How Stress Affects Children's Mouths

When children suffer from stress, some associated problems may appear in the mouth. Learn more about how stress affects children's mouths.
How Stress Affects Children's Mouths

Last update: 18 October, 2022

Lack of hygiene and excessive sugar consumption are the main culprits of many oral problems, but they’re not the only ones. When children suffer stress, there are usually consequences in the mouth. Here, we’re going to tell you about the different ways that stress affects children’s mouths so that you can take them into account.

Anxiety problems don’t only affect adults. School exams, long days of scheduled activities, social pressures, or family problems can also have an impact on children.

Children’s stress affects the whole body, including the mouth, but there are some ways to prevent the complications associated with it. Keep reading!

Stress in children

Stress, in small amounts, can be considered a normal and even necessary phenomenon. That’s because it’s a biological system designed for survival. Therefore, certain stimuli trigger tension and an immediate response to achieve a goal (fight or flight) and then return to the basal state.

According to the definition by the World Health Organization, we can say that stress is “the set of physiological reactions that prepare the body for action”. But if stress becomes chronic and excessive, it can become a problem. Living with the feeling of constant risk has a negative impact on all aspects of a child’s life.

The environment in which a child grows up and genetics influence their baseline stress levels and ability to handle stress. Sometimes changes that may seem inconsequential to adults can cause stress in children.

Some activities of daily life, such as school responsibilities, academic pressure, and extracurricular activity overload, can increase anxiety in children. In addition, self-expectations or those of adults play their part.

Stress is also often triggered by life crises, such as parental separation, the arrival of a new sibling, illness, family conflict, the loss of a loved one, or moving to a new house. Also, problems such as peer harassment, bullying, or peer pressure cause this problem in children.

A child feeling stressed about his school work.
Academic responsibilities can be a huge stressor for children who can’t cope adequately. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways, such as bruxism or frequent nightmares.

Signs of stress in children

High levels of the hormone cortisol in the blood are characteristic of stress, but these values aren’t routinely measured. Instead, doctors and dentists can identify the problem through the observation of certain behaviors or lesions associated with this disorder.

Some of the signs and symptoms that might indicate stress in children are as follows:

  • Headache
  • Sleeping problems and frequent nightmares
  • Changes in eating habits
  • New or recurrent nocturnal enuresis
  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • An inability to relax or control emotions
  • Worry and anxiety
  • New or old fears that get worse
  • Anger, rage, or aggression
  • Crying
  • Lack of interest in participating in family, school, or social activities
  • Regression to behaviors of earlier ages, such as thumb sucking or returning to the parent’s bed

How stress affects children’s mouths

A stressed child may manifest a wide variety of physical, behavioral, and emotional symptoms. These can be evidenced in different parts of the body, but today we’ll delve into those associated with the oral cavity.

Cold sores and canker sores

While stress in children isn’t the direct cause of cold sores or canker sores, it’s a trigger for the appearance of both conditions in the mouth. Chronic anxiety leads children to develop uncomfortable and painful lesions in the oral cavity.

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. Once it enters the body, this microorganism remains latent in the nerves and takes advantage of situations in which the defenses are lowered (an illness or stress) to reactivate. And when it does, it shows itself through the typical lesions in the mouth.

Canker sores are painful ulcerations of the oral mucosa. They appear whitish in color and are surrounded by a red inflammatory halo. Stress is a factor associated with their development, although the association isn’t entirely clear. In addition to this cause, sores are linked to infections, vitamin deficiencies, or a weakened immune system.

Frequent observation of these types of lesions is an indication that there may be a problem that’s causing the child to be nervous. Helping to resolve that conflict will improve oral conditions.


Bruxism is another way that stress affects children’s mouths. Of course, tooth grinding is a fairly common action in children and isn’t always synonymous with a problem. In general, it’s an activity inherent to the development of the jaws and teeth, which usually disappears with tooth replacement.

But when the habit of clenching and grinding the teeth is very frequent and is prolonged over time, then we’re talking about bruxism. This mouth condition is associated with stress, tension, and anxiety in children. It happens unconsciously and can occur during the day, night, or both.

Bruxism in children causes pain in the teeth, jaw, ear, neck, and head. Especially when waking up in the morning, after having clenched and rubbed the teeth together all night long.

It also causes excessive wear on the teeth that leads to sensitivity, fractures, cracks, and gum recession. The excessive and constant force on the jaws also causes dysfunctions in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ).

A dentist can help solve this situation of stress bruxism with the use of splints that protect the teeth and other oral structures. But detecting the cause of the problem and addressing it is also very important. Decreasing stress levels in the child will be an excellent way to solve it and improve their quality of life.

Habits that cause cavities

Another way in which stress affects children’s mouths is through unhealthy habits. This occurs especially in older children and adolescents, who in the face of nervousness and anxiety, change the way they eat or their hygiene practices.

It’s common for stressed children to choose unhealthy foods when they’re nervous. But eating snacks that are rich in sugar and carbohydrates, ultra-processed foods, or carbonated beverages in excess has negative consequences on oral health. Add to this a lack of interest in oral hygiene habits, such as daily brushing, and oral conditions will worsen even further.

A sugar-rich diet and lack of oral hygiene favor the proliferation and accumulation of bacteria in the mouth. This can lead to problems such as cavities, gingivitis, and bad breath.

Therefore, for children under stress, it’s essential to encourage them to maintain their hygiene routines and limit sugary snacks. Otherwise, the consequences in the oral cavity will soon appear.

A girl biting her nails.
Finger sucking, nail-biting, or changes in eating habits are some of the ways through which little ones can channel stress.

Finger sucking

Another way in which stress affects children’s mouths is finger sucking. Many little ones revert to practicing outgrown comforting habits when they’re nervous. Thumbsucking or nail-biting are some of the most common behaviors and provide some temporary reassurance in the face of conflict or stressful changes.

Thumb sucking after the age of two, when teeth have erupted, causes occlusion problems. Fingers in the mouth cause changes in the palate and dental movements that affect the bite and the buccofacial physiognomy.

Stopping thumb sucking is often difficult, as the hand is always available. But with professional help, it’s possible to overcome this habit.

Dry mouth

According to a study published in Dental Research, Dental Clinics, Dental Prospects, stress, anxiety, and depression can decrease salivary production and cause xerostomia.

Dry mouth has a negative impact on oral health, as saliva protects and cleans the mouth and also neutralizes the acids that bacteria produce. If its production is affected, it increases a child’s predisposition to suffering cavities and gingivitis.

Reducing children’s stress helps to take care of their mouth

The best way to avoid mouth problems associated with stress in children is to reduce this triggering factor. Helping children to manage their anxiety levels not only promotes their oral health but also improves their quality of life.

As parents, it’s important to provide children with useful tools to manage their emotions in an appropriate way. Teaching them to face problems and to recognize the triggers to avoid or transform them will help them feel better.

Dialogue and family accompaniment are key to discovering the reasons for worry and nervousness. From there, appropriate solutions can be sought.

Deep breathing techniques, yoga for children, sports, drawing, or music can be of great help. And if you think it’s appropriate, professional assistance with a child therapist will also be of great help.

In the event that major changes are approaching, such as a move, the arrival of a new child, or the start of a new school, it’s important that you prepare your child in advance. Knowing what to expect and being prepared for the event in question will keep them calmer.

Maintaining healthy routines, such as sleep schedules, oral hygiene, a healthy diet, and regular exercise, despite problems, is a great teaching tool. This helps your children understand that self-care is always necessary and shouldn’t be left aside when we feel bad.

And if you detect any of the oral problems associated with stress in children that we’ve talked about here, the best thing to do is to consult your trusted pediatric dentist. The professional will help you clear up any doubts and address the problem in the best way possible.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.