Q: Our son seems to be easily stressed and has terrible fits of anger. What can we do to deal with this?
A: As a behavioral pediatrician, I’ve seen and heard everything. Children having tantrums to end all tantrums in the middle of a business. Children who refuse to eat or sit still in a restaurant, which quickly escalates to screaming and throwing food. Children who unbuckle their seat belts for no apparent reason or who kick other children in school.
It can be scary, overwhelming, and challenging to confess these situations out loud. Parents often feel confused, confused, and embarrassed.
“Why doesn’t my child listen to me? What I have done wrong? Is there something wrong with my child? “
Sometimes a child’s behavior is due to something that happened or happened to the child or someone in the family.
In children who have tantrums, it may be because they don’t have the words to tell you what is bothering them. Or maybe they cannot understand what is happening around them and the strong emotions are difficult to control.
For many families, unpredictable events happen that can be traumatic and affect a child’s feelings and behavior. For example, when parents make the difficult decision of separating or getting divorced, it can be very confusing for young children. They may behave, cry or feel sad, lose their developmental skills, or have trouble sleeping. Some have difficulty concentrating and have difficulties in school.
Potentially traumatic events like these are known as childhood adverse events (ACEs). They can include neglect, parental substance abuse, domestic violence, or a family death.
Experiences with social inequality can also be traumatic and trigger toxic stress reactions. Examples include living in poverty, separation from families, targeting racism or rejection based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And certainly the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many worrying losses to children.
Our body has stress systems that protect us so that in a frightening situation we are ready to run away and hide. This fight-or-flight response can be triggered whenever a child is afraid of a range of things, such as dogs, the dark, or spiders. The same system can also be turned on if a child has any negative experiences.
However, negative childhood experiences are likely to last longer than a single moment, resulting in children’s stress systems being turned on for long periods of time. When this happens, the stress becomes toxic to your overall health. The more ACE children are exposed, the more damage they can have over time.
Chronic, persistent adversity can also have an equally negative effect. Adults who experienced one or more ACEs as a child, or who are exposed to persistent chronic social inequalities over time, are at greater risk for depression, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other health conditions throughout their lives.
The good news is that parents can help buffer children from this stress before it becomes toxic. Providing safe and nourishing relationships (sometimes called relational health) helps reset the body’s stress system. Additionally, research suggests that positive childhood experiences are just as important.
One of the most important is to spark moments of connection. This can be done, for example, by reading books together or participating in family routines and community traditions. You can also model how you accept all emotions. Relationship health is key to combating adversity and promoting skills such as collaboration, connection, and communication, which are essential to children’s resilience development and thriving.
If parenting is a challenge, talking to your child’s pediatrician is a good first step. Pediatricians are trained to monitor not only your child’s physical growth, but also their socio-emotional health.
We want to make sure that all children and their families have the resources and skills they need to develop. To do this, we will always be ready to listen without judgment and with compassion.
Dr. Nerissa S. Bauer is a behavioral pediatrician based in Indianapolis, Indiana and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. For more information, visit HealthyChildren.org, the AAP’s parenting website.