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Parenting Advice >Parenting Advice > Stress in Children


Stress in Children

In this section I look at some of the main reasons for stress in a child's life and suggest some courses of action that might help. See the ENCOURAGEMENT section for more advice on how to build your child's self confidence so that he is better able to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life. It may also be helpful to read 'Confident Children' by Gael Lindenfield.
Children suffer from stress just as much as adults do, but since they cannot express their feelings as well we sometimes think that they are just naughty children, or too sensitive, and put it down to their personalities. Children are usually not even aware that they're experiencing any sort of stress. It isn't a tangible object to them; it is just an adult's word for many different things which mean nothing to a small child. But children do suffer from stress and depression and they will show it in various ways.

Some will misbehave and use attention-seeking behaviour, which may easily be overlooked. Others will be withdrawn and seem depressed and quiet, which at least tells us that something is wrong, although many parents will still put this down to shyness or some other personality trait such as being solitary or reserved. These same children may cling to you or have to have a comforter at all times. At other times they may seem reluctant to come to you, preferring to be by themselves, and this will inevitably upset you too.

Other symptoms of stress can include frequent tantrums or causing a fuss when out, both of which may be a cry for help. In extreme cases a child may become violent and destructive, turn into a bully at school, or even self-harm. In such cases a parent must act quickly by taking the child to a doctor who will refer you to a child psychologist or counsellor. Do not hope that these problems will just go away. In many instances they will actually escalate, but before you take any action you should try to pinpoint the root cause of the stress.


Causes of Stress

GENERAL - Bullying - No Friends - No Attention - Shouting and Smacking - No Authority - Criticism - Parents' Expectations - Feeling Controlled - Tantrums - Embarrassment - Guilt - Responsibilities - Sibling Rivalry
AT HOME - Divorce - Teenagers Arguing - Unhappy Parents - Alcohol/Drug Abuse - Trauma - Violence - Sexual Abuse - Grief


Note: I've included examples of further reading in this section, as I feel this is such an important subject. Do let me know if these prove helpful or otherwise. I've also included UK phone Helplines, and will be glad to add others from the UK or elsewhere. I will also be happy to include information about Support Groups. Please use the Ask-Nanny contact form to send suggestions.


Even small children can be bullied at nursery, playgroup or school, and we all know how cruel children can be. This will cause your child a lot of heartache and sadness and they may feel that they have no one to turn to. They may also be scared to tell you about it, in case you react in a way that they think will make things worse. They might think that if they tell a teacher the bully will certainly never leave them alone and the whole situation will turn into a nightmare. Find out what your child's school's policy is on bullying and speak to your child about what they would do if they were in that situation. Tell him that if he were being bullied you would listen and help him without making things worse. Explain to him that he is an amazing person and does not deserve to be treated badly. Also explain that if he is being bullied he can speak to other people about it too. Tell him that you don't mind if he goes to someone else such as a teacher. Anyone who can really help would be fine. Ask him what he thinks that you should do if someone bullies him and let him know that simply tolerating bullies is letting them win. They should be reported, to prevent them doing it again.

It is also useful to explain that the bullies themselves have a problem with their self-esteem and that is why they choose to put others down - because it makes them feel big in comparison. Small children at nursery tend to be less likely to be bullied on a regular basis as their bulliers will be young and will change from day to day. Some days they will pick on one child and on other days they will choose someone else. It's usually whoever is to hand, but sometimes a child will be picked on by the same bully or group of bullies, especially if they are shy or quiet. I always tell my charges that whenever someone hurts them or tries to take their toy away they should shout 'NO!' loudly. This will get an adult's attention and they can then explain what happened. Hopefully by shouting immediately their teacher will have witnessed what happened. If bullying is really bad then seek further help for your child in the form of counselling.
Books: 'Bullies Are a Pain in the Brain' by Trevor Romain, 'MYBees: Stop Picking on Me' by Pat Thomas, 'We're Talking About Bullying' by Anne Charlish.

No Friends

If your child says he has no friends, do check up. One of my charges used to tell his mother in the morning that he had no friends and that no one liked him, whereas in fact he was the most popular boy in his nursery. Whenever I used to take him in all the boys would call him over and want to play with him. We don't know why he said this to his mother but we suspected that it was a way of getting to stay home with her or that it was just a simple attention-seeking act. So do ask at his nursery or playgroup if this is really true, and if your child genuinely doesn't seem to have many friends ask some children to come round to play. You can also take him to toddler groups in your area, or clubs such as music, swimming or gym. It is best to go somewhere you can accompany him, to encourage any friendships that may form. Remember too that children will fall out with each other frequently and make up just as quickly, so don't get too disheartened when this happens. Things usually right themselves, and sometimes it's better not to get involved. This will teach your child how to cope with people by himself. Remember to give your your child encouragement and frequent compliments to increase his self-confidence.
Books : 'Best Friends, Worst Enemies' by Michael Thompson & Catherine O'Neill Grace might be a book which will help you.

Lack of Attention - Being Ignored Boredom

Being ignored and starved of attention will stress your child, making him feel unloved and uncared for. If you are away a lot and have to leave your child with someone else then give him lots of positive attention when you are there so that he doesn't suffer from separation anxiety. Tell him that you love him and care for him, to make him feel secure and happy again. Set aside an hour - or even half an hour - every day when you just listen to him, play with him and tell him stories. Let him know about your day, as this will make him feel as though he is part of it. Give him a photograph of you to keep with him so that he can look at you anytime he needs to. Provide for play by providing suitable activities as described in the Play and Activities sections to help avoid boredom.

Shouting and Smacking

If you use shouting as your main method of discipline this will cause your child to become stressed. So too will frequent smacking, especially for small children who are less able to cope with their feelings. Try to avoid shouting and smacking at all times and to stay calm whenever your child misbehaves. Being in control of the situation will help you to get good results and stop you getting stressed out too. Tell yourself that it is important to discipline but it isn't that important that you should get yourself in a state. Take some deep breaths and count to ten…it does work! See the Services page for more help.

Lack of Parental Authority - Inconsitancy

A child who is spoilt or given into all the time is not happy. You may think that you are making him happy by giving him all he wants, but you are not. You are setting him up for a life where he is always disappointed and angry when he doesn't get what he wants, or when, as happens to us all, he has some bad luck in life and things don't go according to his plans. If you give in every time your child cries or screams or throws a tantrum you are teaching him that if he behaves badly enough he will get what he wants. In fact you will be teaching him to be manipulative.

Children who behave badly are unhappy, because they know what they are doing is wrong but they cannot help themselves. This is what you are teaching them by giving in. Showing boundaries and being in control of your child will give him as sense of security. He will know that you care because you praise his good deeds and discipline his bad ones. A child who is allowed to run riot and do as he wishes has no self-discipline and will feel insecure. After all, he expects his parents to be the boss, not the other way around. This is too much responsibility for a young child, who needs guidance and to be taught the difference between right and wrong. We are not born with this knowledge and it is our duty as parents to teach our children well.

If you are inconsistent with your child's discipline this will also cause him stress. If you are up and down and never stand your ground he will feel insecure and confused. If you give in on one occasion but discipline the same behaviour the next day you are creating confusion. Children need consistency, so always react in the same way to misbehaviour. You will reap the rewards by having a well-behaved child, while he will feel secure and happy. For more help on firm but fair discipline take a look at the services provided on the Services page.


Criticising anyone is harmful to their self-esteem and happiness, but it is even more harmful to a child who is vulnerable and sensitive. A child will carry a criticism round for hours, days, weeks, or even longer, thinking about it and - worst of all - believing in it! You can't take words back so don't say anything that you don't mean. Be especially careful with little children and never criticise your child directly for misbehaviour. For example, don't say 'you naughty child', but 'that was very naughty' or 'that was a naughty thing to do', and never call your child 'bad' or any other similar label which you may use. You can say, 'that was a bad thing to do', but never label your child as 'bad'. That suggests that you expect him to behave badly, and that you already think that he is bad. He will ask himself, 'what is the point in being good?', and if he thinks he is a bad boy he will behave like one. I always use sentences like 'that was a very naughty thing to do, but you're not a naughty boy. Do you want me (or other people, if we're out) to think that you are?'. This always gets a 'no' reply, which tells me that the child feels regret. Saying things like 'oh, you'll never change, you're hopeless!' are so harmful and destructive to your child's self-esteem that the effects may stay with the child forever. Of course you do not want to be the cause of your child's failures in life and of his low self-confidence. Give him something to live for and something to aim at. By telling him that you think well of him you are expecting success, and you will get it. People have a habit of living up to expectations.
Books : 'Confident Children' by Gael Lindenfield. Check out the Encouragement section.

Parent's Expectations to High

Although it is great to have confidence in our children and encourage them, it is also detrimental to their mental health to push them into things that they may not want. Sometimes it's hard for parents if they failed as children or adolescents not to push their children into doing something that may have made them happy, but does not make their child happy. If you feel that you weren't given many chances in life, then you may want to compensate for that with your children, but remember that they are individuals and that they have their own personality and goals. Take these things into account and make sure that when you encourage your child it is towards a goal that HE truly wants. Don't push just be there for him when he needs you and offer support when needed. Check out the Encouragement section.

Feeling Controlled - No Room For Self Expression

Being overly strict with a child is actually more about the parent controlling the child and not the behaviour. Parents who are too authoritarian are not leaving their child any room for self-expression and they cannot be themselves. They live to please the parent and do not think about what they actually want. This will cause stress and upset for a child and he may rebel and cause disruption in the home or elsewhere. He is more likely to go behind his parents back and to lie. Things that he thinks are important, if disallowed, will become so much more important in his eyes precisely because they are forbidden, whereas if they were allowed under supervision, say, then the appeal would not be so great. Let your children be themselves and don't pick on every little thing they do. Save your discipline for when you really need it, and then it will have more effect! Take a look at the Encouragement section.

Tantrums Allowed to Escalate

Every child has tantrums and if they are controlled as described in the Tantrums section they will subside with age. However, if allowed to escalate by poor management, they can cause stress to both parent and child. A child will feel out of control when having a tantrum, but when he is taught how to deal with it, and how to calm himself down, he will regain his self-control and power over his own feelings. This in turn makes him feel secure and self-confident.


Children may feel embarrassment about their home, where they live, their parents, their clothes, the way they look, and other things. We may think that these things are superficial and unimportant, but that is not the way children feel sometimes. They want to fit in and be liked, popular even, and feel unable to if they are embarrassed by something. Try and encourage your child and praise him to make him feel special. Tell him that it is not what we have in life that makes us special; it is the kind of person we are inside that matters. Teach him that these things are superficial and unimportant and if people tease him for not having something, then they are at fault and not him! He does not need to look a certain way, wear certain clothes or have certain things to be liked. If people don't like him for who he is, then they are not worth it, and he should find friends who like him for who he is. I know this is easier said than done, but if you can try and instil this attitude in your child from a very young age he is more likely to develop into a confident individual, and not a sheep who has to conform in order to fit in. When we have confidence in ourselves we are less likely to worry about these things, so shower him with praise and attention to build him up!
Books : 'Let's Talk About Feeling Embarrassed' (from the 'Let's Talk About' Library) by Melanie Ann Apel is a good book on the subject.

Made to Feel Guilty

When a child feels guilty about something, it lies heavily on his heart, causing a lot of upset and turmoil in his life. Sometimes it is because there has been a negative incident in his life, and he feels somehow to blame. Or perhaps he is made to feel guilty by a parent or family member. Children will feel guilty if, for example, they think they are responsible for their parents breaking up. They may think that they have been bad and caused the split, so it is always important to talk to your child and let him know that he is not to blame for anything awful going on in his life. Again, build him up with love and praise. Never put any guilt or blame onto your child as it will lead to depression and anxiety - both of which are very dangerous for children. Always forgive your child's misbehaviour. All children misbehave sometimes. Just discipline, forgive and move on.
Books : 'What Did I Do Wrong? : Mothers, Children, Guilt' by Lynn Caine, 'I Know I Made It Happen: Children and Guilt' by Lynn Blackburn, 'Guilt and Children' edited by Jane Bybee

Too Many Responsibilities

Giving your child small responsibilities such as asking them to tidy their room or letting them choose their clothes are helpful for their independence, but taking things too far by piling on the tasks is harmful and stresses children out. Remember he's still a child, you're teaching him to be independent and responsible, not using him as an assistant - although the expression that I use when trying to get a child to help out, 'Who wants to be my helper?', works every time. You don't have to stop getting your child to help, as this would be wrong, but remember to only give him a child's share of the work. Don't ask children to babysit for younger children unless they are old enough, and remember that they have their own lives. Asking them frequently to do something like this will only cause resentment and anger.

Sibling Rivalry - Step Siblings

Sibling rivalry is perfectly normal, especially when children are close in age. Both children will feel that they are in the right and that they should be believed, so it's sometimes hard to be fair, particularly when you didn't actually see what went on. Very often when this happens you may have to discipline both children to avoid favouritism. I tell them that if they cannot share the toy it will be removed until they learn to be cooperative and kind to one another. When they stop arguing or shouting I give them both turns of the toy, although when they are calm the need for the toy is often greatly reduced. This really works and although there is a protest from both children, and some upset, in the long run both children will learn to get on better with each other. They will recognise that they both win in most situations. Try and be fair as much as possible and give equal attention to all your children. Explain that they must wait while the other gets a cuddle, for example, and then they will be given their turn. Don't get angry. Jealousy is normal.

Sometimes, however, matters can get out of hand, with serious rivalry creating a very stressful home environment. This is common when children have new stepsiblings. They are expected to welcome strangers into their home (or move into their home) and to treat them as family. This is very hard for children and will certainly cause some stress until they get used to the situation. Try to be patient and understanding and to see the whole situation from the child's point of view. Give plenty of affection and love whilst the stepsiblings are present, as this will help your child associate feeling good with being near them. Praise your children frequently for sharing and showing cooperation.
Books: Here are two books on sibling rivalry: 'Siblings Without Rivalry' by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, 'Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring and Compassionate' by Peter Goldenthal.


Problems in the Home

Arguing and a general feeling of unease in the home make it very difficult for a child to live peacefully and happily. The home is where a child should feel safe, secure and loved; where their spirit should feel calm and relaxed. Whatever its source, negative emotion in the home is very disruptive to a child's inner peace. A happy home will make for a happy, stress-free child. However, for a variety of reasons, this is not always possible.



Divorce is a major cause of stress in children. When parents split up they experience their own emotional turmoil, feeling sad and stressed, and the children often have to fend for themselves emotionally. Children may not show their feelings and appear to be fine, but inside they will be suffering because they do not understand what is happening and why. They may even blame themselves. Try to understand how hard it will be for a child to lose one of his parents, even if they do visit at the weekends. Also, never use your child as a pawn to get back at your partner. Your child will not feel as you do, and will still love his father or mother. Try not to say anything negative about each other in front of your child and remember not to pass on messages through him. You may have been through something terrible at the hands of your partner and you may feel great anger towards them, but try not to pass this on to your child. They still deserve to have both parents.
UK Helpline : Relate is a helpline for adults with relationship issues - 0845 130 40 10.
Books: There are many books on this subject. Here are a few that you may find useful: 'Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way' by Patricia Romanowski, 'Helping Children Cope with Divorce' by Edward Teyber, 'Little Wise Guides: When Mum and Dad Split Up' by Lesley Ely, 'Helping Children Cope with Divorce' by Rosemary Wells.

Teenagers Causing Tension

Teenagers are often difficult because they have a lot to contend with. They feel like grown ups but they don't get the responsibility or perks. They cannot understand why they are not given more leeway and are still treated as children. A degree of stress is usually inevitable in a teenager's life and it will rub off on the younger members of the family. Not only because they will see their elder brother or sister being disrespectful to their parents, causing them to copy this behaviour, but also because the parents themselves may become so stressed that they will be less likely to have time for the children or to discipline them in a controlled manner. When we are upset and stressed ourselves we are definitely less patient and we feel generally unhappy, and this really isn't nice for young children. Try and show your teenagers and your youngest children that you are in charge and in control. Be firm but kind and remember not to take out any frustrations on the little ones. Get out the house for a while with your small child and enjoy some time apart from the rowing and angst associated with teenagers in the home.
Books: 'How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!' by Sal Savere is great for helping to deal with teenagers and has some really helpful advice and tips.

Unhappy Depressed Parents

Obviously this is a biggy. A small child growing up with a depressed parent will inevitably suffer. The important thing is to minimise the suffering. Giving your child as much praise, love and understanding as possible, and trying to reduce the occasions when the child sees a parent upset, will help. Make sure that your child knows that he is in no way to blame for the way his parent feels, that he is a wonderful person who only makes his parent feel better when he is around. Try not to dwell on the depression where your child is concerned, and make his life as normal and enjoyable as possible. This will be hard when you have to cope with making your partner feel better too, but you can only try. Group therapy will be vital with the whole family to get over, or at least learn to deal with, the depression. See your doctor.
UK Helpline : Samaritans gives emotional support for anyone in crisis - tel - 08457 90 90 90 textphone - 08457 90 91 92.
Books : 'Out of the Darkened Room: When a Parent is Depressed: Protecting the Children and Strengthening the Family' by William R. Beardslee.

Alchol or Drug Abuse in the Home

This is very tough on children and adults in the home, and will cause fear, resentment and pain for all concerned. Apart from seeking help yourself to come off drugs/alcohol you should also think about what your child has to go through. He too will be suffering and will probably need professional counselling. Try not to let your child see you/your partner under the influence of drugs/drink, as this is very frightening for children. See your doctor for help and information about counsellors and support groups, See also 'Unhappy and Depressed Parents' above.
UK Helplines : Alcohol related: Alcoholics Anonymous - 0845 7697 555, Al-Anon Family Groups - (020) 7403 0888, Alcohol Helpline Scotland - (0141) 226 3883.
UK Drug helplines: National Drugs Helpline - 0800 77 66 00, Release - (020) 7603 8654, Re-Solv - 0808 800 2345.


If your child experiences any kind of traumatic incident and it is not discussed openly and honestly it will stay with him for a long time. So sit down with him and let him tell you all about it. Give support, cuddles and understanding and remember that he must let it all out at his own pace, do not force him. Getting him to express himself through drawings and music can help too. Above all make sure he knows that he is not to blame and that you are there for him whenever he needs you. Remember that you should treat him the same as regards discipline so that he feels safe and knows that you are solid and he can trust you.
UK Helpline : Childline (for children) - 08001111


Follow the same advice as for trauma. If your child suffers violent abuse at the hands of your partner or another family member it is your responsibility to remove him from that person and keep him safe from harm. Your child is at serious risk and the problem will not just go away. You must seek help and guidance.
UK Helplines : Refuge Domestic Violence Helpline - 0870 599 5443
Women's Aid Domestic Violence Helpline - 08457 023 468, Childline - 08001111
Books : 'Making an Impact: Children and Domestic Violence' by Marianne Hester, Chris Pearson & Nicola Harwin, 'Children Living with Domestic Violence' Edited by Audrey Mullender and Rebecca Morley.

Sexual Abuse

Follow the same advice as for violence.
UK Helplines : Rape & Sexual Abuse Support Centre - (020) 8683 3300, Childline - 08001111. Books : 'It's My Body' by Lory Freeman, 'The Right Touch: A Read-Aloud Story to Help Prevent Child Sexual Abuse' by Sandy Kleven, 'Beginning to Heal: A First Book for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse' by Ellen Bass, Laura Davis.


Grief can be hard to deal with for adults let alone children. They may bottle it up and become withdrawn or emotional. Again, discussing the situation is vital. The healing process must be started with communication, then carried through with understanding, tolerance and love. Your child will recover only to be a stronger person for it.
UK Helplines : The Compassionate Friends - (0117) 953 9639
Cruse Bereavement Care - 0870 167 1677.
Books : 'When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal With Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving, and Other Losses' by John W. James & Russell Friedman, and 'Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss' by Claudia Jewett and 'Sibling Bereavement' by Ann Farrant.


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