20th May 2020

Children and stress, what’s worrying them most

Senior Social Researcher

Child worrying

While there has been a welcome increase in educational attainment over recent years, we are concerned about the levels of stress being found among British children. We speak with children regularly and what they tell us does so much to inform our work, particularly which areas we should focus on every year in our business plan. Many children have talked to us about feeling stressed, and we wanted to find out more about the things that they say stress them out most.

In March, we asked almost 2,000 8 to 17- year-olds about stress – coincidentally our survey happened at the same time the coronavirus outbreak was emerging and schools were beginning to close.

Two thirds (66%) of the children we spoke with told us they felt most stressed about homework and/or exams, ahead of worrying about what other people think of them (39%) and bullying (25%).

In their open text responses to our survey, many children mentioned money and their parents’ jobs, shouting, and not being listened to as their main cause for stress. Some of these issues can weigh on children more profoundly amid the covid-19 crisis, while the challenges that the most at-risk children already experience do not disappear at a time of national crisis, and in fact, they can become even more difficult to bear.

What children already felt stressed about before lockdown

“Worried about paying bills”

Boy, 12

A fifth of children (21%) who replied to our survey said that not having enough money was one of three issues that they feel stressed about most. This rose to an average of 41% for 16 and 17-year-olds. In their open text responses, children told us that they feel stressed about money and parents’ jobs:

 “Overtime at work” Girl, 13

“Not having money to buy what I want” Girl, 11

“Loads of work and tight deadlines. Managing money and paying bills on time.” Boy, 8

“Mum and dad not being together now. Exams. Mum not earning much money” Girl, 11

“My Mum and Dad when they argue. Sometimes we don’t have enough money for things but my Mum and Dad are nice to me and give me little treats sometimes and my Mum gives me money for doing the hoovering. Sometimes I interrupt when people are talking and I don’t know when to interject in a conversation and I get told off for this and I get upset. I sometimes get stressed when I can’t complete a computer game too.” Girl, 11

And many older kids were themselves feeling stressed about jobs. 39% of the 16 and 17-year-olds told us that finding a job makes them feel stressed.

“People shouting at me”

Boy, 11

Whilst we do not know what the extent of the shouting that children told us about is, it was the first thing some children raised when they thought of being stressed. Even if some of these tensions may be what would be considered potentially ‘healthy’ family arguments, we know they can also weigh on children’s minds.

“My Dad shouting and rowing. Being late for anything” Boy, 11

“Mummy & Daddy arguing” Boy, 10

“When Mum and Dad argue” Girl, 8

“Parent shouting at me- doing homework – being alone- having no fun” Girl, 8

“People shouting or talking when I’m talking or pushing past me” Girl, 10

“Not being listened to”

Girl, 13

During our business plan consultation children told us they want to be listened to – and receive a proper response and explanation in return. It is striking that when asked what makes you feel stressed, the first thing some children think of is not being listened to.

“When I am wrongly accused of something, or feel that no one listens to my opinion” Boy, 14

“When people do not listen to me when I am talking” Girl, 10

“Being told off all the time. Not being listened to. Forgetting to do something important and then getting onto trouble” Boy, 12

“When I’m not listened to and I can’t do what I want” Boy, 8

The ‘new normal’

Not surprisingly, some families are experiencing even more financial pressures than they already had before lockdown. This is bound to create tensions in some homes. Many of the stresses that children told us about in March, could be worsened by weeks of lockdown.

We already know that the vast majority of children who are classed as vulnerable are not attending school, and that children are more exposed to what’s going on at home. They also don’t have the stress release that going to school or being with friends can bring.

At the same time, the last few weeks have highlighted already existing inequalities and have put even greater strains on many families. There are many families who are experiencing unprecedented stresses, slipping from just about managing to crisis, or from managing well to just about managing. Jobs have been lost and the national domestic abuse helpline has recorded a 25 per cent increase in calls since restrictions came into force at the end of March.

It is important that we continue to highlight children’s worries so that the most at-risk children are helped now and do not just go back to ‘normal’ once the virus has passed.

In a tweet a few weeks ago, a school nurse shared a story of a 10 year old boy telling her he was still allowed to go to school if he wanted as he was on the ‘valuable’ list.

Let’s keep this in mind for our ‘new normal’ after this pandemic and continue to talk about children as valuable.

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