Unpacking Our Kids Fight/Flight Response.
It was May 4th, 2013 and finally Ethan and Arianna were moving into our house. We still had our oldest and second foster child living with us, we’ll call him Benny. We arrived to this day exhausted but excited. We started the journey of getting these kids home in September of 2012. And we were finally here.
We drove up to their previous foster home and loaded up the van with all their cloths, car seats, toys and diapers. Our van was overflowing with stuff in garbage bags. And my heart was overflowing more. After months of paperwork, back and forth visits, the kids were finally coming home with us that day.
Ethan was asking adult-like questions. He was probably anxious and unsure of what was happening. He was only four at the time.
Our foster son who was ten quietly and gently filled him in on the scoop of the Bouchard family. "Ethan, that’s an adult worry and in the Bouchard family, adults worry about the adult stuff and we kids, we just worry about being kids. We just play and have fun. Got it?”
I couldn’t stop myself. The tears flowed down both my cheeks and my heart burst with pride.
Freedom to be kids.
Not having to worry about adult worries.
One of our primal needs in life is to feel and be safe. We don’t often think of as a primal need, because it’s rare for us to not feel safe.
Imagine with me that you are driving along the road. You’ve got your kids in the back of your vehicle, you have music playing and all is right in the world. Suddenly a deer jumps out in front of your vehicle. You slam on the brakes and swerve to avoid the deer. You narrowly manage to avoid an accident.
As you pull back onto the road your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty and your breathing has intensified. You are no longer in immediate danger but it takes a few minutes to steady your breathing and return to a pre-danger state.
That is a normal response to a perceived threat.
Your body saw danger. And it responded. Your “fight” response was to get you and your family to safety by swerving. A danger signal came to your brain and quite possibly without even thinking about it, your body answered back by fighting to keep you safe. Your brain sensed the danger, and everything inside of it, relayed the danger message to your body. And for a few minutes things felt very different. Once you were out of the dangerous situation, your body was eventually able to return to a normal state of being. Your breathing slowed. Your heart rate slowed. And you were able to continue on with your day.
What does this have to do with kids? Especially kids who are not in danger in our homes?
Let’s break it down, shall we.
Remember I’m not a doctor here, so I’m going to do my best to explain how our brains work.
Our bodies perceive danger and they learn to have a fight/flight response to that danger. Our brain sends a message to our amygdala. Our amygdala is responsible for creating emotional memory and it detects emotions including fear.
Think about the situations that our kids come out.
Parents who are sometimes good parents and are there for them and others times are too intoxicated or too high to parent.
Our kids have often experienced very real and very dangerous situations before they came into care. And even if they didn’t, often the experience of being taken away from their parents is traumatic for them. A mom or dad screaming and yelling and a police officer trying to pry them away and then they are dropped off at a complete stranger’s house, often with nothing but the clothing on their backs.
So what do their brains do? They learn they aren’t safe. And their brains push them into a fight or flight response.
This part of the brain is called the amygdala.
What does the amygdala do?
"Lying deep in the center of the limbic emotional brain, this powerful structure, the size
and shape of an almond, is constantly alert to the needs of basic survival, and is
responsible for emotional reactions such as anger and fear. Consequently it inspires
aversive cues, such as sweaty palms, and has recently been associated with a range of
mental conditions including depression to even autism."
It sends a message to their brain that they are in danger and causes them to enter flight/fight mode.
Conversely, our thinking brain is called the frontal lobe.
What does the frontal lobe do?
"It organizes responses to complex problems, plans steps to an objective, searches
memory for relevant experience, adapts strategies to accommodate new data, guides
behavior with verbal skills and houses working memory. Its orbitofrontal circuit manages
emotional impulses in socially appropriate ways for productive behaviors including
empathy, concern for others, and interpretation of facial expressions."
Therefore, when our kids are in fight/flight mode they cannot access their thinking brain. They can’t rationalize what they are doing. And this is not the time to threaten them with a consequence or try to talk to them about their behaviour.
Instead it's the time to love them through. To sit with them. To quiet their fight. To remind them of how loved and how safe they are. Teaching moments can happen later. Right now, they need us to stay calm and to show love.