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Stress, Anxiety and Depression in Children and Young People

Stress and Anxiety in Children and Young People

At times, children and young people are as likely to feel stressed, worried and / or anxious as adults.

It is common for children and young people to feel stressed or anxious about significant events such as starting a new school or before an exam. For some children and young people certain social situations may also cause them stress and anxiety and they may need extra support with this. Social factors such as peer exclusion, bullying, parental domestic violence, parental drug and alcohol misuse, bereavement and family breakdown are some of the key examples that may underpin anxiety development.

Anxiety becomes a problem for children and young people when it starts to get in the way of their day-to-day life. Separation anxiety is common in younger children, whereas older children and teenagers tend to worry more about school or have social anxiety.

Severe anxiety can harm children’s mental and emotional wellbeing, affecting their self-esteem and confidence. They may become withdrawn and go to great lengths to avoid things or situations that make them feel anxious. If unaddressed children and young people can develop General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). This is a longer-term condition that causes anxiousness about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event. People with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed.

What are the signs of anxiety in children and young people?

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. When young children feel anxious, they cannot always understand or express what they are feeling. Symptoms may include:

  • becoming irritable, tearful or clingy
  • having difficulty sleeping
  • waking in the night
  • wetting the bed
  • having bad dreams
  • complaining of tummy aches and feeling unwell
  • being absent from school

In older children, symptoms can include:

  • lacking the confidence to try new things or seem unable to face simple, everyday challenges
  • finding it hard to concentrate
  • having problems sleeping or eating
  • being prone to angry outbursts
  • having negative thoughts going round and round their head, or keep thinking that bad things are going to happen
  • avoiding everyday activities, such as seeing friends, going out in public or attending school.

Anxiety is the main symptom of several conditions that may develop during childhood or adolescence, or in later life. These include:

How to ease stress and anxiety

For children and young people, talking to someone they trust may be the best way to ease anxiety and stress. This could be a parent, grandparent, carer, teacher, social worker or someone else. Some useful self-help relaxation exercises are a good place to start.

Read more about how adults can help to ease anxiety in children. Young Minds have some useful information for parents relating to younger children, as does Anxiety UK. Mind provide useful information for young people and adults. MindEd host a number of relevant e-learning courses on the subject.

When should you seek help?  

If a child or young person’s anxiety is severe, persists and interferes with their everyday life, it is a good idea to get some help.

The GP is a good place to start. If a child or young person’s anxiety is affecting their school / college life, it is a good idea to talk to their school / college as well. The UK Government issues guidance to schools on their responsibilities to children and young people in terms of promoting mental well-being.


Depression can affect children and young people, but can be harder to recognise than depression in adults. It can make going to school, seeing friends and taking part in social activities more difficult. Some studies show that almost one in four young people will experience depression before they are 19 years old. There are a variety of treatments that can help, usually starting with a type of psychological (‘talking’) therapy. Early support and treatment for depression not only helps children and young people get back to living their lives, but also reduces the chance of problems continuing into adulthood.

What are the signs of depression in children and young people?

Symptoms of depression in children and young people often include:

  • sadness, or a low mood that doesn't go away
  • being irritable or having low mood all the time
  • not being interested in things they used to enjoy
  • feeling tired and exhausted a lot of the time
  • having trouble sleeping or sleeping more than usual
  • not being able to concentrate
  • interacting less with friends and family
  • being indecisive
  • not having much confidence
  • eating less than usual or overeating
  • having big changes in weight
  • seeming unable to relax or being more lethargic than usual
  • talking about feeling guilty or worthless
  • feeling empty or unable to feel emotions (numb)
  • having thoughts about suicide or self-harming
  • actually self-harming, for example, cutting or taking on overdose

Some children have problems with anxiety as well as depression. Some also have physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches. Problems at school can be a sign of depression in children and teenagers and so can problem behaviour, especially in boys. Older children who are depressed may misuse drugs or alcohol.

Why do children and young people become depressed?

Things that increase the risk of depression in children include:

  • family difficulties
  • bullying
  • physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • a family history of depression or other mental health problems

Sometimes depression is triggered by one difficult event, such as parents separating, a bereavement or problems with school or other children. Often it's caused by a mixture of things. For example, children and young people may have inherited a tendency to depression and may also have experienced some cumulative impact from difficult life events.

How to address depression with children and young people

If you think a child or young person may be depressed, it's important to talk to them. Try to find out what's troubling them and how they are feeling. See some tips on talking to younger children and talking to teenagers. Whatever is causing the problem, take it seriously. If a child or young person doesn't want to talk, let them know that you are concerned about them and that you're there if they need you.

Encourage them to talk to someone else they trust, such as another family member, a friend or someone at school. It may be helpful for you to talk to other people who know the child or young person, including their other parent. You should also contact the relevant school/college to see if they have any concerns. Parents and carers can get help and advice around children's mental health from Young Minds ,who also operate a parent helpline (Monday to Friday, 9.30am-4pm).

When to get medical help

If you assess a child or young person may be experiencing depression, medical intervention should be considered. This could be an appointment with their GP, or if necessary referral to the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) for specialist help.

Further Reading and Resources

UK Gov (2015) Improving mental health services for young people: Report of the work of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Taskforce.

UK Gov (2017) Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: a Green Paper

UK Gov (2018) Mental health and wellbeing provision in schools: Review of published policies and information

UK Gov (2019) Wellbeing and Mental Health: Applying all our Health

Mind (2019) Depression