Updated: Nov 20, 2021
When we were cave people, we had to protect ourselves, thus entering fight, flight, or freeze or the alarm system of our body. We can fight the danger, flee from it, or freeze and hope it doesn’t see us.
You probably wonder if this ever happens to your child. It does, for some children only minimally, but for others, it can be an all-day everyday situation triggered by small things such as a loud noise or a change in their schedule.
Your Child’s Alarm System & Fight, Flight, Or Freeze
Our amygdala in our brain is primed to assess our environment for danger, it essentially is our alarm system and it tells the body to prepare for fight, flight, or freeze. When it works well, it reacts only to danger. When the wiring gets messed up, it can overreact to anything and everything sending kids into fight, flight, or freeze weekly or even multiple times a day. This could be because of prenatal stress, early childhood trauma, or difficulty with sensory processing.
The bad news? Once fight, flight, freeze is activated, higher level thinking becomes impossible. The body and mind are so focused on surviving that moment that the brain shuts down for logic and and planning. Instead it pumps adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones). Children struggle to regulate the overwhelming stress and emotions which can present as intense anger or anxiety.
What Happens When Kids Have Fight, Flight, or Freeze?
Short-term consequences: these high levels can affect how kids regulate emotions, their social system, and even their learning.
Long Term Effects: this stress can lead to physical and mental health challenges for a lifetime.
What Are The Symptoms Of Fight, Flight, Freeze?
Fight symptoms can include aggression, kicking, screaming, pushing, “bouncing off the walls,” not allowing anyone to get close to them, etc.
Flight symptoms: withdrawing, self-isolation, avoidance, restlessness, fidgeting, running away, pale, trembling, on edge
Freeze symptoms: whining, holding their breath, looking dazed, forgetfulness, changes in their heart rate, shutting down, daydreaming, or reporting feeling numb
When the intensity doesn’t match the stressor, such as a huge tantrum over something small like a schedule change, these can be cues that their alarm system has gone off or is overactive.
How Do I Help My Child And Their Alarm System?
When your child is in a calm state, talk to them about their brain. For younger kids, a great video on Youtube is Hand Model of the Brain for KIDS by Jeanette Yoffe - Dan Siegel *** Hand Model of the Brain. For older children, a great video on Youtube is Why Do We Lose Control of Our Emotions. Both walk kids through the hand model of the brain, their alarm system, and what to do if it activates.
Jeanette’s video ends with teaching kids I statements they can use, such as “I need attention,” or “I need affection.” Teaching kids I statements is a great way to get them to communicate their needs and name emotions to begin to tame them.
Once kids understand how their brain works, begin working with them on labelling emotions and using I statements. Sometimes the easiest way is while they are watching TV asking what certain characters feel or when you are in public. Another way is beginning to label your feelings. All of these methods start with adults practicing with kids, and adults themselves modelling I statements and naming feelings.
Another method is to ask kids what they feel in their body before fight/flight/freeze and getting them to label it then practicing deep breathing or another coping skill. This could be a good place to go back to our previous post on mindfulness and see if any of those activities would be helpful. An extremely helpful one for fight is the calm down jar and learning to let thoughts go. Another helpful one is progressive muscle relaxation.
If you are looking for more strategies to help your child learn how to calm down, Mary Willoughby Romm is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Virginia who provides online therapy for Willow Tree Healing Center. She enjoys transforming the lives of women, college students, kids, tweens/teens, and families through providing communication strategies, coping skills that work, allowing a safe space to be heard, and actively working towards helping you with your challenges. She is certified in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (ages 2-7) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, counsels substance abuse in teens and adults, and practices Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy.
Please send an email to email@example.com to explore working together.