Stress isn’t just something that adults have to deal with—it affects kids, too. Read on to find out more about stress in childhood and the foods that can reduce stress and anxiety. (If you want to learn more about recognizing the signs and the steps to help the child cope with stress, read this.)



Stress and Kids

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there is a disconnect between the amount of stress kids are going through and what their parents think they’re going through. Based on an online survey of 8- to 17-year-olds in the U.S.:

  • about 30% of kids reported experiencing headaches in the past month versus 13% of parents who thought this was stress-related
  • 44% of children experienced trouble sleeping versus 13% of parents who thought their kids were dealing with sleep problems
  • 20% of children reported that they worried a lot versus only 3% of parents who rated their kids’ stress as extreme.

In short, parents tend to underestimate the amount of stress that children go through. Left unchecked, stress may lead to psychological and physical conditions in kids, so it’s important for parents to recognize the signs and take steps to help kids manage it. Aside from having open, non-judgmental conversations with kids, parents can ensure that their children have a well-balanced diet with foods that reduce stress and anxiety. You should also be aware of stress foods to avoid. (Bonus: These tips are handy for dealing with grown-up stress, too!)


Stress and Food

According to ExploreIM, the Integrative Medicine site of UCLA, a proper diet “can counterbalance the impact of stress by strengthening the immune system, stabilizing moods, and reducing blood pressure.” The site cites the following nutrients as important for reducing stress: Vitamin C, which can help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol; complex carbohydrates, which can stimulate the production of serotonin or the happy hormone; magnesium, which helps prevent headaches and fatigue; and omega-3 fatty acids, which may keep stress hormones at bay.

You can make sure your stressed children get the nutrients by including the following foods in their diet:

Oatmeal. Start their day with a comforting bowl of oatmeal. It’s a great source of complex carbs that can lower stress hormone levels and increase the feeling of calmness. Throw in some sliced bananas for a potassium boost, which can help keep blood pressure low.

Yogurt. Research suggests that mood and stress may be greatly affected by the gut microflora, or the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. Introduce good bacteria into the gut with probiotic-rich foods like yogurt. (The calcium and protein boost is a bonus.)

Fatty fish. Give them some much-needed omega-3 fatty acids through fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna. A study found that those who took omega-3 supplements experienced less anxiety.

Nuts. Instead of handing them a bag of chips, hand your kids a bag of nuts instead. They have the same satisfying crunch that can help calm nerves but with a nutrient punch. Two especially good-for-you nuts: pistachios and cashews. The very act of cracking open pistachios can be calming plus it contains nutrients that may be good for heart health. Cashews, on the other hand, are chock-full of zinc, which may help calm frazzled nerves.

Milk. That glass of milk before bedtime is a good idea—milk contains calcium that can help relieve tense muscles. The Vitamin D content may also help: A study found a link between low levels of Vitamin D and an increased risk of panic and depression.

Dark chocolate. Anyone with a sweet tooth can tell you that chocolate can make you happy. But now the science backs it up: Research suggests that chocolate treat can help lower levels of stress hormones and anxiety. The little sugar rush can also boost mood, just make sure not to overdo it. And remember, the darker the chocolate, the healthier it is, so slowly get your kids used to those with 70% cocoa. (It might seem bitter at the start, especially if they’re used to super sweet milk chocolate. But gradually introducing higher levels of cocoa can get their palette accustomed to darker chocolate.)

Just as there are foods that help keep stress at bay, there are also foods that may make things worse. Two of the stress foods to avoid are refined sugar and refined carbs, which both cause a spike in blood sugar. Refined sugars are those found in candy, milk chocolate, pastries, and soda while refined carbs are generally white carbs—white bread, white flour, white pasta as well as chips. Feed them natural sources of sugar instead, like fruit, and complex carbs like whole-grain bread.