What is the Fight or Flight Response?
The fight or flight response is our body’s reaction to a stressor, real or perceived. Our bodies can be triggered or put into fight or flight mode by many different things including people, situations, and experiences.
Those who have difficulty processing and understanding sensory information may get triggered by sensory experiences which makes their brain and body feel like they are put in danger and causes them to react with a fight or flight response. Can you imagine how frustrating and exhausting this must be for children, and how hard it must be to learn and focus while this is happening?
What Might the Fight or Flight Response Look Like?
If a child is triggered into the fight or flight response, you can expect to see some of the following:
Sensory Processing’s role in Fight or Flight
When we are provided with sensory input, our brain needs to quickly process all the information it is receiving and let us know whether it is safe or not.
Some people (both children and adults) receive sensory input but their body does not know how to process it. Our body may tell us that something is potentially harmful and threatening and to stay away from it. As a result, it triggers us to get out of the situation by fighting – pushing / throwing / kicking – anything to get the item away, or flight – running, climbing – anything to physically remove ourselves from the item and situation.
This process is happening very fast at a subconscious level as our brain is perceiving a threat and it wants to protect us. Unfortunately, some people (both children and adults) may not always understand why their brain and body are acting in this way.
Sensory experiences such as the following can send a child into a state of fight or flight:
What can I do?
1. Put your explorer hat on. Part of the process to find effective calming techniques for children is exploration and trial and error simply due to the fact that every child’s brain is different and will process sensory information differently. We want our children to see that different sensory experiences can be fun and enjoyable.
A good way to do this is explore with your child when they are calm and regulated (preferably not during a meltdown) what are things that potentially cause your child to go into fight or flight mode, and what are some things that can help our child calm down if that were to happen. This can take the form of sensory play, conversations, and role-playing or acting out pretend scenarios “Hey Sally if you were at school and you walked into the cafeteria and you didn’t like the smells of the food what are some things you could do?”
2. Our child will mimic our emotions so if they see that we are calm while they are having a meltdown that can help them to calm (believe me easier said than done) but the calmer we can stay in a situation by watching our voice volume, tone, and facial expressions the more it will help our child.
Talking to our child in a calm and soft voice and providing reassurance that they are ok can help calm. Experiment with this tactic when your child is calm and see if by providing them with verbal and calming reassurance it helps them maintain regulation.
3. Have calming tools ready to use to help your child calm down, these can include calming bottles, hand fidgets, mouth tools (bubbles, pinwheels), calming music, etc.
4. Take deep breaths. When we are in fight or flight mode, we can start to hyperventilate meaning that our body and brain is not receiving all the oxygen it needs. A great thing to do in this scenario is to take deep breaths as it provides our body and organs with the oxygen they need that can help them to calm. In a scenario where a child is in fight or flight mode, we may say something like “let’s take some deep breaths” and then start to take deep breaths our self so our child can imitate us and hopefully start to calm. Try guiding them through 5 deep breaths. You can use prompts such as “smell the flowers in, blow the birthday candles out”.
5. Be proactive and have a game plan for how family members will respond if a child is in fight or flight mode. For example, will one parent or family member take the role of helping the child to calm down if they are in fight or flight mode or will it be more of a group effort? If a parent is trying to calm a child by having them take deep breaths but another family member is getting upset this can trigger the child, so having a game plan ahead of time can help us in this process. Discuss with the members in your family techniques that help your child calm if they are in fight or flight mode and how everyone will respond should the child enter fight or flight mode.
***Disclaimer: every child is different, and every child’s brain processes sensory information differently. As a result, there is not a one size fits all solution. Some of these tips and strategies may help some kids but may not be as effective for others.***
I hope to provide you with some strategies to get you started. Please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
See you soon!
Michael Jankowski, MS, OTR/L
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