The Sensory Processing and Fight or Flight Connection

In reading articles like this and this, you may have begun to explore the possibility that your child has sensory processing issues. As you are trying to figure out what makes your child tick and how to best help him or her, it is important to understand the sensory processing and fight or flight connection.

New knowledge helps you gain new understanding. With new understanding, you discover  tools to parent your child well through their specific needs. I never want to use labels or diagnoses as an excuse for behavior, but rather I want to help equip parents about how to handle the real struggles their children face.

Sensory Processing and the Fight or Flight Connection

What is a Fight or Flight Response?

According to Wikipedia, a fight or flight response “is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event,  attack, or threat to survival.” The purpose of fight or flight is to reroute blood from the brain to the muscles with the purpose of being able to respond physically to a stressful situation. People in fight or flight mode have been known to have super-human like strength.

However, as you notice, the blood is being diverted from the brain, so the brain is no longer functioning at full capacity,  but rather it is in simply in protective mode. Logic, reasoning and problem solving  are out the door.

The Sensory Processing and Fight or Flight Connection

How does sensory processing relate to everything you just read about fight or flight? According to Angie Voss in “Your Essential Guide to Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder,” kids with SPD have a greater tendency to switch from the ready state – an ideal place for learning, social interaction and alertness to the state of fight or flight.

As you can imagine, if a child has switched from a state of brain attentiveness to a state where the body is having any number of involuntary physical reactions that often result in anxiety or aggression, your child will experience behavioral challenges that are hard to navigate – for both the parent and the child. To understand what is happening physically in the body in fight or flight mode, please visit this Wikipedia article.

What Does this Look Like in a Sensory Kid?

Kids may have any number of reactions to fight or flight mode. The developing brain, especially, has a hard time responding to their environment, as they can often view it as dangerous or painful based on their experience. Further, they have not been given the skills to respond to the experiences in their body. Here are some behaviors you might see from your child:

  • Screaming
  • Kicking, Biting, Hitting
  • Isolation
  • Covering Ears, Closing Eyes, Tucking in Arms and Legs
  • Crying
  • Emotional Changes – Rage, Frustration, Panic
  • Throwing Things
  • Growling
  • Changes in Facial Expressions and Body Language

How Do I Respond When my Child is in Fight or Flight Mode

These behavioral responses are challenging for a parent to negotiate. Often times, we believe the child just needs more discipline and consequences for the behavior to change. What we need to recognize is that handling this kind of behavior “in the moment” is not helpful.

As discussed, blood is not flowing to the brain like normal, so their reasoning skills are no longer functioning. You don’t want to use this as an excuse and let them get  away with the behavior. Rather, you will need to adapt how you discipline and teach so as to meet your child with his or her specific needs. We are still going to address behavior and teach kids to obey (see why here), but it may be different than how you were raised or how you might handle your other children.

One of the biggest goals is to get them out of the fight or flight response so that you can parent effectively. Here are some tools to help you do that:

  • Give the child some time to get control over their emotions so they can calm and return to deal with the problem in a rational way. Here’s the technique I use with my children. That article tells you what to do in the moment but also gives tools for talking with a child after their body is back in a state or brain readiness. Giving my child alone time without stimulus has been the #1 way for my sensory child to return to re-regulate and return to the alert and awake stage, ready to interact in a productive way.
  • Some children might need the deep pressure found in a tight hug, corner of a couch, in a sensory swing or wrapped in a heavy blanket. Avoid rubbing or rocking them.
  • Have them equipped with ways to calm down.
  • Have sensory aids in place that you know help your child.
  • Encourage deep breathing.
  • Do not discipline, rationalize or bargain with your child in this state. Don’t worry. I’m not suggesting there aren’t conversations or consequences, but that comes later.
  • Stay calm. Don’t engage in a battle but use a calm but firm voice.
  • Recognize that pro-active strategies are needed. The post, “Why is my child so angry?” gives a great resource for helping children identify their lagging skills and teaching them to problem solve through these moments. We want to equip or kids with the skills needed to handle body regulation better.

After regulating, now is time to parent. This will look different at different ages. The post I referenced in the last bullet point will help. Teaching kids to learn to problem solve as they face these challenges is important. Give  consequences that make sense in a calm way. Showing empathy is vital. I like to say, “I know this is hard. We all have struggles. I have a hard time when things don’t go my way too, but we can’t let the fact that it’s hard let us continue to do the wrong thing. We’ll get this!”

Understanding that your child was created uniquely and has specific needs helps you adapt what you are doing as a parent so you can raise them to be functioning and productive members of your family and this world.

I know that you feel discouraged. I know your own frustration and anger might be surfacing with your child. I understand you might be longing for “normalcy.” There is hope. It’s not going to be easy, but as you begin to equip your child to respond to stimuli or more quickly regulate their body, you will experience successes. From experience, we have fewer incidents and a quicker grasp on self control as our child ages and as we have adapted out parenting to better equip our  child to handle the flood of emotions that can overtake their behavior. Have hope and parent on!