More and more people these days are aware of trauma and would have heard of the fight, flight and freeze response when trauma or sensory overwhelm is triggered but what does it actually mean and how does it show up in children? It is the brain and body’s natural response to perceived danger whether true or not.
Fight and Flight
One of the first areas of the brain to develop during pregnancy is the brain stem or the ‘primitive brain’. In our time as cavemen, this part of the brain would have been highly developed as it helped keep us alert to danger which it still does. If we sense we need to run or fight back, we are ready and when the danger passes, we can revert back to our sense of safety and calm as the logical brain kicks in.
For children who may have experienced trauma especially during the brain development years, this part o the brain is more easily triggered and takes over their entire body and they will run away unexpectedly or hit out without reason.
On the other end of the scale, we can see children who just stop talking or in some cases even moving. There is a further response where a child may even collapse – in the animal kingdom, this may be like feigning death in order to keep safe from danger. In this scenario the brain has disassociated from all bodily responses. This can be extremely worrying to witness, even more so than the running and fighting.
Window of Tolerance
I heard about this concept from a training I did at Beacon House which is a great resource for helping those who have experienced trauma.(www.beaconhouse.org). They explained that everyone has their window of tolerance, what situations a person can just about manage and not react adversely to. For children with sensory processing issues and or traumatic experiences, their window of tolerance is quite small.
If triggered to fight or flight, they are what is called hyper-aroused and this looks like ‘bad behaviour’ – disruptive, disrespectful, aggressive, unreasonable etc. These are all the things I’ve heard schools describe some pupils. What they actually need is someone to hep them regulate their state before they can be reasoned with. This can be done, using brain stem calming activities – such as breathing techniques, rhythmic tapping, an adult using a prosodic tone of voice, and music to name a few.
If in freeze or collapse, the child is now in a hypo-aroused state. Sometimes this state may go unnoticed in the classroom as they just seem like they are not participating and we may think to leave them be as ‘it’s better than them playing up’ – right? This is where we really do need to take note, for those children are disassociating from self and are at risk of more severe mental health issues if not helped to regulate.
Hypo-aroused children need activities that will bring them back into their bodies such as dancing, climbing, a game with a bit of competition in it to bring their heart rate up and their brains back on line.
Relationship is Key
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this probably several times before in various posts, and I will continue to bang on about it, but for all humans, relationship is key. We can help regulate each other by being kind, understanding and empathetic to another’s lived in experiences that may be affecting how they are coping in this moment.
For children who are one of our most vulnerable parts of society, they need to be able to connect with a trusted adult who they feel safe with and can help them regulate every time they are unable to do it for themselves and it is so simple to do. This will go a long way to helping them heal and become the fully realised adults they are meant to be.