Stress and anxiety. We often use those words interchangeably, but anxiety and stress are actually quite different. They also tend to manifest differently in children.

Stress and anxiety are emotional responses, but pediatrician Dr. Pilar Bradshaw says stress is typically caused by an external trigger.

“A stressor is usually something that happens and then it’s over and you recover,” she says. “For example, you have a huge test or a bear jumps out at you. If, however, you are frequently under stress, the stressors keep coming your way, it could cause you to develop a fear factor about what is going to happen in the future, and that’s called anxiety.”

Stress vs. anxiety
According to the American Institute of Stress, stress is not a mental health disorder, but anxiety is.

“Anxiety is the result of repetitive exposure to stressors that cause your brain to ruminate on what is going to happen next causing you to have often irrational or large anxious worries in your head that continue long after stressors externally are over,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “The challenge with anxiety in children is that kids are much more likely than adults to have physical symptoms that are vague and difficult to figure out.”

Symptoms of anxiety in children may include:

  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Lethargy
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in behavior
  • Fear of social situations
  • Clinginess

Helping children cope with stress
The key to helping your child is to teach them coping tools. “What’s important to understand is that we all face stress, everybody. Life is stressful,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “There are lots of things that are hard. The key is figuring out ‘What are my coping tools?’ so that I can stand up through a stressful event knowing that it’s going to end, and then when it’s over, I can let it go.”

Here are some examples of how to help your child minimize stress:

  • First, acknowledge that your children’s thoughts and feelings are real to them.
  • Encourage physical activity because exercise is an excellent tension reliever.
  • Focus on good nutrition and don’t skip meals.
  • Spend time together outside: being present in nature significantly reduces cortisol, which is a stress hormone and boosts endorphin levels and dopamine production, which promotes happiness.
  • Explore meditation apps or videos with your child. These readily available tools can help create calm using breathing techniques and guided imagery.
  • If your child is worried about specific situations, role-play with them to help them prepare.
  • Talking about stressful situations with a trusted adult can help kids and teens put things in perspective and find solutions.

“And when you ask your child ‘I’m concerned about you; how are you doing?’ sit there and be quiet and listen very intently to what your child is saying,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Sometimes kids have a hard time verbalizing the feelings that they’re having, but if you give them some time, they’ll often share what’s going on.”

If you are concerned that your child is stressed or anxious, talk with your pediatrician.