Childhood Stress

Sapna Dinesh

Mother Teresa Women’s University

Dr. Syama Kumari.S

Kerala Agricultural University


            Stress is defined as the adverse relation of the people to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them (Jone Parry, 2005). Stress occurs when pressure exceeds his or her perceived ability to cope (Centre for stress management, 2004). Stress can also be defined as a process in which when environmental demands strain in organism’s adaptive capacity it results in both psychological as well as biological changes that could place a person at risk for illness (Cohen, 1995).

A very early but exhaustive definition explains stress as ‘Stress is a biological term which refers to the consequences of the failure of a human or animal body to respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats to the organism, whether actual or imagined'(Hans Selye, 1956). Today stress levels among children have been going up dangerously due to the pressure of their academic or cultural activities. Not all children can cope with such high levels of expectation and parents do not seem to realize or accept that their children are under severe pressure,” says Elizabeth Vadakkekkara, child psychologist and the director of Thrani (The Hindu, 2003).

Objective:  To study the prevalence of stress in school children, the interrelationship of stress and various areas like school-based competence, their attitude behaviour and their physical and health problems.


            This study was carried out in the schools of Trivandrum. Trivandrum being the capital city of Kerala has a cosmopolitan population and could get a cross section of the population of the whole state. A total of 667 students under the age group of 4 -17 were screened using a standardized stress assessment tool. The data collected was analysed statistically to understand the prevalence of stress among children and also to find out the variation in stress based on age, and gender. After screening for stress using a stress scale, 30 school children with above average stress were selected from each age from 4 to 17, giving due representation to boys and girls. Thus a total of 420 children formed the sample for the study. Children selected were grouped age wise into early childhood years (4 to 7+ years), late childhood years (8to11+ years) and adolescence  (12 to 17 years). A set of standardized rating scales were given to children to assess their competence level in the academic field, their attitude and behaviour and also their physical and health problems.


                The results indicate that 98.2% of the children aged 4 to 17 years showed medium to moderate and even severe stress. This suggests that in every age more than 90% of the school children of the state are facing above normal levels of stress and tension. Many of the psychosomatic problems and suicides commonly seen in our children are found to be the results of this stress.

The study further reveals that the stress rate is high at particular age like 4, 7, 8, 12, 13 and 15, (100%). Also more than 97% of the children above 10 years showed above average stress. More number of children with severe stress was observed at the age of 14 whereas the majority of the children between 13 to15 showed moderate or severe level of stress than any other age groups.

Similar study done in Brazil by C. R. Sbaraini and L. B. Schermann (2007) revealed that, of the total sample of 883 children studied, 27.2% of children over 10 years and 18.2% of 14 year old children showed a significantly higher prevalence of stress.

            In a study by Nair M, 2004, school dropout girls have a higher prevalence of stress (11.2%). Severe and extreme depression was 2.8% among school going girls and nil among college going girls. It was also observed that 22.4% of school going girls and 12.8% of school going boys had depression of various grades.

Mild to moderate level of stress is seen in more than 90% of the children studied and that levels of stress vary with age and gender difference. However, it will be interesting to know whether the stress in anyway affect the general competence of the children studied. Hence further analysis was done to study the relationship of stress and the general competence of the children. The variables included under general competence are the academic performance of the children, their attitude and behaviour in general and also their health and health related problems. Pearson’s correlation coefficient was done to find out the relation ship of these variables and stress. The health of the children was categorised as physical problems to detect the physical symptoms and general health to detect infections and severe disease symptoms.

The results reveal that the level of stress in children has significant relationship with their academic competence irrespective of their gender difference. The negative relationship indicates that as age and stress advances academic performance seems to go down. But in the case of their attitude and behaviour the relationship is not so conspicuous, though in the case of boys a significant relation was found with age. This suggests that when the boys grow their attitude and behaviour also tend to change. Similarly when the physical complaints and health was studied significant relation was seen with stress and health and academic competence particularly in boys.

Attitude and behaviour of girls did not show any significant relationship with level of stress. Neither the health scores, nor the attitude of the students indicated any bearing with the intensity of the stress they set to undergo. However in boys significance at 5% level was seen with age and attitude.

This indicates that stress in children can definitely affect their academic performance and attitude in general. So also the relationship with health suggest the need for urgent steps to reduce the level of stress in children and also the causes that may lead to severe stress in children.

            According to a study on Teen stress at home lingers in school by Jennifer Warner, (2008) it was found the negative effects of stress at home linger and affect teenagers’ academic performance at school. “The findings from this study indicate that there are indeed short- and long-term consequences of daily stress that should not be overlooked,” says researcher Lisa Flook, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a news release (2008).  

            However further probe into the matter is necessary to realise whether these relationships are age or gender specific. Hence statistical analysis was further carried out for each age group and separately for boys and girls. The children were grouped as early childhood, late childhood and adolescence to study the age wise impact in the selected variables among boys and girls.

According to the results significant relationship with the academic performance, stress and age is shown by girls in their early childhood years, whereas in boys, attitudes had significant relationship with stress. This may affect the future academic performance of the children. As girls have direct relationship with stress, in the long run this can definitely affect their general competence and scholastic performance.

            In girls, physical problems have significant relation with general health. The results also indicate that in boys significant relationship is seen with stress and their attitude and health.

            In the late childhood years (8-11 years) girls are more affected than boys. The stress score has significant relation with age and academic performance irrespective of gender. It can be observed that in girls throughout childhood years (4-11) their stress and academic competence show significant interrelationship. Whereas in the case of boys, attitude and health problems have more significant relationship than girls. But in late childhood years in the case of boys also significant relationship is seen between stress and academic performance.

            In the adolescent group studied (12-17) the academic performance or health problems did not reveal significant relationship even though the children revealed severe stress during the period. Their higher score in academic performance may be due to the extra coaching and vigorous training they get during the period to face the board examinations.

            According to a study on school stress in India by Verma, 2002, one context of school stress is the time that children spend doing homework. A questionnaire study of high school students found that they spent an average of 3–4 hours daily in homework. In Indian homes, homework often takes place under parental supervision and monitoring. It can be expected that this continuity of adult pressure, which the child receives from teachers in schools, tutors at tuition, and finally from parents at home, will result in negative emotions during the experience of homework.

According to a study by Mizra students experienced highest stress levels due to pressure, followed by self-imposed stress. Females experienced higher stress than males due to frustration, self-imposed stress, and pressure. Academic stress due to changes, conflict, and frustration were found to only cause stress among students occasionally.


            Students often attempt to control and reduce their stress through avoidance, religious and social support, or positive reappraisal (Mattlin, Wethington, & Kessler, 1990; Blake & Vandiver, 1988). Leisure satisfaction and fitness activities act as stress buffers, providing a sense of purpose and competence for students (Ragheb & McKinney, 1993). Macan (1990) found that student who perceived themselves in control of their time reported greater work and life satisfactions and fewer job-induced and somatic tensions.

            A more desirable system would give students credit for a wider range of skills besides the narrow skills of memorization that are tested by current examination systems that allows students alternative ways to demonstrate their knowledge and abilities, and allow students more second chances, so that they need not live in fear that one poor exam performance will permanently harm their future success in life.

The early identification and treatment of severe stress, including child maltreatment, can lessen the associated long-term negative health and behavioral outcomes. Daycare providers, teachers, and other adults who interact frequently with children should have sufficient knowledge and skills to identify and care for children who have been exposed to traumatic childhood experiences.


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