Fight or Flight Mode and Disruptive Behaviours

Jun 23, 2023 | Behaviour, Children, Emotions

When a child is in a fight or flight state, it means their body and mind are experiencing a physiological and emotional state of not being safe. This response is a survival mechanism that prepares the body to either confront the threat or flee from it. When a child is in a fight or flight state, the child’s behaviour may appear poorly regulated or disruptive for many different reasons: 

  1. Heightened Stress Response: When the fight or flight response is activated, the child’s body releases stress hormones, adrenalin, and cortisol. These hormones increase heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, preparing the child for action. This heightened state of arousal can make it difficult for the child to stay calm, think rationally, or control their impulses.  
  2. Decreased Cognitive Functioning: In fight or flight mode, the body directs blood flow and energy away from non-essential functions like digestion and higher-level cognitive processing. As a result, the child may experience decreased cognitive functioning, reduced attention span, difficulty reasoning or using problem-solving skills. They may struggle to do things they typically can do when calm, such as following directions, verbally communicating, or considering the consequences of their actions. 
  3. Previous Trauma or Stressors: Children who have experienced trauma or chronic stress may be more easily prone to activating fight or flight responses. Previous adverse experiences can sensitise their stress response system, making them more reactive to perceived threats.  

 It is important to note that a child’s behaviour in fight or flight mode is not indicative of intentional poor behavior but rather a response to perceived threats or overwhelming emotions.  

Here are some tips: 

  • First take three deep breaths and feel the sensations of your feet on the floor. Often when our child is in a fight or flight mode, we quickly join them. Regulate yourself first. 
  • Validate and acknowledge the child’s experience in a calm, slow manner, “I can see you are upset that you lost the game.” 
  • Allow some space and time for the child to feel the emotions, have a cuddle, or sit next to them.  
  • Once the child is calmer, parents can talk about the child’s actions, what impact it has on others, set boundaries, and provide suggestions. “I can see you were upset when you didn’t win the game. But I noticed James had a frown on his face and was moving away when your voice was so loud. I worry he might think you don’t like playing games with him. We all get a chance to win and sometimes we lose.  When you win, its nice when others celebrate with you. It would be nice when you celebrate your friends win.” 

Author: Allison Hunt – Occupational Therapist