6 Ways to tell if your kids are stressed out

Jun 29, 2014 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Image: Tanya Little/Moment Open/Getty Images

Even tots can get tense, but moms and dads who manage their own stress well can help their kids stay on an even keel.

Are you feeling super stressed out? Chances are, so are your kids, and in fact even babies can feel and exhibit the signs and symptoms of stress.

But here's the good news — knowing what to look for and how to mitigate those symptoms will help you and your kids lead a healthier, more balanced life.

Look for these six signs

Dr. Adelle Cadieux is a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and she says there are six signs parents can watch for to figure out if stress is becoming a serious issue for their children:

  • Increased behavioral problems or emotional reactivity
  • Changes in sleep (increases or decreases can be a sign — each child is unique and may respond differently)
  • Changes in appetite — some children will lose their appetite while others will seek out more food and/or crave carbohydrates and junk food
  • Changes in school performance
  • Increased physical complaints (headaches and stomachaches are most common), especially before an activity
  • Changes in interactions with family or friends — may be more withdrawn or not as interested in interactions

When should you worry?

"Overall," says Cadieux, "it comes down to noticing a change in your kids." However, if these symptoms begin to interfere significantly with daily life, it's time to get professional help.

"Whether it's stress or some other underlying problem, seeking advice from the child's pediatrician can be a good first step," she says. "So is contacting a local behavioral-health provider."

Slow down, Mom!

Kids are definitely under more stress than perhaps previous generations were. One mom says she had an epiphany in the school drop-off circle, inspiring her to turn her back on the hectic pace of modern parenting and adopt another way of mothering.

Susan Sachs Lipman, who penned Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, realized she could spare an extra 15 minutes each day to be with her daughter. She parked her car some distance from school every morning and walked her child to the door. Those 15 minutes together, she says, changed everything.

"I realized that everything was out of balance," the author says. "And that the prescribed way of doing things wasn't working for our family."

Lipman adopted Slow Parenting, which is based on the wider Slow Movement. It's a pretty simple philosophy: Slowing down the pace of modern life.

Slow Parenting is all about spending time together, finding the right pace for your family and understanding that pace may change over time. "Life and parenting can certainly feel stressful and overwhelming," explains Lipman. "If you want to slow down, I suggest making one small change that will bring enhanced quality family time. Especially frenzied families might want to consider cutting down on the number of commitments in their schedules."

Be a role model

Cadieux points out that it's up to parents to model good stress-management strategies for their tense tots. How can you help? She offers these tips:

  • Keep meals and snacks at consistent times, bedtime consistent for weekdays and weekends and engage in physical activity on a regular schedule.
  • Provide healthy food options for meals and snacks.
  • Plan ahead for busy periods so that the meal/snack schedule with healthy options, bedtime, and physical activity time can be maintained most days.
  • Reduce technology in the home — reserve specific times for technology and the rest of the time for family.
  • Establish specific and consistent rules so kids understand the expectations. Make sure there are lots of positive reinforcement opportunities.

And a little ice cream here and there doesn't hurt, either. Or so we've heard.

More stories about stress and kids

When kids "catch" stress
Makeover your child's reaction to stress
Does a stressed-out mom give her kids an edge?