When our children activate our Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn response (and what to do about it)
There are people out there who have never experienced trauma and walk around without having to navigate feeling like a tiger is about to attack them all day long. This blog post is NOT for those people. This post is for those of us to feel like stress and panic are constantly nipping at our heels, that disaster is just around the corner and that was before having kids. Having kids added gasoline to the anxiety fire that was already burning quite brightly before they arrived. Now we are responsible for other humans and their well-being and we are still fighting our own demons.
Many of us realize how much being a parent pushes our anxiety beyond what we knew was possible in the prenatal period. All of the sudden, we have to make huge healthcare decisions that could affect our babies and every decision we make is scrutinized by ourselves, our family, and society. Prenatal anxiety desperately wishes there were certainties during pregnancy and ways to ensure with 100% certainty that our babies are developing well and that birth goes well. Fast forward to the postpartum period and beyond and we quickly realize that our anxiety has new fuel as our children become mobile and put rocks in their mouths or want to toddle near cliffs.
We have to make monumental decisions about our children and hope for the best. It can be hard to bear. Those of us who have experienced trauma, are highly sensitive and/or experience intense anxiety, the task of parenting can feel almost violent to our equilibrium. The screaming, yelling, pressure, sleep deprivation, and lack of support can wear on us. Many of us feel caught off guard when we notice that our child can activate our fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. Those of us who have experienced abuse may feel triggered by the touchy-ness of kids and their Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn response can get activated and it can be confusing for both the parent and the child. For highly sensitive parents, loud sounds or the rambunctiousness of children can cause us to shut down (freeze) or want to flee.
Here is a breakdown of how our children can activate each of these responses:
Fight: We become overwhelmed and activated by loud sounds, touch, language, disorder, etc and we react with yelling, scolding, punishment, or pseudo-punishment (e.g. taking something away, threats, etc). An example of this response would be our child breaking a plate and we react in anger due to feeling threatened by their action in some way. We feel a strong need to show our child we are angry and use threats, a loud voice, and punishment to stand up to our child to reduce the perceived "threat."
Flight: We become overwhelmed and activated by actions that either overwhelm us or remind us of previous trauma or provoke anxiety or panic response and we leave the situation. We do not communicate, we just either leave or feel a very strong wish to leave the situation. An example of this would be when our baby is crying and we feel overwhelmed and stressed by the sound of the crying. We feel a very strong need to leave the room and escape the sound.
Freeze: We become overwhelmed with fear or another emotion and become stuck. This response happens a lot for people with a history of trauma. We are unable to communicate/express our needs if we are frozen. An example of this would be our child keeps taking our phone without asking permission and this activates a freeze response in us because we have previous unresolved trauma. We allow them to take the phone without setting a limit that would meet our own needs. Setting a limit would potentially cause an anger response in the child which the trauma response may be protecting us from although it may have been a protective response during the trauma in the past, it is not a helpful response when interacting with our child in this situation.
Fawn: We become overwhelmed by a response in our child and our immediate reaction is to give in to their demands instead of communicating/expressing our needs. An example of this: Our child is having a meltdown in the parking lot. This is extremely overwhelming to us, our anxiety is through the roof as we think about how hot it is in the parking lot, and the danger of cars and we immediately give in to our child's demands even if they are unreasonable instead of communicating with them and reaching a mutually agreed-upon solution.
For those of us who find ourselves acting out these Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn responses on a regular basis, what can we do about it?
The first step to changing our responses to our children is to begin to notice them. Without awareness of how we react and what activates our responses, we will have difficulty changing them.
Under each response, write down what types of situations cause those responses for you. What is happening, who is there, what are you thinking (e.g. child breaking a plate activates fears about conserving money), what are you reminded of (e.g. crying baby activates fears of the baby being sick or being a bad parent)? Write all of that information down.
Now, write down those responses again and write down some mantras (e.g. "I am ok, my baby is ok, babies crying is normal", coping skills (drinking tea in the garden, yoga, going for a walk, calling a friend, etc), and alternative responses (e.g. instead of yelling, you can practice a new response such as "I see that you want ice cream, let's walk out of the parking lot and speak about this in the shade. I don't feel comfortable talking about this in the parking lot because there are cars driving here") you could make that could shift you out of Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn and into a more balanced emotional state.
Share what you've written with your therapist, a close friend or partner and see if they have any ideas to support your growth from Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn to a more emotionally balanced state when interacting with your child. Ask for help, and see if your community can help step in when you are feeling overwhelmed. We were not meant to shoulder the full responsibility of childrearing completely on our own. Those of us who experience anxiety, are highly sensitive or have experienced trauma (or all of the above!) need even MORE support from others. Be gentle with yourself, we cannot change these patterns overnight. Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn are there to protect us and at some points, they did. We can bow to them and be thankful for their help in the past while we work toward a future when they are no longer so prominent in our lives.