You are running late to get the kids out of the house and your toddler takes the diaper bag and dumps its entire contents on the floor, all while staring you dead in the eyes. You have the thought “he did this on purpose, he wants to push my buttons.” Immediately, you have a rush of blood to your face, tightness in your chest, and your heart starts to race–these are the telltale signs you are entering fight or flight.
This is a classic example of autonomic arousal in action. The perception of a threat (your child actively defying or provoking you) often leads to these physiological arousal symptoms. The bigger and more frightening the threat, the stronger the physiological response. The tricky part is that it can happen even when the threat may not be real (your child may be exploring what behaviors will lead to attention from you, or may be exploring gravity).
In these ambiguous situations, jumping to interpretations that trigger the fight or flight response can cause more distress than is necessary, for you and for your kids. Here is what you need to know so that you can limit activating your fight or flight response, recover from it more quickly when you can’t, and improve your ability to parent from a place of calm and confidence rather than anger and fear.
“Fight or Flight” is a catchy phrase for describing what happens to our bodies when our sympathetic nervous system becomes aroused. Think back to our cavemen ancestors and imagine yourself out gathering berries when you look up and staring you down is a saber-toothed tiger. Your body is instinctively going to prepare to either run for your life or fight off this attacker.
In current times, you are not likely to be faced with a wild animal threatening your existence, however, our brains are still wired to have these responses whenever we do sense danger — whether the danger is physically in front of us (e.g., oncoming traffic, a dark isolated street) or perceived (e.g., anxiety, stress, threat to our authority).
When our bodies experience fight or flight — aka “autonomic arousal” — we go through a very fast series of physiological changes. These changes can have lasting effects on our mood, attention, concentration, and our hormone balance. While this is a natural process, and part of life, it is also something that can become sensitive to overstimulation — meaning the trigger for your autonomic arousal response can become too quick to activate.
In parenting, this sensitivity to overstimulation can look like loosing it with our kids over things that we might not truly get that upset about if we had a clearer head, more time to process what we were observing, and were able to stay connected to our objectivity and our authentic parenting values and goals in the moment.
Fight or flight is an incredibly uncomfortable experience both physically and emotionally. Because of that, it’s is also common to engage in behaviors to avoid this process, even when those behaviors might be maladaptive.
For example, you might find yourself avoiding setting limits or boundaries with your child, or intervening too much in their behaviors as a way to control your own anxiety or arousal. The more we can feel in control of our autonomic arousal responses, however, the more likely we are to engage more calmly and effectively with our children.
Luckily, yes! Our bodies are beautifully designed to be in a state of homeostasis (picture a level see-saw). So what comes up, can also come down. Our fight or flight response is set off by our sympathetic nervous system. Its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system, is in charge of bringing our bodies back to baseline (to remember this is the calming system, picture a parachute gently gliding down to the ground).
We can activate our parasympathetic nervous system through exercises like deep diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and grounding exercise. See below for some ideas:
Mindfulness and meditation practices serve to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is what calms your fight or flight response and provides you with a greater sense of control, awareness, and mental clarity–all of which help us to parent more effectively. There are a wide variety of mindfulness and meditation resources online, and the best part is you need no equipment to get you started–just your mind and your breath.
Taking deep breaths with long slow exhales puts pressure on the vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This causes the slowing of our heart rate and blood pressure, increases our digestion, and halts the release of cortisol and adrenaline being pumped into the body by the sympathetic nervous system. The effects of this are a sense of physiological calm, an ability to think more clearly, and reduced anxiety or panic.
One helpful breathing technique is to breathe in through the nose to the count of four and breathe out through the mouth to the count of eight. When you exhale, purse your lips and blow gently like you are blowing out a candle or blowing a bubble. This will help you slow down the exhale.
When doing any breathing exercise it is helpful to use diaphragmatic breathing. Take a deep belly breath instead of a shallow chest breath. Most of us tend to breathe shallow chest breaths most of the time. A belly breath is deeper, allowing the diaphragm to relax and the lungs to expand downward. This results in more oxygen being provided to the body with each breath. If you are feeling the impact of fight or flight, take 5 deep breaths and see how you feel. If still feeling anxious, repeat again.
**This tool may be most helpful at the end of a stressful day, rather than in the heat of the moment when it may be harder to find a quiet place and stay there for more than 5 seconds
Our children are hugely important to us; we are hardwired to attune to them and feel connected to them. So when they engage in a behavior that our brain interprets as threatening in some way (defiant, dangerous, disrespectful, etc) we are likely to rate that threat as very significant to us, and therefore we become very vulnerable to entering into fight or flight.
Unfortunately it is very hard to parent when in fight or flight. It essentially hijacks the prefrontal cortex, rendering it relatively inaccessible to us. And that is the part of our brain we probably use the most when we are parenting. It’s responsible for critical thinking, problem solving, planning, reasoning, creativity, and perspective taking. Important, right?
When we are able limit our autonomic arousal levels, we have more access to our prefrontal cortex, and with it, our most effective parenting tools. You already have a lot of what you need to be a rockstar parent, you just need to be able to access it.
Another important reason why fight or flight makes parenting challenging is because it is incredibly contagious. When you enter into fight or flight, you exponentially increase the chance that your child will follow suit. Our children are highly attuned to our emotional state and they are constantly scanning our body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and energy.
When we are dysregulated, our children can sense it and this dysregulates them. Because of this, it is all the more critical that we can limit our vulnerability to entering into fight or flight with awareness and the skills discussed above.
As a parent, you long for a deep, mutual sense of connection with your child. You want your child to listen to you, yes, but you also want your child to trust you. You want them to come to you when they are scared, or sad, or excited. you want them to feel supported to figure things out for themselves, to be authentic, confident, and kind. You want a relationship with them that is rooted in trust, respect, and cooperation.
No parent wants to be in fight or flight mode. It feels terrible to feel angry or out of control when we are interacting with our children. And it feels terrible for our children to experience this side of us as well. Finding a way to understand and modulate our own relationship with our nervous system is a key step in creating a relationship with our child that feels safe, attuned, and rewarding–for us and for them.
If you feel like you are suffering from an overactive fight or flight response and you are noticing it getting in the way while parenting, there are things you can do about it. Try some of these skills on your own, set up an appointment with a therapist, or try a mindfulness app or class. You can also download my free PDF guide 17 Neuropsychology Strategies to Parent Smarter, Not Harder which goes in depth on how to disarm our fight or flight responses so that we can increase brain efficiency and prevent burnout.