Stress is experienced by all ages, not just by adults. A child’s life may be perceived by most as carefree and happy because their only job at this time in their life is to play and learn. It’s not surprising, however, that kids do indeed experience a certain degree of stress even though they don't have the same responsibilities as adults, such as bills to pay and mouths to feed.
Whether the oldest, middle, youngest, or only child, kids face pressures to live up to achievements and expectations of parents, siblings, teachers and friends. They are concerned with pleasing others, making sports teams or first chair in band, to name a few. These once-fun activities may lead to burnout when there is too much pressure to excel.
I have interviewed kids in my practice, and some of the life events that caused them stress seemed very adult and surprising, yet it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. They are not just worried about learning and studying to get good grades; loftier goals in advanced placement classes or elite youth sports teams, for example, now occupy kids’ headspaces. A year of virtual or hybrid school, not to mention the pandemic, caused significant stress for kids. Beyond that, consider the daily social stressors kids face, compounded by social media use. The thought of being “ghosted” or “left on read” can be stressful for children and adolescents.
Signs and Effects of Stress
Kids don’t always know how to communicate stress to their parents or physician, so it is helpful to watch for physical signs. Constant headaches or stomach upset are common complaints, as is difficulty sleeping or bedwetting.
The stress response is activated any time the brain is presented with a challenge or a threat. The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is one of the main components of the stress response, along with the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Hormones and neurotransmitters, such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, are released in response to stress to supply the energy needed to get out of harm’s way. If called upon too often, the brain may remain switched “on” and unable to calm down. This phenomenon happens at the same time the body is depleting inhibitory calming neurotransmitters, which then makes it difficult to calm down and relax.
Stress shifts the body’s resources to provide short-term energy and stamina. As this happens, other functions that are nonessential for living are put on hold.1 If this happens too often and stress hormones like cortisol are high, it can result in health conditions, such as high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, depression and diabetes.2
Chronic stress in the early stages of life has been linked to behavior and emotional issues in children,3 so be on the lookout for mood changes. In addition, several studies now show stress results in changes to the structure and function of a child’s brain,4-6 and these changes may be permanent. Technology and electronic devices bombard the nervous system with bright lights and sounds, which can be overly stimulating. Excessive use can disrupt synapse formation in brain development, stunting thinking and learning pathways.7
Natural Therapeutic Remedies for Stress
First and foremost, a healthy and balanced diet goes a long way. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies have been linked to stress and anxiety, along with high-sugar and high-fat diets.8,9 There have been several studies on specific vitamins and minerals and how these micronutrients influence mood, specifically the B vitamins, vitamins C, D and E, and minerals like calcium, chromium, iron, magnesium, zinc and selenium.10
Additional calming support for stressed-out kids experiencing symptoms of anxiety are gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) and L-theanine. GABA is our primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain and is an important component of the body’s stress fighting mechanism. GABA has been shown in research to promote relaxation effects in the central nervous system by increasing alpha brain wave activity, which helps support a sense of calm, and decreasing beta brain wave activity, which is responsible for scattered thoughts.11 L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea and has been shown to quickly improve stress perception and stress resilience. This amino acid has been connected to the ability to increase production of mood-regulating serotonin and dopamine in the brain.12
5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is an amino acid intermediate that is directly converted into serotonin. 5-HTP is produced naturally from the seeds of the African plant Griffonia simplicifolia and helps support a sense of calmness, appetite regulation and a healthy sleep cycle.13
A few other helpful mood regulators are L-tyrosine and Mucuna pruriens. L-tyrosine is an amino acid precursor to dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. These neurotransmitters help regulate mood, memory and concentration.14 Mucuna pruriens, commonly known as velvet bean, contains standard doses of L-dopa, which helps improve the maintenance of dopamine levels and therefore positive mental outlook, motivation and other cognitive functions.15
Physical activity should be considered for reducing stress and maintaining overall health. Being active increases endorphin release, which naturally improves mood and energy while lowering symptoms of anxiety and depression. And if that isn’t reason enough, long-term effects of physical activity help us sleep and lower risk of cardiovascular disease and other lifestyle manifestations.16
The Bottom Line
Managing kids’ stress is important for their current and future state of health. Find ways to begin the conversation with them so they feel comfortable opening up to you. The goal is to listen and be understanding to their individual situations. None of us should be expected to have the same emotional process, so let kids process in their own way. Make sure they know you are there for them and the rest will be fine-tuning their lifestyle and introducing coping mechanisms to help them overcome stress.
Stacey Smith, DC earned her doctorate in chiropractic from the National University of Health Sciences (NUHS) in Lombard, Illinois in 2004. She obtained two bachelor of science degrees, biochemistry from Michigan State University and human biology from NUHS. She worked alongside her chiropractic parents and brother in a family practice in Michigan for 16 years and focused on lifestyle and physical medicine. She continues her education of integrative evaluation and treatment practices through functional medicine coursework.
- Flinn MV. Evolution and ontogeny of stress response to social challenge in the human child. Developmental Review. 2006; 26
- Miller GE, Chen E, Zhou ES. If it goes up, must it come down? Chronic stress and the hypothalamicpituitary-adrenocortical axis in humans. Psychological Bulletin. 2007; 133(1): 25–45.
- Shonkoff JP, Boyce WT, McEwen BS. Neuroscience, molecular biology, and the childhood roots of health disparities. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2009; 301:2252-2259.
- Carrion VG, Weems CF, Reiss, AL. Stress predicts brain changes in children: A pilot longitudinal study on youth stress, PTSD, and the hippocampus. Pediatrics. 2007; 119: 509-516.
- Hane AA, Fox NA. Ordinary variations in maternal caregiving influence human infants’ stress reactivity. Psychological Science. 2006; 17(6): 550-556.
- Teicher MH, Andersen SL, Polcari A, et al. The neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatment. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 2003; 27(1-2): 33-44.
- Lewis MD. Self-organizing individual differences in brain development. Developmental Review. 2005; 25: 252–277.
- Kaplan, Bonnie J, Crawford, et al. Vitamin, minerals, and mood. Psychological Bulletin. 2007; Vol 133(5):747-760.
- Abdoua AM, Higashiguchi S, Horie K, et al. Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of ?-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans. BioFactors. 2006;26:201-208
- Yokogoshi H, Kobayashi M, Mochizuki M, Terashima T. Effect of theanine, r-glutamylethylamide, on brain monoamines and striatal dopamine release in conscious rats. NeuroChem. Res 1998; 23(5):667-73.
- Birdsall TC. 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor. Altern Med Review. 1998; (3)4: 271-1998.
- Fernstrom JD, Fernstrom MH. Tyrosine, phenylalanine, and catecholamine synthesis and function in the brain. J Nutr. 2007;137;1539S-1547S.
- Shukla KK, Mahdi AA, Ahmad MK, Shankhwar SN, Rajender S, Jaiswar SP. Mucuna pruriens improves male fertility by its action on the hypothalamus-pituitarygonadal axis. Fertl Steril. 2009; 92(6):1934-40.
- Spalding TW, Lyon LA, Steel DH, Hatfield BD. Aerobic exercise training and cardiovascular reactivity to psychological stress in sedentary young normotensive men and women. Psychophysiology. 2004 Jul;41(4):552-62. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15189478/