As a Mental Health Specialist who works with children ages birth to five years, I often hear parents who are struggling with BIG FEELINGS from their little ones. Big feelings are common and developmentally appropriate for infants and toddlers. However, when big feelings are caused by trauma and ongoing toxic stress, it is important for parents to understand the potential impact on the child, recognize the cause, and be well equipped in responding appropriately.
Knowing what causes trauma and toxic stress in children is the first step in understanding how to prevent it. Children can experience trauma in a variety of ways including separation from caregivers, natural disasters, and domestic violence. Toxic stress occurs when children are exposed to ongoing serious stress such as poverty, household dysfunction, or neglect. It is important to remember that children are never too young to be affected and can even be impacted while still in the womb.
Exposure to trauma and toxic stress can cause a child’s stress response to work overtime, impacting both mental health and physical health. This often looks like frequent and intense meltdowns, aggressiveness, or withdrawn behavior as the child struggles to regulate their emotions. Toxic stress and trauma can also lead to long-term health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.
While these symptoms sound scary and should be taken seriously, there are ways you can support and protect your child.
- Having a loving, healthy attachment to a caregiver is one of the most effect ways to decrease the impact of ongoing stress.
- When parents provide a loving environment that acknowledges and empathizes with their child’s feelings it can increase their sense of security and assist them in regulating their emotions.
- Parents can also model healthy ways to address stress by taking deep breaths, offering physical affection, or changing the environment.
- Implementing a consistent routine is another great way to combat symptoms of trauma and toxic stress.
Sadly, parents cannot always prevent their children from experiencing hardship in life, but with a healthy understanding of the causes and impacts of trauma and toxic stress, they can help provide protective factors that will have lifelong positive impacts.
Written by Madison Medley, LMSW