How Stress Affects Children's Behavior

Knowing how stress affects children's behavior will allow you to help your child manage their emotions. Keep reading.
How Stress Affects Children's Behavior
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 16 March, 2023

When adults feel stressed, we tend to be more irritable and impatient with those around us. We find it difficult to deal with situations that demand more from us than we can give. However, when it’s a child who goes through these periods, it’s common to label them as rude instead of offering them the understanding and support they need. For this reason, we’ll tell you how stress affects children’s behavior.

It’s not about justifying all bad behavior based on this emotional state of tension. It’s important for children to know that there are certain rules that must be followed regardless of how we feel. Being stressed doesn’t give us permission, for example, to verbally attack others.

Childhood stress

We may think that children don’t suffer from stress, that their obligations are minimal, and that they’re flexible enough to cope with change. And it’s true that they’re often very capable of adapting to different situations, but this doesn’t exempt them from experiencing tension or anxiety. Let us keep in mind that stress arises when the demands of the environment exceed the person’s ability to cope with them.

Childhood stress can come from a specific event that represents a drastic change in the child’s life. For example, a move, a divorce, the death of a family member, or the arrival of a sibling. But it can also be the result of sustained conditions that are too demanding. This can occur during exam time or if they have an overloaded daily schedule.

An elementary school student who's overloaded by homework.
Children have fewer psychological and emotional resources than adults to cope with stress. Therefore, they may be affected to a greater extent by certain situations.

Learn how stress affects children’s behavior

Children may not be able to identify what they’re feeling. Therefore, they usually express it through changes in their behavior. Younger children may be more restless and irascible. On the other hand, older children may have defiant attitudes and act rebellious and oppositional toward their parents. Also, school performance may be impaired or children may become involved in conflicts with peers or teachers.

The above are called externalizing symptoms, as the changes in behavior are visible and are often annoying or disruptive. For this reason, they’re the easiest for adults to identify. However, some children manifest so-called internalizing symptoms, in which the discomfort is reflected in the form of worry, fear, insecurity, and sadness. These children may become withdrawn and dependent in response to the stress they experience.

How to help children manage stress

When we see how stress affects children’s behavior, the first instinct is often to try to eradicate these inappropriate behaviors. However, the real goal is to help children with their emotional management. To do this, the following steps can be taken:

  • Reduce objective stress when possible. If the child is faced with the death of a family member, unfortunately, there’s no way to alter what happened. However, if the cause of the stress is an overly busy schedule, eliminating some activities and allowing time for free play can be very beneficial.
  • Talk to your child on a regular basis. Be available to listen or ask open-ended questions that allow them to express how they feel about what’s happening. Help them understand their emotions, name them, and understand how they affect them.
  • Provide them with strategies to regulate stress. Free play, physical exercise, or artistic activities can be a good way to channel inner tension. Likewise, relaxation techniques or mindfulness can help. Try practicing them as a family.
An overwhelmed toddler lying in bed crying.
We need to give children the tools they need to deal with their emotions appropriately.

Seek professional help

Ultimately, when stress affects children’s behavior, remember the importance of condemning the behaviors, but not the child. Your love for your child should be unconditional and the work should be aimed at helping them manage these overflowing emotions.

If you feel that this is a job that you can’t do within the family alone, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. A child psychologist can provide you with guidelines to help the child and accompany them in the acquisition of new tools.

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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  • Trianes MV, Blanca MJ, Fernández FJ, Escobar M, Maldonado EF y Muñoz AM. (2009). Evaluación
    del estrés infantil: Inventario Infantil de Estresores Cotidianos (IIEC). Psicothema, 21, 598-603.
  • Cuadrado-Montañez, L. (2020). Mindfulness para prevenir el estrés en la transición de la etapa Infantil a Primaria. Recuperado junio de 2021, de

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