4 Warning Signs Your Preteen Needs Help with Stress Management

Help your preteen cope with stress

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your preteen is stressed or just being a preteen.

Mood swings, headaches, tummy aches, stubbornness, and more—these are all signs your child is becoming a teen, right? To some degree, yes. For some preteens, frequent headaches or tummy aches and severe or suddenly more severe changes in mood can be a sign of something else. What if those are really signs of stress?

What does an average preteen with all the typical preteen angst look like?

Aside from the physical changes that come along with puberty, there are developmental changes that take place as well. Your preteen should begin to develop a sense of their own identity, outside of what you, the parent, thinks of them. They begin to try to find their place in the world. And with that comes a lot of trial and error, naturally.

New hobbies and new interests, abandoned almost as soon as they began and replaced with yet another new interest, will become the new norm. You’ll adapt to the latest request for posters or merch just in time for them to begin to focus on something else. It’s a time of upheaval within your child’s world. Almost-obsessive levels of excitement about a new show, game, YouTuber, or TikTok personality are all part of it. In a world of quarantines and social unrest, your preteen might even choose an interest that aligns with their personal value system.

Your child is starting to figure out who it is they want to become. Which is great! And hard! And sometimes stressful, especially right now. Look no further than your own feelings about the current state of the world to imagine what might cause your child added stress. COVID-19, school, and a loss of social activities alone is enough to cause anyone stress.

So how do you identify if your child is stressed? And what can you do to help them cope while also encouraging them to develop lifelong, healthy coping skills of their own? Here are 10 warning signs that your child needs help with stress management.

1. Your preteen is avoiding family dinner.

Did you know in one study conducted with school-going tweens 20 to 56% reported they were dieting? Sometimes when we’re stressed and feel as if the world around us is chaos, we focus on controlling what we can. Which for some tweens may include how much they eat and when. So if your child is avoiding family dinner, it’s time to find out why.

While any weight loss in a growing child should always be concerning, preteens don’t match the image many parents have of a child with an eating disorder. The biggest sign that something isn’t right could be a lack of growth instead of weight loss. This may be accompanied by your child eating less or not eating at all during meal times.

What if you don’t have family dinners?

If your schedules allow for it, implement regularly scheduled family dinner nights. The more nights you can get together, the better. It doesn’t have to be a home-cooked meal, either. Takeout shared at the table with no electronics is still a win! Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a win, too.

Family dinners serve many purposes. First, you’ll be a food role model. What does that mean? Your relationship with food will help guide your child’s relationship with food. Focus on making healthy choices and avoiding language about dieting or restricting calories. Additionally, put the electronics away and use the opportunity to connect and talk about your day with one another. It teaches children how to listen, how to communicate, and how to connect with others.

2. Your child often “feels sick.”

Does your child often have a headache, tummy ache, nausea, or other ailment that has been checked and cleared by their pediatrician? Are they often going to the school nurse, especially on important or “big” days? This can be a sign of significant stress.

What if they do feel ill often?

It’s hard to figure out what’s happening with a preteen because they rarely have the vocabulary that comes with emotional maturity and intelligence. So try to decode what your child is telling you. Are they using words such as “worried,” “confused,” “angry,” or “annoyed”? Most often a preteeen will talk about the world around them and how someone or a situation made them feel. Keep in mind that feelings of anger are rarely about being angry.

Listen carefully to what your child isn’t saying in these instances as well. Ask your child what their day included before they started feeling ill or what they anticipated the rest of the day to look like. Follow your instincts.

3. Your preteen turned down their favorite movie and popcorn.

A lot of times when it feels like there’s just too much chaos in our lives, we respond by isolating ourselves. Less noise and less input can feel more manageable. But if your child begins to spend more time in their room and refuses to join in on activities they typically enjoy, it might be time for a deeper conversation.

On the other end of the spectrum, if your child is suddenly needing extra hugs, attention, and affection, that can be a sign that your child is stressed as well. It’s completely normal to want to feel more connected to a loved one. If your child suddenly has trouble spending time apart from you or another loved one, though, that’s a sign your child is having difficulty coping with stress.

4. She did something completely out of character.

Every kid has slammed a door at least once in their life. It’s practically a rite of passage into adolescence to get so annoyed with a parent that the door takes the brunt of a preteen’s anger. But some stressed kids will have difficulty with changes in mood and behavior. Watch for frequent irritability, anger, fearfulness, and sadness.

Or perhaps your child made a terrible choice that has resulted in her being without electronics for weeks to come. It’s uncharacteristic and you never thought you’d be the parent who had to take all electronics away. But here you are. Follow your instincts. Your good kid is still a good kid.

It’s good that you’re concerned about your child and digging deeper.

Even if your child is a picture-perfect preteen who isn’t exhibiting signs of stress, it’s always good to know what to look for and how to help your child develop stress-management skills before there’s a problem. Here are a few ideas on helping your child cope with daily stress. These ideas will work for you, too.

1. Do something fun.

Pick an activity and do it together. It can be something as simple as a game of cards or as elaborate as a scavenger hunt. Choose something regularly that will bring nothing but fun to your evening.

2. Go for a walk.

Exercise is good for your whole body, of course. It also gives your child time to step away from all the demands on his time such as homework and chores.

3. Write, draw, or paint.

Writing about your day, how you’re feeling, or what’s on your mind is a great way to process. Painting and drawing can give you a less literal way of doing the same thing. Painting and drawing is especially helpful to those who may not be able to put words to how they’re feeling.

4. Sleep.

What preteen doesn’t like to stay up late chatting with their friends? Encourage your child to listen to their bodies and to prioritize caring for themselves. The top item on any self-care list should be sleep. Help them by enforcing a regular bedtime complete with a wind-down routine.

5. Be honest about your own stress.

There isn’t a human alive who doesn’t feel stress to some degree regularly. Help your child understand that it’s normal to feel stress by being open and honest about your stress. Tell your child when you’re stressed and what you plan to do to alleviate that stress. Show them it’s important to care for yourself by following through and prioritizing what you need to feel better.