A Cup of Coffee – Why is my child so upset?

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Children have temper tantrums. There’s no getting around it. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. When they talk about the two things in life that are “certain“, death and taxes, they forgot to add this little nugget of truth.

So many people believe that a child who tantrums is spoiled, undisciplined, or disrespectful. I’m going to challenge that line of thinking this week. Come, journey with me through the mind of a toddler.

“Trigger” is an overused word

We use the term “trigger” so often, that I believe it’s started to (or already has) worn itself out. We hear the word trigger and we immediately attach it to “soft“, “snowflake“, or “weak“. In all truth, even military veterans get triggered. It’s a very real thing and in toddlers, it’s a word one needs to be familiar with.

You may also hear this referred to as a “precipitating event” or “anticipatory distress“, A child will react to going to the dentist the second time if they were hurt during their first ever visit. The knowledge that going to the dentist might hurt, triggers them, and a tantrum can follow.

If we must use this term, then let’s define it

For the purposes of this blog, we will define a trigger as, “an event or circumstance that is the cause of a particular action, process, or situation“. In other words, something happens to create the tantrum, it doesn’t just come out of thin air.

Whether it’s an actual threat or just a perceived threat, human beings cope with extreme stress in different ways. When a child has a diagnosis, such as ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, the fight/flight/freeze/fib (FFFF) response is often interpreted as defiance, aggression, or general misbehaving. This isn’t actually what’s happening to cause their reactions. They’ve been triggered, either intentionally (by a sibling, for example) or unintentionally.

Analyzing a child’s triggers helps parents and caretakers avoid them, prepare children ahead of time, and be more empathetic when children have challenging behaviors.

What part of the brain are we talking about?

The Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation, tells us that “Early exposure to trauma — extremely fearful events — and high levels of stress affect the developing brain, particularly in those areas involved in emotions and learning. The amygdala and the hippocampus are two brain structures involved in fear and traumatic stress.

The amygdala detects whether a stimulus (person or event) is threatening and the hippocampus, the center of short-term memory, links the fear response to the context in which the threatening stimulus or event occurred. These two brain structures also play an important role in the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin influencing the capacity of the prefrontal cortex for regulating thought, emotions, and actions, as well as keeping information readily accessible during active learning.

In response to overwhelming stress in young children:

  • The brain drives the “fight or flight response” and release of stress hormones,
  • The young child has a limited capacity to manage this overwhelming stress and experiences increased arousal — fear and anxiety (physical and emotional sensations).
  • Excessive fear and anxiety and excessive cortisol (stress hormone) can affect the capacity for stress regulation as well as development and higher functions of the brain, and
  • Significant early adversity can lead to lifelong problems (physical and mental health).”

Let’s talk about some of the most common triggers

There are six common triggers that we can address in a blog such as this.


If a child has experienced their caregiver leaving due to abandonment or neglect, this can create a trigger when a caregiver leaves the room. The child sees someone leave a room, and then throws themself to the floor, banging their head, yelling, and kicking.

A violent outburst such as this can throw one off guard. This is an example of a fight response to being left alone. When the child was younger, seeing their mother go meant they were in danger because they often went for many hours without being fed or changed. 

Now of course, leaving the room doesn’t mean the toddler will be deserted, but their brain has already set an alarm for this trigger. If their foster family or daycare provider can understand and empathize with this reaction, it will give the child the patience they need to help them through the event.

Sudden changes

Life can be unpredictable, and for a child (especially those on the autism spectrum) this reality can cause anguish. An example could be as simple as a mom realizing on the way to school that she forgot to bring the child’s packed lunch, so she runs back home to grab the sack on the counter. This is unbearable for her child who has a meltdown when the car turns in an unexpected direction.

Teaching a child to self-soothe when stressed is a gift that will keep on giving throughout their lives. Unanticipated events will occur. You can guide your child through belly breathing exercises, offered at Cosmic Kids.

When children encounter a sudden change, they’ll need to have a tool to help them calm down. This takes practice and patience, but your little one may become an expert if you help him.


How many mothers have experienced a tantrum when they tell their little ones that it’s time to leave the park or turn off the TV? I know I did when my children were young!

It can reduce anxiety if parents make a daily schedule, that way kids will know what to expect and in what order.

Giving children five-minute warnings before transitions can prepare kids to stop what they’re doing and go on to the next activity. Using a timer, whether that be with an alarm clock, watch, kitchen timer, or hourglass, gives them the ability to physically look at something that tells them what to expect next.

Loss of control

None of us like to feel out of control of a situation. Children are just tiny humans.

Children are often people pleasers. They thrive on positive attention. At times, however, their impulses get the better of them.

We tell our children not to hit others, over and over, and yet, the child goes to school, gets pushed by the class bully, and suddenly the fists are flying (fight response). The child knows they’ve crossed a boundary and in doing so have disappointed those that mean so much to them, so they run away, out into the street, scaring all the adults in their presence. By running away, they are demonstrating the flight response.

When addressing this event, try not to make the child feel ashamed of their actions. Refer back to the self-soothing techniques you’ve been working on together, and gently (but firmly) remind them that it would be better in the future to try to remain calm.

The child will need to sit in time out for hitting but offer them empathy while doing so. Remember, everyone gives in to their impulses sometimes.


Oh dear…rejection. It stings, doesn’t it? Imagine being wee and not having the tools in your backpack of life to understand the complexities of being rejected.

If your little one just sits in their chair at school, staring off into the distance, and refuses to complete the tasks assigned to them, they may be demonstrating a freeze response.

They have simply become overwhelmed. This is when a good, supportive, heart-to-heart talk is warranted. Talking through their feelings and helping them to feel loved and supported at home can often take the hurt out of rejection.

Please don’t assume your child “did something” to warrant being rejected. This makes it the child’s responsibility to be liked and included when in reality, a child has little to no control over the pecking order at school. It’s fine to invite children over to get to know each other a little better, but pushing the “you need to change so they like you” agenda isn’t helpful and can do harm in the end.

Sensory overload

You take your child to the grocery store and it ends in disaster. Why?

The lights are too bright, the music is too distracting and there are so many colors. It’s too much. There are too many people and they are all talking at once, sometimes bumping into your child in the narrow aisles.

You’ve decided that shopping in person isn’t worth the stress, and decided to order everything online.

Unfortunately, you may be on the right track. Avoiding sensory overload is probably your best bet. Try to keep your house clutter-free with only one or two toys out at a time. Music and television may also trigger your child. 

My child is in a full-blown meltdown…now what?

Simply sit by your little one during their fight, flight, freeze, or fib response so they know you’re there to protect and love them. Don’t yell, threaten, bribe, or show exasperation. Stay calm. They need you to be the adult, because if they are the adult, then in their mind all is lost.

You don’t have to “say” anything. Just be. Try to regulate your breathing so that they start to match your rhythm. If they allow it, hold them close to your chest and let them hear your heartbeat. It’s soothing. They heard it for 9 months, whether they were born of your body or not, they understand a heartbeat.

Remember that time will create peace. The temper tantrum cannot last forever, and as soon as the adrenaline wears out, so too will the child. By yelling or raising your voice, you will just prolong the event as you will be trigging them yet again. Lower your voice, even to a whisper, and see if it changes the length of the event.

Last thoughts

Hang in there! You are experiencing the same thing that all guardians have experienced over the ages. Don’t listen to the “experts” who want to tell you that you are to blame for the child’s expressions. It’s developmentally appropriate for a child to engage in these behaviors from time to time.

Rule out medical. Always. If your child loses their ability to cope more often than you think is age-appropriate, get them seen for an evaluation. All is not always as it seems.

Most of all, be gentle with yourself so that you can be gentle with the child. This is a hard job, whether you are the guardian or the teacher. It’s not for the faint of heart, but look at you go!


As always, this blog is not a replacement for sound medical advice. I am not a doctor. Please make an appointment to see your healthcare provider and put a good plan in place that works for you and the needs of your body.

That’s all I have for you this week, dear reader. I’ll see you back here next Wednesday to share another cup of coffee. Until then, be good to yourself and each other.

Mind, Body, Spirit…Osteopathic Doctors treat the whole person, not just the ailment. Is your PCP a DO? Would you like to learn more about Osteopathic Physicians? Click HERE!

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