You are the expert on your child. So listen to that instinct. Listen to yourself. You know their baseline.

You know them best. It's so important that you just talk to your child, talk to them in age and developmentally appropriate ways about the pandemic. Try not to give them more information than what they ask for. You want to encourage them to talk about their feelings and then really listen to them and try not to minimizeor dismiss whatever they share with you.

Another thing to think about is providing structural supports. You want to keep your schedule as regular and predictable as possible. Another thing that you can do is artwork. The more creative and messy this is, the better.

This is very emotionally therapeutic for children. Being outside in nature together can be very helpful, especially if you take your shoes off and walk in the grass. It can be really good for bringing that stress level down and then physical activity.

This helps kids work through difficult feelings that helps them release some pent up energy and then emotional and physical reassurance. This is very, very important to your child. It really enhances their sense of emotional safety. It's hard, especially when your child is maybe melting down a little bit, having some tantrums.

You want to try to remind yourself this is not a behavior problem. This is a kid who's just so stressed. They need reassurance, love. They need my compassion. So these are some ways that you can help your child if you're feeling that they might be a little stressed out during this pandemic.