When I think of parenting, one of the first things I think of is survival. Trying to survive each day. Trying to keep your sanity. Trying to keep this mini human alive. So it makes sense that one of our core survival instincts, the ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze’ (or Acute Stress Response) would play an important role in parenting, not only in how it helps us, but also in how it can hinder us. While there is plenty of information explaining the ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze’ response on the internet, the below explanation looks at applying this concept to some common parenting experiences (using some of my own experiences as examples). So lets take a look at some Fight, Flight, Freeze examples in parenting.
Quick Explanation of Fight, Flight, Freeze
Ok so the easiest way I explain this concept to people is this:
- Let’s say you are out hunting for food, hoping to come across a deer or a rabbit, but then you find yourself face to face with a bear.
- In that moment, you have to figure out what you are going to do. In most cases, we either prepare to fight it, prepare to run away, or play dead and hope for the best.
- It’s unlikely you are going to begin to consider it’s feelings, or question it’s intent, or think to yourself ‘well Baloo in Jungle Book was a nice bear, maybe this guy is too.’
In this scenario, we are focused on survival. This may just seem like a logical response to a dangerous situation, but the body’s ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze’ response actually has a lot to do with how we prepare for a situation like this. So what happens?
- The brain interprets a potential danger and identifies the need to protect ourselves.
- It releases a bunch of hormones, including adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) into the body.
- This causes our heart rate to increase and our breathing to increase.
- The increased breathing allows for more oxygen to enter our bloodstream, and our increased heart rate allows for more blood to be pumped into the body to feed our muscles. Our alertness also increases.
- Our circulation changes also. More blood gets fed to our big muscles (think legs, chest, arms), while less blood gets fed to our other organs, our skin, and to the parts of our brain required for higher functioning.
- This causes our digestive system to reduce it’s function, our reproductive system to reduce it’s function and can make it difficult to make ‘logical’ or ‘rational’ decisions in this moment.
When the body enters this ‘mode’ it is allowing you to respond quickly to the danger. The increased blood flow and oxygen to your muscles allows you to fight the danger, or to run away (flight) the danger. In the case of freeze, the restriction of the digestive system sometimes causes people to vomit or defecate/urinate themselves, which is helpful if you want to ‘play dead’, but if this strategy doesn’t work then you have all the blood in the right areas to resort back to fighting or running.
So that’s great, perfect if you are out encountering dangerous wildlife. How does this relate to parenting? Well…
Most of us will already have some level of protective instinct, even without having a child, but when you become a parent this instinct now really kicks into gear. You see, that protective instinct essentially tells us to override our own need for survival, to increase the chances of survival for somebody else. So when a child comes along and is in danger, particularly when it’s our own child, we are more inclined to put ourselves in danger to protect the child.
Now I am scared of spiders. Doesn’t matter the size, I fear them. In all honesty, my wife would take care of any small to medium spiders for me. Sure I took care of the bigger ones, but this required a lot of preparation and was done from a distance! But now that my daughter is here, I’m squishing spiders with my bare hands! That’s right, MY BARE HANDS! There have been 2 spiders that I found crawling near her head, and my first instinct was to squish them, I didn’t even think about it.
I also have a fear of bee’s. When a bee flies by I would normally do this weird dance, darting my head left and right and out of the way, as if I was in some sort of a boxing match. Now when a bee comes by near me or my daughter, I am cautious, but much calmer, and will just observe the bee and let it go do it’s thing. (When my daughter isn’t with me however, I’m back in the ring practicing my dodges).
In each of these circumstances, if I let my fear take over and focus on protecting myself only, I’d be putting my child in ‘danger’, so the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response kicks in, but tells me to protect my daughter rather than myself and helps me basically become superman!
Protective Instinct In Overdrive
Like they say, too much of a good thing is bad for you. And the same goes for this protective instinct. Think about when a baby starts moving and we begin baby proofing everything. Protective instinct says ‘cover the corners, remove heavy or breakable items from arms reach, and monitor baby’. Protective instinct in overdrive says ‘clear the room, pad the floors and walls, and hire a 24 hour surveillance team’.
When my daughter first started crawling and pulling herself up on things, I was initially filled with amazement, wonder and excitement. Quickly, I began looking for the dangers, anticipating how to prevent danger to my child. My wife did this also, but because she was at home with our daughter each day and I was at work, she went through this phase pretty quickly. I remember getting home and seeing my daughter falling over a few times and I would rush over to her, only to see her turn around, smile and start clapping. It turns out my wife had been keeping her cool and teaching my daughter to clap and laugh when she fell, while I was still getting freaked out. My protective instinct was telling me that falling was dangerous, whereas my wife had overridden her protective instinct to say that falling for babies is a part of learning.
Bringing Our Instincts Back Under Control
So how did my wife control her ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response, while I was still letting mine run rampant? Well there are a few strategies that she used:
- Firstly, she did some research. It helped that she knew what was safe and unsafe for children, and that she got perspectives from other parents too. This information is important to challenge our worries and fears.
- She told herself that our daughter would be ok with a fall here or there, and that monitoring her would be enough to prevent any ‘big’ incidents. This is important as our brain tells us it’s not ok, so we need to tell ourselves it is ok.
- She trusted our daughter. I mean this seems weird as our daughter was only 7 months old or so, but our daughter would always fall on her bum. If she was off center, she would put her arms out to stop herself from tumbling over. So she trusted that 90% of the time our daughter could handle herself.
- If a ‘big’ incident happened (e.g. she bumped her head), then she reminded herself that it’s a rare instance, and that actually our daughter would be fine after a cuddle.
- Finally, exposure and repetition of the above strategies. Since my wife was at home daily with our daughter, she was using these strategies unknowingly on a very regular basis. Whereas I was only using them after work, before work or on weekends. If we only learnt these strategies but never exposed ourselves to the situation to practice these skills, then we would still be freaked out!
So How Does This Help Me Again?
Having a basic understanding of the ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze’ response is useful to help us understand when it is helping us raise our children. It helps us to identify danger, spring into action and protect our kids. But it is also useful to know because it can sometimes misinterpret the world around us, and cause us to think things are dangerous when they either aren’t dangerous, or aren’t as dangerous as we think. And in this case, by being aware of what is happening, it allows us to make a change to our behaviour.
And if you read the above ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze’ examples and think ‘this has happened to me a few times’, I encourage you to read up more on the ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze’ response. If it’s something you want some personalised help on, then I encourage you to chat to a Psychologist, who can explore your circumstances more specifically with you. But otherwise, like I do, just look back and laugh on times where you let your instincts take control, and feel free to share your stories in the comments!
As always, information and advice in this article is of a general nature, and doesn’t consider your personal circumstances. Please seek out professional advice if you require support specific to your needs.