Need to know
- A guide to understanding fight-flight-freeze in children. What does it signify, what to look out for and some practical tips.
The fight, flight, freeze response is a survival mechanism that served humans well in the hunter and gatherer times. Our reptilian brain would sense danger and would instantaneously send messages that would initiate a cascade of changes to our body to ensure our survival.
Today, we don’t have the predators our ancestors had to worry about but our fight-flight-freeze response can still be activated, and in the case of anxiety it’s triggered by perceived rather than real threats.
Why it’s important
There are a number of leaders in the fields of psychology and neurology that believe that many children with behavioural issues are in a state of hyperarousal. This simply means that they are constantly in fight-flight-freeze mode.
This alarm system is triggered automatically the moment your child experiences something that the body classifies as danger. To complicate things further, humans can simply create representations of a threat by thinking about it. Past emotions and events or images of the imagined future can activate the body’s defence systems in the absence of external threat.
You might see the following behaviour if your child is experiencing acute stress:
- Fight: crying (to release the cortisol flooding the body), clenching fists and jaw, kicking, punching, biting, swearing, spitting, screaming
- Flight: restlessness, darting eyes, excessive fidgeting, breathing rapidly, running away
- Freeze: holding their breath, shutting down, appear to disconnect from their body, whining
Two less known responses activated by the fight-flight-freeze reflex are:
- Flop: going to sleep, fainting
- Fawn: immediately acting to try to please and to avoid conflict. This can involve lying to appease the person at the centre of the conflict
A child who is highly sensitive to stress has a nervous system that responds intensely to false alarms, making it incredibly difficult to come back to normal levels from a stress response. As part of this acute stress they will experience involuntary rapid, unconscious responses, such as reflexes. Their body will undergo a cascade of physiological changes:
- Increase in heart rate and breathing: more oxygen floods the body to prepare for physical action to escape danger, and as a result blood pressure also rises.
- Skin that changes from flushed to pale: you might notice that your child’s face can change in colour, one minute it is flushed and then pale as their body redirects blood to other parts of the body.
- Tense muscles: the body is preparing to move quickly and muscles tense making your child tremble or changing the pitch of their voice as the throat muscles constrict.
- Dilated pupils: to increase the chance of survival the pupils dilate allowing more light into the eyes so they can see better.
- Dry mouth: constriction of the blood vessels around the mouth mean that the salivary glands temporarily stop producing saliva, causing a dry mouth.
- Digestion and immune systems shut down: this conserves energy so that it can be used for dealing with the danger at hand.
- Blocked pain signals: the production of endorphins acts as an analgesic to ensure pain is not a distraction to survival..
Tips & strategies
How to bring your child back
Important: Do not try to use reason or explain why it’s wrong to do something. Your child is in survival mode and their “thinking brain” is offline.
- Remember emotions are contagious – you need to be regulated to help a child who is overstressed. Give yourself a 5 minute grace period and engage your empathy by telling yourself that your child is having a hard time not going out of their way to give you a hard time.
- Identify the stressors and remove them – what has happened to create the perfect storm that has sent your child into flight-flight-freeze more? Are they hungry, tired, experiencing friendship issues or is it too hot, too loud or too bright? If possible, address the stressors by moving locations.
- Use a calm manner and voice – co-regulation is a really important part of children learning how to self-regulate. Help your child become aware of what it feels like to be calm. Use slow breathing techniques and if they are open to it, stroke their back or hold them – the aim is to soothe, not teach and explain.
Teaching your child to short circuit the fight-flight-freeze reflex
This is best done when you and your child are fully regulated and willing to teach and learn.
- Name it to tame it – start to introduce the concept of how the body feels when the danger alarms are tripped – explain that they might experience tightness in their chest or stomach, they might be clenching their jaw or hands, and start to feel hot. Are they angry, frustrated, overwhelmed? Using self talk can really help to identify what is going on in order to find a solution.
- 6-second rule – it takes the chemicals that are released during the amygdala hijacking about 6 seconds to dissipate. Teach your child to change their focus and notice the things around them, are there stairs, plants, windows, swings, etc.
- Awareness of breath – explain to your child that when they feel like they are breathing very quickly, it’s time to slow it down by pretending they are blowing up a balloon. Deep breathing helps to calm down the nervous system.
- Go to a safe place – work through different scenarios and identify safe spaces that your child can use to calm down. You might need to work with teachers on where your child can go while they are at school.
- Progressive muscle relaxation – help your child find their feet and other parts of their body. Practice focusing on the feet first and squeezing the muscles while counting to 30. They can use the same strategy as they progressively work up their body. Remind them to use the balloon breathing technique, and they should start feeling better as the tension is released.
Finally, keep in mind that these strategies require practice so don’t give up. Take every opportunity to teach mindfulness and breathing techniques when you are both feeling calm and relaxed.