Stress isn’t just an adult problem. Kids experience stress too, whether it’s from school, social pressures, the pandemic or life changes. And while you might expect stress to cause behavioral issues, fluctuations in appetite and loss of sleep, did you know it can also impact your child’s oral health? In this post, our Naperville kids’ dentists will be sharing how stress can affect the teeth and mouth, as well as ways to manage it to help your child maintain top-notch oral health.
What Causes Stress in Kids?
In small amounts, stress is normal and can even be good. However, when stress is excessive or chronic, it’s a problem and can have a big impact on all areas of your child’s life. Since kids don’t always know how to manage stress effectively, especially very young children, sometimes, even seemingly inconsequential changes can be a stressor.
Common stressors in kids include:
- Injury or illness
- Academic pressure
- Juggling multiple responsibilities and activities like school, sports, a social life, an afterschool job, etc.
- Issues with friends or classmates (e.g., peer pressure, bullying, etc.)
- Starting daycare/school or changing schools
- Having negative thoughts about themselves
- Problems at home, including conflict with siblings and parents fighting or having financial issues
- A new sibling
- Things they see or hear on the news
- Loss of a loved one or pet
Signs of Stress in Children
According to the National Library of Medicine, there are a number of signs and symptoms that could indicate you have a stressed out kid on your hands, such as:
- Changes in eating habits
- Trouble sleeping
- Upset stomach
- New or recurrent bedwetting
- Other physical symptoms without a physical illness
- Worry and anxiety
- Inability to relax
- New or worsening fears (e.g., afraid of the dark, fear of strangers, etc.)
- Crying or whining
- Clinging and separation anxiety
- Inability to control emotions
- Aggressive behavior
- Doesn’t want to participate in school, family or social activities
- Reverting back to behaviors they did at a younger age like thumb sucking
Stress and Oral Health
As you can see, stress can cause a range of physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms. As a Naperville pediatric dentist, the stress-related concerns we encounter are those that show up in your child’s mouth.
Here are some of the most common ways stress can affect kids’ oral health:
Cold Sores and Canker Sores
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. What causes canker sores in kids? Experts aren’t certain, however, they’re thought to be related to an infection, weakened immune system, vitamin deficiencies or other factors.
Even though stress isn’t the underlying cause of cold or canker sores in kids, stress does trigger both. Cold sores are usually located on the lips and around the mouth, while canker sores are found inside of the mouth. Both can be painful and annoying, but they do usually heal on their own.
Teeth grinding in kids is fairly common. In very young children, it’s not always a concern, because many grow out of it by age 6 or so. If your child is older than 6 and the habit still continues, they could have bruxism, which is the technical term for habitual teeth grinding or clenching.
While there isn’t one single, known cause of teeth grinding, stress can be a major contributing factor. Grinding often gets worse when kids are anxious about something. Parents sometimes ask, “Can stress make your teeth hurt?” The answer is yes, and teeth grinding is a main reason why. Children may wake up in the morning with sore teeth, an aching jaw and headaches due to the forces from grinding their teeth at night.
In addition to a sore mouth and headaches, chronic teeth grinding can also lead to the erosion of tooth enamel, gum recession, cracked, chipped or fractured teeth and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction.
As for how to stop teeth grinding from stress, it’s a good idea to talk with your pediatric dentist about the problem. If your child’s bruxism is causing pain or damage to the teeth, we might prescribe a night guard for your child to wear while sleeping. The dental device fits over the teeth like a mouthguard and protects the teeth against those grinding forces.
Depending on your child’s situation and needs, additional steps like using relaxation techniques or talking with a therapist could also be helpful.
Jaw Pain and TMJ Dysfunction
Can stress cause jaw pain? You bet. Tensing or clenching the jaw when under stress is common in kids (and adults), as is teeth grinding, which we talked about above. Both actions put pressure on the jaw and TMJ.
So, if your child engages in stress-related jaw clenching and teeth grinding, jaw pain could be the result. Over time, it can cause inflammation and deterioration of the TMJs, leading to TMJ dysfunction or a TMJ disorder. Symptoms of a TMJ disorder include:
- Tenderness or pain in the jaw, face, neck or ear
- Facial swelling
- Popping or clicking noises
- Difficulty chewing
- Stiffness and limited range of motion in the jaw.
Frequent jaw pain from stress due to clenching, teeth grinding or any other cause also warrants a discussion with your pediatric dentist. If your child has signs of a TMJ disorder, a custom oral appliance can be made. The device holds the jaw in a position that takes the pressure off of the joints and allows them to heal.
Another way stress can affect your teeth is by triggering poor habits. Just like grown-ups, older kids and teens may make unhealthy food choices when they’re stressed. They might snack frequently or skip the fruits and veggies in favor of starchy and sugary foods and drinks.
Why is this a concern? Well, the bacteria in your child’s mouth feed on the sugars and starches they eat and release acids that erode the enamel, eventually causing tooth decay. As tooth decay progresses, a hole can form in the tooth, which is what we call a cavity. If your child snacks a lot or continually eats things like chips and candy while stressed, this will make them more susceptible to cavities.
An upset or stressed out kid might also lack the energy and motivation to maintain a good oral hygiene routine, further increasing their cavity risk, as well as their risk of gingivitis.
When stressed, anxious or worried, some kids revert back to comforting habits they had when they were young. That’s why even if a child hasn’t sucked their thumb in months or years, you might find them popping their thumb back in their mouth when faced with new situations or change.
While a baby or toddler sucking their thumb is fine, once kids start to get their permanent teeth, thumb sucking can cause misaligned teeth and jaws. Aggressive thumb sucking can even cause changes in the palate and teeth as early as age two or three.
Stopping thumb sucking can be tough, and if you’re not successful, your pediatric dentist is the resource to turn to. We can give you guidance on how to break a thumb sucking habit and, if all else fails, create a custom habit-breaking appliance for your child. This will prevent orthodontic problems from occurring. And, by taking thumb sucking away, it will encourage your child to develop different coping mechanisms too.
A study published in the Journal of Dental Research, Dental Clinics, Dental Prospects found that stress, anxiety and depression can slow down saliva production and lead to dry mouth (xerostomia) in adults. It’s likely stress will do the same in children.
Dry mouth at any age has a negative impact on oral health. Saliva contains minerals that are deposited back into the enamel, replacing those lost to cavity-causing acids. It also helps wash away food and plaque that will otherwise sit on the teeth. With dry mouth, there isn’t enough saliva to do either of these things, which makes kids more likely to develop tooth decay and gingivitis.
Decreased Immune Response
Excessive stress weakens the immune system. What does that have to do with the effect of stress on kids’ oral health? When your child’s immune response decreases, they have more trouble fighting off infections, including gingivitis, which is actually a bacterial infection in the gum tissue, and other oral health-related issues. As we mentioned above, a weakened immune system is also tied to outbreaks of cold sores and canker sores.
How Parents Can Help Kids Manage Stress and Keep Their Smile Healthy
- If possible, try to limit or avoid triggers that cause your child to feel stressed.
- Talk with your child and get to the bottom of what’s bothering them. Then, together, figure out coping mechanisms that work for them, whether it’s deep breathing, doing physical activity, listening to music, playing with a stress toy or drawing.
- Inform your kids about upcoming changes like moving, getting a new babysitter or going to a new school in advance. You can also brainstorm ways to make the transition easier. Knowing what to expect lessens some of the anxiety children commonly experience in the face of change.
- Model healthy behaviors. Brush and floss your teeth in front of your child, exercise, manage your own stress appropriately and eat a well-rounded diet.
- Create routines to establish positive habits. Have kids go to bed at the same time each night to ensure they’re getting enough sleep, and encourage them to floss and brush their teeth at the same time every morning and night. Sticker charts and a temporary system of small rewards can be helpful until the habits are formed.
- Schedule an appointment with your pediatrician or school counselor. They can offer guidance on managing your child’s stress and give you a referral to a specialist if necessary.
- Keep up with your child’s routine dental exams and cleanings and be sure to let your pediatric dentist know what’s going on with your child. The dentist will assess your child’s oral health and offer solutions for preventing stress from affecting their teeth and gums. If a problem like a cavity does develop, treatment will be easier, less invasive and more affordable if it’s caught early.
Worried About Stress and Your Child’s Teeth?
Schedule an appointment for your child with a Naperville pediatric dentist. Our friendly team will put your child at ease and provide personalized care to stop stress-related dental problems and achieve the healthiest smile possible!