How to Reduce Your Child’s Toxic Stress

*This story is in partnership with Stress Health, an initiative of the Center for Youth Wellness. All opinions are my own.*

As most of you know, my son has autism. He was diagnosed when he was five, and he has had to deal with more than his fair share of stress. No matter how much his daddy and I try to explain the world around him in a way that he understands, there are still things that even we can’t fully explain to him. Sadly, this can cause a great deal of discomfort for him. Imagine for a moment being so confused that you couldn’t figure things out no matter how hard you tried. Sounds pretty stressful, doesn’t it?

Now imagine having to do that most days of your life. It is no wonder that my son and others of a similar diagnosis can flip to what we call “meltdown mode” in no time. But that’s not the only thing that causes stress in the life a child with mental health issues or developmental delays. Things that we consider exceedingly simple can be extremely difficult, and that can change from one day to the next. Add to that the everyday stressors that all children encounter, and you can imagine how something like puberty scares me!

I have tried to avoid subjecting all my children to toxic stress. This is the type of stress that happens when a child is subjected things like abuse, (both physical and mental), neglect, mental health issues within the family, exposure to violence, and even economic hardship.


Children that are subjected to toxic stress often don’t immediately show the effects of it. In fact, there are times when the outside world isn’t even aware of what this child is experiencing until he or she snaps and does something that seems completely out of character. Even within what you might consider a close familial unit, certain types of stressors can affect a child. This might include having a family member who abuses alcohol or drugs, dealing with a parent’s divorce or dealing with a parent’s death or separation.

And stressors such as abuse and exposure to violence aren’t necessarily confined to the family; often they’re found at the hands of a bully at school or in the neighborhood. If you think
that your child might be dealing with these types of stressors, there are a few things that you can do. For starters, you can take the ACEs Quiz; this quiz includes some of the biggest Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that can cause toxic stress. After you take it (or take it on behalf of your child), your healthcare provider can give you some ideas for next steps.

One way to help mitigate the effects of toxic stress is to take time each day to be electronics-free and just TALK. Talk to your children, ask them about their day, and learn to gauge their reactions. Let them know that you are always available to talk. One great way to do this is to talk around the dinner table each night. Of course, children don’t have to be dealing with toxic stress to benefit from family conversation.

We live in such a fast-paced world that sometimes it is hard to slow down, but when it comes to the mental health of your child, slowing down can be one of the best defenses. Creating regular routines such as bedtime rituals, family dinners, story time, and trips to the park will help create a sense of security and belonging.

Let your children know that they can trust you with their safety, their thoughts, and their feelings. Let them know that it is okay to be angry, or sad, or frustrated. That it is okay to cry or scream, or need time alone with their own thoughts. Every single one of us needs this at one point or another; our children are no different.

stree in your child's life


One of my favorite ways to spend time with my kids — and get them to open up to me about the things that are bothering them — is by getting in the kitchen. That is where I am able to tackle several issues; I can find out what is going on in their lives that is bothering them, but also teach them healthy eating habits while we tell stories. The smallest things often times have the biggest impacts on our children’s lives; it lets them know that we are not perfect and lets them know that they don’t have to be either. Tell them your stories: the good ones, the bad ones, and even the ugly ones. You would be surprised how much that opens a child up.

One last thing to remember; toxic stress isn’t something that you just “get over” — it is something that you carry with you into adulthood. Watch the video below for more information, and tune into this episode of TED Talk on How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across A Lifetime.

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