So what are the different things that cause children stress? The answer to this can be different for every child, but there are many common denominators.
Common sources of everyday stress for kids
One survey that asked children about the top sources of stress in their lives turned up the following:
Type of stress Ages 8-12 Ages13-17
- Doing well in school 44% 43%
- Family having enough money 28% 31%
- Getting into a good college/life after school 5% 29%
- The way I look / my weight 12% 26%
- Getting along with friends 22% 11%
Other sources of childhood stress:
- Getting along with siblings: 14%
- Parents or guardians arguing/fighting more: 14%
- Pressure over extracurricular activities: 10% preteens, 12% for teens
- Relationship with parents: 8% (Sources: Jayson, 2009A; 2009B)
Another survey of 875 children ages 9 to 13 found that the top responses given by kids when asked about the stress in their lives was:
- Grades, school, homework: 36%
- Family: 32%
- Friends or peers: 21%
Yet these surveys don’t really capture the full breadth and complexity of children’s stress. Kids often tend to give rather generic answers when abruptly asked about the topic, and they usually aren’t eager to divulge stress that is of a more personal and complicated nature, either.
Other things that cause stress for children & teens
Here are some of those more complicated and often invisible sources of stress for children and teens:
- Worrying about a parent’s wellbeing (mental or physical)
- Bullying or teasing (which older kids are especially reluctant to admit to, since no kid wants adults to think of them as a “loser” or social pariah)
- Verbal or emotional abuse (which is often hard to quantify or put into words)
- Scary media they’re exposed to (which they’ll seldom admit to for fear of censorship)
- Issues of sex, sexuality, or sexual development
- Romantic relationships
- Unspoken health concerns (for example, a young girl mistaking the sore lumps on her chest which are the beginning stages of breast development to be breast cancer, or worrying that headaches might be caused by a brain tumor)
- Instability or uncertainty in their lives
- Invented or irrational fears (monsters, kidnappers, etc.)
Kids stressing over the news or world events
Children can also experience stress over world events to a degree most parents don’t fully appreciate. With virtually every kid running around with an Internet-connected smart phone in their pocket, and so much of their lives lived through social media (which is a great conduit for “bnews,” or at least some version of it), kids today are more attuned to the world around them than any generation before. This means events in their local community or even as far away as China playa more significant role in their own sense of self-security.
This sort of vicarious stress is often underestimated by parents and professionals alike, but it can impact children to a significant degree. “On the night after a violent crime, for example,” writes psychologist Susan Pinker, “local teens’ sleep patterns are often disrupted and their cortisol levels spike, according to a study published in 2017. Even if they don’t witness it directly, many teens’ awareness of a local homocide or assault leaves a distinct biological signature in the form of an elevated heart rate and altered behavior.” (Pinker, 2018)
This is often another invisible form of stress, since children and teens often don’t communicate what they are feeling to parents, and politics or world events aren’t exactly popular topics of conversation between parents and children in most families. But whether it’s coronavirus or North Korea’s saber-rattling or Trump’s latest escapades, youth are often more concerned about the world around them than parents presume them to be.
Stress from a child’s perspective
Adults often dismiss a child’s stress as trivial. ‘What do you have to worry about?’ they wonder. After all, kids are taken care of by adults. They don’t have the same responsibilities. But this doesn’t mean they feel stress any less intensely.
A child’s stress may come from different sources than the stress an adult experiences, but it can be every bit as real and taxing. A paper due at school may not have as much real-world impact as you messing up on your job, but that doesn’t make them~ stress a child feels regarding their schoolwork any less intense than the anxiety you might feel over job security. Children and teens have different lives and different responsibilities, but they experience stress in much the same way you do.