3 Tips to Decrease Meltdowns

3 Tips to Decrease Meltdowns

3 tips to decrease meltdowns and tantrums

Minneapolis Parent Coach Jen Kiss gives 3 tips to decrease meltdowns and tantrums

As we all know, meltdowns and tantrums have a way of ruling the roost when they are in full swing. Whether your goal is to stop behavior before it occurs or have a quicker resolution, the key is finding the source. To do this, you have to do some investigating about why your child’s behavior is occurring.

At first glance, you may think the answer is obvious. For instance you may think it was because they didn’t get their way. Or you may have no idea because it feels like it came out of nowhere. But the key to solving behavior issues is to look a little deeper into your child’s reactions. All behavior is communication. When your child has a meltdown or tantrum they are trying to communicate with you.

So what is your child trying to communicate?

Where Behaviors Come From

Fear or Anxiety

A lot of challenging behaviors come out of fear or anxiety. From refusing to go to bed or school, to opposing everything you say, fear is often at the core of these very frustrating behaviors. Usually fear causes children to try to control their environment as a way to try to cope. This can show up as being rigid about what they will or won’t do, being clingy, avoiding certain places or people or becoming bossy and demanding. It can also show up as aggressive behavior because the child’s brain is trying to fight against their fear.

Sensory Sensitivities

For a child who has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or sensory sensitivities, the world can feel like a minefield. Children can become overwhelmed when tasked with something their bodies are uncomfortable with. As a result, many kids with sensory sensitivities use avoidance to manage these sensitivities. They may also have big reactions to certain stimulus or it may seem like they completely tune the world out.

Stress and Overwhelm

Kids are not immune to stress, trauma or overwhelm. In fact, stress often affects kids more because their ability to regulate their emotions, self-soothe, cope and have perspective are still developing. When a child’s stress tolerance is breached the limited skills they do have go right out the window. This leaves kids reacting from their lower brain, which is charge of the stress response. When kids are stressed or overwhelmed it can show up as aggression, disinterest or avoidance.


Trauma does not need to be a big, scary event. Trauma can be a lot of little events that add up over time or a single event. The nature of the event and whether there is a caring adult to help after the event, will determine whether a child experiences trauma.

If your child has a history of trauma, their amygdala can be enlarged because it is working overtime. An enlarged amygdala results in hypervigilence and more stress responses. Like stress, trauma limits a child’s ability to control their actions when triggered. Trauma can be triggered from everyday events or sensory stimulus, like smells. Trauma behaviors are usually much more extreme in their aggression. In addition, trauma tantrums can last for a very long time.

Learning Disability or Neurodiversity Struggles

Children with learning disabilities and neurodiversity struggle because their brain can’t do what is being asked of them. This can be extremely frustrating for the parent and child. While it often appears as being lazy or defiant, the child is actually neither of these things. Executive functioning abilities, which includes focus and attention, impulse control and predicting consequences, can be delayed or harder to master in children that have learning disabilities and neurodiversity. Research has shown that these children have brains that are wired in a different way. Research also indicates these children tend to experience anxiety and depression at a higher rate. Mental health struggles have a direct link to behavior challenges.

Connection or Relationship Troubles

We are social creatures by nature. When a child is not connecting to the important people in their lives, it can set off behavior challenges. A child who is lacking connection may become less trusting of others for fear of further rejection. Or they may become provoking and aggressive to demand others pay attention to them.

Lack of connection can have serious effects on a child’s attachment with caregivers and can lead to mental health issues that last into adulthood. If your child is struggling with behaviors, start by looking at your relationship. How much undivided connection time you are spending with them a day? If your child lacks alone time with you to talk or bond, make this a priority. Spending time with your child would be a good first step to reducing unwanted behaviors.

For teenagers, their main source for connection are their friends. Rejection by peers can lead to depression or significant behavior issues. If things seem fine in your relationship, check in to see how their friend relationships are going. Don’t push too hard, but let them know you are open for talking any time.


Regardless of which category you think your child falls into, the solutions remain the same. So it is okay if your child falls into more than one category; that is not uncommon. It just might mean that it will take longer for your child to work through learning emotional regulation and impulse control because they have a few more hurdles in their way.

1. Spend at least 5 minutes a day connecting with your child

This time should be planned into your day the same way an important meeting would be. This time is spent doing whatever your child would like to do or talk about. Make sure to keep the time uninterrupted. If you need to interrupt your time to deal with something urgent, let your child know and set a time to circle back later.

2. Reflect back to your child so they know you understand their struggles

Whether your child is struggling with fear, stress, neurodiversity or sensory sensitivities, acknowledging why something is hard can be a game changer. If you want to get ahead of behaviors, reflect their feelings back to them as they are beginning to escalate. After reflecting back, like ‘that made you mad, you did not like that at all’, offer to do a coping technique with them. Coping techniques such as slow breathing and hugs are good for any age. If your child escalated too fast you can still reflect during their tantrum to make it shorter. Keep the words small and your voice calm. Listening is the key.

3. Provide “just right” accommodations to decrease meltdowns and tantrums

While we do not want to accommodate too much, we do want to make sure we are supportive. This means we provide just enough support to stretch your child into building their coping and self-regulation skills. For example, you may help them get started with deep breathing and ask for them to continue without you. Or you begin a hard task together and slowly remove yourself over time.

For anxiety and fear, while we do not want to create too much stress, the ultimate goal will be to show the child that they can be uncomfortable and still be okay. This is how we build up their confidence and resilience and lessen behavior challenges. Always start with little steps towards your goal since going too fast can make your child resist. If you want to learn more about how to do this with your child, check out our 3 Ways to Help Your Child with Anxiety.

For sensory sensitivities, accommodations are usually necessary. Like anxiety, the goal is to help them learn to build up tolerance so they can function better in their lives. Because sensory sensitivities can be complex and span all 8 senses, it can be very helpful to work with an occupational therapist to make progress.

Final Thoughts

All behavior is communication. If you listen to what your child’s behavior is trying to communicate you can get to the root cause. Once you know their motive, you can parent from a better, more effective place. Knowing why our kids act the way they do allows us to do the things that will help minimize their behaviors. It also allows us to view our children from a different light and meet them with compassion and patience. And when we do that, challenging behaviors lessen dramatically.

Toxic Stress

Toxic Stress

Toxis Stress in children - what it is, how do you know if your child is suffering from it, and how to help prevent it.

Stress is a part of everyday life, for adults and kids. In a basic definition, stress is the result of a perceived or actual event that causes your body to physiologically react to meet a challenge.

In this article we will talk about the different kinds of stress, how you can tell if your child is experiencing toxic stress and how you can help your child cope with their stress. While this article is geared toward children, it holds true for adults as well so we encourage you to read it with both yourself and your child in mind.

How Our Body Reacts to Stress

The physiological changes in a child's body can cause intense reactions to stress

An important starting point for talking about stress is an acknowledgment that everyone perceives stress differently, but all bodies react to stress in the same way. What does that mean?

It means, giving a work presentation may make you feel like someone is trying to push you off a cliff while your co-worker may actually leap at the chance to get up in front of a large group of people. The perception of the stress is different, but the body’s reaction to the stress of the event is the same for both of you. For example, both of your bodies will increase your heart rate, your senses will become sharper, your muscles tighten, etc. But once again, your perception may mean you experience these changes in your body as a sign that you feel completely overwhelmed where as your co-worker may perceive it as feeling completely jazzed.

So the bottom line is regardless of the event, and regardless of whether it is real or perceived, the same physiological response occurs in the body every time when the stress response is activated.

So what is happening?

When we start to feel stress, our body releases a natural hormone called cortisol, aka the stress hormone. Cortisol increases blood sugar, which the brain needs in order to solve the stressful situation and maintain energy for your muscles in case you need to move your body fast. But the triggering of cortisol does some other things that are not so obvious, like blocking growth, reproduction, sleep and immune functions. In little spurts, that’s fine. An event or perceived event occurs, our body turns on the stress response to handle the event, the event concludes, our body turns off the stress response and things go back to normal.

That’s the way the body is designed to work. But problems occur when there are too many stressful events or our stress response system gets stuck in the ‘on all the time’ position. Having a stress response on all the time can result in something called toxic stress, which can have devastating effects, especially in children.

So what is toxic stress, how do I know if my child is experiencing it and what can I do to stop it? To get to these answers we first need to talk about the different kinds of stress that we experience.

The 3 Different Types of Stress

Learn the different types of stress and how to keep your child within the healthy and tolerable stress levels.

There are 3 different kinds of stress.

  1. Positive stress – Think of this as pregame jitters or when you actually need to save your life. Your body is physiologically trying to get you ready to perform the way you need to. This stress is viewed as both health and necessary.
  2. Tolerable stress – This is triggered when a bigger or longer lasting stressor has occurred. For kids, this kind of stress is often a result of things like divorce, loss of a loved one, sustaining a major injury or living through a natural disaster. It can lead to some regression in behaviors or intense behaviors from kids, but over time children are able to recover. The key to keeping a large stressor in the tolerable stress zone is the child’s access to supportive adult relationships that help the child process and adapt to the event that has occurred. Through supportive relationships that help the child cope, the child can eventually stop their stress response and bring their body back into regulation, although it should be noted this can take a long time depending on the stressor and the individual child.
  3. Toxic Stress – When the stress response is triggered too frequently, if the stressor is too intense, or the stressor is prolonged for long periods of time the body loses it’s ability to shut down the stress response. This leads to a disruption in the development of the child’s brain and other organ systems. Toxic stress, when it is not healed with supportive relationships and therapy, can lead to chronic physical and mental illness, learning and behavior problems, obesity, and even early death.

Because the consequences for toxic stress are so serious it is important to really understand how stress becomes toxic and how to prevent against it as well as heal from it. Let’s dive a little deeper into how toxic stress is different than healthy and tolerable stress.

First a little more about the biology behind stress. In any stress response, for any person, the body takes over. It’s part of an automatic survival response kicked off in the brain to help keep us alive. But what most people don’t realize is that this automatic biological response to stress, which is triggered for any stressful event, even if our life is not actually in danger, helps by actually hijacking our brain and behavior, meaning we are no longer fully in control when our body is in a stress response. The plane is on autopilot. The stress response temporarily gears certain things up and shuts other things down so that the body can respond to the threat automatically by fighting, fleeing or freezing.

Normally, a child’s body is able to turn off its stress response after a stressful event has passed when they are dealing with positive or tolerable stress. However, when a child is dealing with toxic stress, their body loses the ability to turn off its stress response. It is like the pilot trying to take back over, but none of the buttons on the plane are working so the autopilot stays on and the pilot doesn’t know how to get back in control to land the plane.

What Toxic Stress Does to a Child

Insomnia, obesity, agressive behavior and intense outbursts are just some of the symptoms of toxic stress

So what does toxic stress do to a child, or an adult for that matter?

Because children are still growing and developing and they lack coping techniques which are learned as one grows, they are especially sensitive to intense, prolonged and repeated stress activation. This intense, prolonged and repeated stress activation can turn into toxic stress when there is no supportive adult relationship to help buffer against these stressors.

Supportive adults are able to provide a safe listening space and comfort for big, strong emotions. They can also help teach coping techniques, provide reassurance to the child and help when needed. When a child is unable to receive the support and help needed for dealing with stressors that are too intense or frequent the child moves from tolerable stress to toxic stress.

Toxic stress can adversely affect a child’s ability to learn and their memory. It also causes the brain to start sending false alarms to other parts of the brain, indicating there is stress or something scary even when there is not. This can appear as children responding with huge and intense reactions to small or non-existent stressors. It can also appear as laziness or inattentiveness in the school environment.

Toxic stress can also cause too much adrenaline to be released into the brain which can increase a child’s anxiety, create sleeping problems, interfere with a child’s ability to control impulses and make a child more aggressive. This can appear as children being labeled as defiant, aggressive or having ADHD.

The physiological changes produced by stress also lead kids to crave sugar and high fat foods because the brain is no longer accurately recognizing the body’s built in ‘feel good’ response known as dopamine. The craving of sugar and fat is a maladaptive coping strategy to try to make themselves feel better. This inability to accurately experience dopamine can also lead to an increase in risky behavior in children who are craving a rush of excitement, in order to counteract the muted ‘feel good’ response. This can appear as impulsivity, risky behavior and poor eating habits, food hoarding or obesity.

How to Know if Your Child is Suffering From Toxic Stress

So how do you know if your child is struggling with toxic stress rather than tolerable stress?

If your child is displaying any of the above behaviors it is worth investigating if something is going on in their life that is causing stress for a prolonged or intense period of time.

61% of American adults have experienced at least 1 ACE

There is also a growing field of work on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which layout the 10 most common stressors in a child’s life that can cause toxic stress (listed below). It is important to note, that having one or more of these ACEs is not a guarantee that your child is experiencing toxic stress, it really depends on the support system in place for the child to help them deal with their stress. However it is equally as important to note that the more ACEs a child has, the more likely they are to suffer from the negative effects of toxic stress.

1. Emotionally abused in the household
2. Physically abused in the household
3. Sexually abused
4. Emotionally neglected

Adults 4 or more_scaled

5. Physically neglected
6. Parents are separated or divorced
7. Witnessed abuse to a maternal figure
8. Lived in a household with someone who had alcohol or chemical dependency
9. Depression or mental illness in the household
10. Someone in the household was incarcerated

40% of white children have suffered from at least 1 adverse childhood experience

In addition to the 10 ACEs listed above, it must be acknowledged that this list is not complete. Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) often face more adversity in life due to systemic racism and other challenges. There are more threats and stressors on a daily basis for BIPOC and their children are often exposed to stressors at an earlier age and higher rate than white children. Additionally, due to systemic racism and other adversities, BIPOC often have inherited the effects of toxic stress from previous generations. Recognizing this, additional adversity challenges are also acknowledged as causes of toxic stress.

black children_scaled

Additional Adversity Challenges
1. Racism
2. Sexism
3. Poverty
4. Food and housing insecurity
5. Interpersonal and community violence

Over half of Hispanic children are exposed to toxic stress

6. Bullying
7. Death of a family member
8. Historical trauma
9. Growing up in foster care
10. Justice system involvement

Furthermore, it is important to remember that your child can experience toxic stress from any traumatic event, even if it is not listed above. Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that causes an overwhelming amount of stress. It can be caused by one or many experiences.

How to Help Your Child Prevent Against or Heal From Toxic Stress

So what can you do to keep your child in the positive and tolerable stress areas? How can you help protect your child from the effects of toxic stress even if they have ACEs or additional adversity challenges?

First, if your child has a history of toxic stress or a high ACE score it is important to get them into therapy as studies have shown that psychotherapy is a well supported intervention. Therapy can help a child re-regulate themselves and start the healing process. Go to our Community Organizations and Resources article to find recommended therapists and support services in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

You can also reach out to us if you need help finding a therapist that can fit you and your child’s needs. The earlier the intervention the better because you can start to reverse the negative effects caused by toxic stress and help provide more tools to your child for future resiliency.

A supportive adult can help a child heal from toxic stress

To help protect against toxic stress, the following steps can be taken by parents and caregivers to help a child stay in the healthy and tolerable stress zones.

  1. Comfort your child. Show them love and affection. Studies have shown that simple physical affection between a parent or caregiver and a child after a traumatic experience can help regulate the child’s body and stress response.
  2. Have conversations about how trauma is affecting them and their families. These conversations can occur even when the child is very young. Children have a need to organize their world and give meaning to the events that occur in their lives. When no one is there to talk with to help organize these big thoughts and emotions, children make up an explanation, which often leads a child to think “I made this happen”. This can breed anxiety and fear leading to an over activated stress response and toxic stress. It is important for a child to hear from a parent or caregiver that they are not to blame for stressful events occurring.
  3. If you have a history of trauma, seek help for yourself. A parent’s own history with trauma can hinder their ability to act as a protective buffer to their child’s toxic stress. Self-care and healing are essential for being able to help a child who is stuck in a stress response.
  4. Practice mindfulness, with or without your child. Mindfulness studies have shown to be very effective at reducing stress and helping to regulate the body. It has been further shown that a child benefits from mindfulness even if only the parent is practicing.
  5. Help your child get exercise every day. It is important to get the body moving by doing some kind of moderate exercise like walking. It has been proven that exercise can both benefit learning and memory functions and help regulate the stress response. For combating toxic stress it is important to get the heart rate up for an hour every day.
  6. Help your child get more sleep. While this is challenging when a child is experiencing toxic stress because physiologically the body is interrupting the sleep function in the body, maintaining a consistent bedtime, eliminating electronics at least an hour before bedtime and creating a chance at connection before bedtime with stories, songs or cuddles can help facilitate sleep.
  7. Promote eating healthy. Again, this can be a tough one because the body is working against you because of the muted dopamine receptors, but trying to help your child make good food choices that will reduce fat and sugar and promote protein, fruits and vegetables will help stabilize their blood sugar levels and help them to regulate their bodies better.
  8. Help to identify triggers to proactively address the stress response. Once you know your child’s source of stress and have talked about how the stress affects them, you can help teach them coping techniques for handling their stress. These coping techniques can be a hug, deep breathing or drawing, to name a few.
  9. Practice self-care. As a parent to a child that is stuck in a stress response life can feel overwhelming and unpredictable. While our hearts want to remove the pain our child is suffering from, it is important to remember to take care of yourself at the same time. Take breaks and recognize if your child is triggering your own stress response.

A Message For Hope

Trauma and toxic stress can be healed with the right interventions

While parents and caregivers can help strengthen their ability to act as a supportive buffer to their child, sometimes the adversity a child is experiencing cannot be reduced. Poverty, racism, community violence and other societal challenges can cause parents to feel powerless to protect their children. However, there is significant research showing just how powerful a supportive parent or caregiver can be at reducing the short and long-term effects of toxic stress.

The brain is an amazing organ and intervening when a child is under the age of 18, when their brain is still very plastic, provides the potential for significant change to occur. Also, adversity can foster several good outcomes such as resiliency, perseverance and a deepening of empathy and compassion.

To learn more about ACEs and the science behind it, we invite you to visit ACEs Too High or the CDC.

If you’d like to talk more about toxic stress and trauma as it relates to your child or how you can find support as a parent, we invite you to reach out and have a conversation with us.

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