What Causes Stress in Children?

In my previous post, Is Your Angry Child Purposely Defiant or Emotionally Stressed?, you learned that emotional stress is a major cause of children’s meltdowns. We all know what stress is. But what if your child doesn’t look stressed?

When your child explodes into a rage over what seems like nothing, what can possibly be going on?

Does the following sound familiar?

You were doing something fun or maybe getting ready to do something your child is excited about. And out of nowhere he goes into a fit over what seems like nothing. What in the world is stressful about what’s happening here? Your child is suddenly angry and out of control – but you didn’t see any sign that he was stressed.

It can be difficult to detect what’s really going on because triggers can be invisible and unique to each child. Most triggers have to do with how an individual processes information in their nervous system and everyone does this a bit differently. Let’s go into a few of the more common challenges that kids deal with.

Communication of Needs and Limiting Beliefs

We all have core human needs and we are always attempting to get these needs met. Some of the basic needs of children are unconditional love, understanding, acceptance, belonging, affection, connection, safety and attention. Children are always operating from their best intentions to get their needs met. Unmet needs translate into strong feelings. Underneath these feelings are usually limiting beliefs.

Beliefs that our children form about themselves can account for over 90% of behavior. These beliefs are usually unconscious and can be either supportive or limiting. A limiting belief can show up as….

I’m not good enough.
I can’t do it.
I’m not important.
I can’t trust anyone.
Nobody understands me.

Limiting beliefs can result in emotional stress. When your child is continually melting down into anger and frustration, it can take a bit of digging to find out what is really going on.

These are the things to identify:

  1. What your child is needing
  2. What your child is believing about her needs

Beyond attempting to get their needs met through their behavior, children can also be dealing with any of the following:

Accumulated Stress

It’s not always what’s happening in the moment that triggers the behavior. Your child might have stored up some prior stressful experiences.

If children aren’t able to fully process and integrate a stressful experience, it can get stored in the subconscious and in the body. Kids can end up storing a lot of hurts, disappointments, worries, fears, losses, and rejections. Anything can trigger any one of those unconscious experiences at any time.

It might be that suppressed feelings are hiding just below your child’s awareness, waiting for a safe environment in which to process and integrate them.

Here’s a possible scenario:

During the school day, there are plenty of things that can cause kids to feel vulnerable or a variety of emotions that they’re not allowed to express. An environment with a lot of other kids and a teacher is not typically a safe place to express strong feelings. Perhaps there was an experience at school your child didn’t get to fully process.

Now a day later, you’re with your child having a good time, but something triggers that emotional hurt that lies under the surface. And now you’re getting wildly screamed at because your child feels the safest with you. In that moment, he might not be acknowledging the fact that yesterday at school his best friend told him he doesn’t want to play with him anymore. And now those big feelings are surfacing and he’s in a stress response. And he’s exploding on you since he needs his most trusted person to help him.

The Neuroception of Threat vs. Safety

Neuroception is a term that describes how our nervous system distinguishes whether situations or people are safe or threatening. This is done completely on an unconscious level in the primitive part of the brain. Our brains are wired to constantly take in information about our environment and make a decision about whether we are safe or not.

Intense or extreme behavior is usually related to a child’s perception of threat or safety. It doesn’t matter whether the threat is real or not; it can trigger a stress response. Anything in your child’s environment, no matter how uneventful or nonthreatening it may seem, can trigger angry behavior if his nervous system perceives a threat. Keep in mind that your child could be triggered into a stress response about something traumatic that happened a long time ago. Again, it’s important to realize that these triggers are unique to each child and it can take a bit of deep digging to uncover what triggers your child.

Remember that the stress response is simply the brain dealing with a situation that feels potentially harmful to your child. It’s automatic and instantaneous and your child has no control over it in the moment that it is happening.


Suppressed trauma can be an underlying factor in intense behavior. A child with past trauma may perceive a threat and not feel safe and can easily go into a stress response at any time.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that overwhelms the nervous system with stress and may exceed a person’s ability to cope. All disturbing life events have the potential to be traumatic to kids who have limited ability to cope.

Traumatic events need to be emotionally processed with a safe and trusted person. Depending on the severity of the trauma, it might take additional outside help to work through it.

There are different types of trauma, and for kids, it can be losing a pet or a family member. It can be scary events, dealing with divorce, an accident, an illness, a stay in a hospital, or it can be the past experience of a difficult birth (birth trauma) or early lack of secure attachment.

If your child was adopted or ever spent time in foster care, you might already know there is trauma involved. Even though he was placed in your loving home, the fact that his birth mother had to give him up is trauma to a baby. There could be early attachment or abandonment issues playing out in your current scenario. There could also be neglect or abuse that you don’t know about in your child’s early history.

You can look at different types of trauma and realize that some things are way worse than others. The important thing to keep in mind is the way that people experience trauma is very personal. It’s not so much about what happened, but how your child has been affected by what happened. How he experiences trauma also depends on other factors happening at the time that might affect  his ability to cope.

Anxiety Can Cause Intense Behavior

It’s no wonder that today many kids are dealing with anxiety. There is a lot to be anxious about with all the scary things happening in the news. Even if they don’t hear or see the news, kids pick up on the anxiety of those around them. Social media and stress at school can also be big players in anxiety. Underlying physical imbalances can cause anxiety and we’ll go into that later in this series.

A child with an anxious or fearful mind will be on high alert, scanning for potential threats – situations that are unfamiliar or may be difficult or stressful. It doesn’t matter whether the threat is real or imagined; to them it is real. Some anxious children are clingy and avoid situations that they perceive as stressful. This is the flight response. Others go right into the fight response and deal with it through anger and aggression. Both are an instinctive, automatic response from a brain that thinks it’s under threat. This behavior is not about pushing the limits or misbehaving to get what they want. For some kids, an angry, aggressive meltdown can be a normal response to anxiety and fear.

Sensory Processing Issues

Some kids have difficulty processing and integrating information they take in through their senses. They might have an aversion to noise or irritating clothes, or they have a high or low pain threshold. I’m overly simplifying this – there are many aspects to sensory processing issues. The key point is that if your child gets easily overloaded with sensory information that she can’t process, it can result in dramatic mood swings and aggressive tantrums. There are many ways to help your child with sensory issues, and I can help you with using the best tools for your child to feel safe.

Developmental Concerns

Some children have developmental delays that can result in frustration and anger over the inability to complete a task or to do some other skill. It might be important to look into your child’s underlying neurodevelopment since you may temporarily need to shift your expectations of his capacity to do certain things. Remember that a child’s executive function of the brain is under continual development throughout childhood and some kids develop these skills faster than others. We’ll go into some of these issues, particularly ADHD, later in this series.

There is good news…

Let’s stop here for a moment and recognize how challenging parenting can be and that you are doing the best you can with the information you have been given. Please hear this – you are NOT a bad parent!

Take a deep breath. Parenting is crazy hard and the most difficult and chaotic thing you’ll ever do. It’s filled with conflicts and challenges you never thought you’d have to deal with. No one gives us a “how to” manual when our babies are born. The fact that you have read this far in this series means that you are an amazing parent!

The good news is that you don’t have to know the specifics of what the tantrum is about in order to help your child through it. Just be aware that intense emotional behavior is usually a stress response – whether it be from current or recent stress, from unmet needs and limiting beliefs, from anxiety, trauma or sensory issues or developmental frustration. When you can understand that it’s stress behavior rather than intentional or oppositional, then you are well on your way to effectively helping your child.

What’s the antidote to children’s emotional stress? Calm, emotionally-regulated parents who can help them process the big feelings while keeping healthy boundaries and limits. There’s plenty to say about this and I’ll go into it in later posts. If you need help with this now, schedule a call with me and we can talk about your specific situation and how to help your child.

However, it’s important to be aware that there might also be underlying physical issues at play that can cause aggressive, angry or intense meltdowns. I’ll go into that next.

Discover the Underlying Causes for Your Child’s Behavior

If you feel overwhelmed and frustrated with your kids, it’s likely there is a deeper need they are trying to communicate to you. If you’re ready to find a real solution instead of temporary quick fixes, then I’d love to show you what you can do to go from a chaotic parenting experience to a calm and cooperative relationship with your child.

I am currently offering a limited number of free assessment calls to help you identify your child’s needs and motivations behind the behavior so you can know exactly what to do to resolve it.

Here’s what we will do on your free 45-minute session:

  1. I provide a judgement-free, confidential space for you to talk about the specific struggles that exist in your family right now so I can help you determine what you can do to resolve it.
  2. Together, we will figure out exactly what your best next steps are to decrease those meltdowns, improve communication and cooperation, and most importantly, achieve a deeper connection with your child.

Find the clarity you need by scheduling your assessment call now!

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