Putting together my own observations and experiences, and what I know about the nervous system, I’d like to outline my understanding of what is going on when children lash out, how responding playfully can help, and why it can be so challenging for parents.
WHY DO KIDS LASH OUT?
- When kids are lashing out, their nervous system is in the throes of a fight-or-flight response.
- They don’t want to be hitting you, or hurting you, even if it seems very much like they do.
- Although they may look angry, they are likely in the grip of deep fear.
Here’s what can happen …
Through the process of “neuroception”, something about the current situation feels threatening, or re-stimulates a sense of danger that our child has experienced in the past, even if they don’t have a conscious memory of the event.
More often than not, we won’t know what the event was. It might have been a major “traumatic” event in which our child’s survival was threatened, for example, a difficult birth, a stay in NICU, surgery, physical or sexual abuse, being in an accident, or witnessing domestic violence.
Or, it could have been any stressful event that was experienced by our child as a threat to their sense of safety, such as, being startled by a loud noise, separation from a parent, being physically restrained, being hit by another child, being yelled at, or witnessing parents arguing.
In less that one tenth of a second, the amygdala, in the limbic system of the brain, perceives a threat in the current situation, and sets in motion a cascade of hormonal and physiological changes.
It triggers the hypothalamus, which activates the adrenal gland, via the sympathetic nervous system, to release the hormones, adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine).
The impact is immediate; all of a sudden our child’s heartbeat quickens pushing blood to the large muscles and vital organs, they’re breathing faster sending more oxygen to the brain to increase alertness, and they have a surge of energy in their bodies.
If the sense of threat continues, after a few minutes, our child’s body is also flooded with the stress hormone, cortisol, which keeps the sympathetic activation rolling keeping the body revved up and on high alert.
The effect of these hormones is primarily to create a boost of energy, to increase the strength and speed of the body in anticipation of fighting or running away (thus, the fight-or-flight response), in an attempt to increase the likelihood of survival.
To a lesser extent, hormones, such as oestrogen and testosterone also affect the flight-or-fight response (possibly accounting for some differences between boys and girls), as do the neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin.
Deficiencies in a wide range of vitamins and minerals, food allergies or intolerances (e.g. dairy, gluten), and sensitivities to natural (e.g. salicylates, glutamates, sugar) and artificial (e.g. colours, preservatives, sweeteners) food chemicals may also affect the sympathetic nervous system.
There are metabolic (e.g. Pyrrole Disorder), neuro-inflammatory (e.g. PANDAS/PANS), and other neuro-developmental (e.g. ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, especially Pathological Demand Avoidant profile) conditions that influence sympathetic activation. And there are medications (e.g. steroids) that can have an impact too.
Our kids’ reactivity can also vary depending on other factors that impact on the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, including how connected they feel to us, and whether they are hungry, tired, over-stimulated, stressed, or in pain.
Overall, when kids experience this fight-or-flight hormonal storm, they can feel an overwhelming impulse to discharge that energy, by hitting, kicking, head butting, pushing, biting, scratching or pinching.
It can be thought of as their nervous system trying to complete the protective response that that they weren’t able to complete at the time of the original experience of the threat that is being re-stimulated.
Due to fight-or-flight-induced “tunnel vision” (loss of peripheral vision), means that kids can lose touch with their surroundings and be difficult to distract. They are keenly focused on the perceived threat, and might appear to be “on a mission”.
Although it may look like our child is out to do some damage, it helps to remember that the underlying goal of the nervous system is actually to minimise the risk of harm to the individual, to protect them from the perceived threat.
And, as crazy as it may sound, when our child is in a the middle of a fight-or-flight response, it can feel like a life or death situation to them, or at the very least, like an emergency.
The benefit of the fight-or-flight response in a situation where there is real danger is that it allows us (and other animals) to make quick physiological changes … without even having to think about it!
The drawback is that, where there is no actual present danger, our child is likely to have already lashed out before they’ve realised what’s going on, let alone had a chance to think about it!
Kids are still developing self-awareness and impulse control. So, at times, particularly when they are younger, it will be impossible for them to notice their survival instinct impulses, but stop themselves from acting on it.
The slower-moving prefrontal cortex, where thinking takes place, is virtually inactive during the fight-or-flight response. So once kids are in the midst of it, they can’t come up with a better strategy with which to respond.
And they won’t be able to truly process the implications of any threatened “consequences” or “time out”, or engage in any rational discussion or problem solving about what’s going on.
In fact, fight-or-flight-induced hearing loss might impact on their ability to even hear what you are saying to them (they can, however, pick up on our intention communicated via our facial expression, tone of voice and body language).
Yelling at them, or speaking to them in an angry, or possibly even a stern or slightly irritated, tone, is likely to add to their perception of danger, reinforcing the fight-or-flight response, rather than halting it.
What kids in this state are needing to stop the fight-or-flight response in its tracks is someone to be there with them, letting them know that they are SAFE, LOVED and ACCEPTED.
And, in my experience, PLAY can be one of the most powerful ways of sending this message to our child.
WHY RESPOND PLAYFULLY TO AGGRESSION?
You might be asking – “WHY PLAY when my child is being anything but playful?”.
Play can offer a way for kids to discharge the “survival energy” that has been activated in their system, in a safe, non-harmful way, and to experience a sense of their own strength and power in the world (safety).
I’m talking about the kind of fast, fun, physical play that might involve pillows, faux fighting, and power reversal (where you act slower, weaker and clumsier, and let your child feel faster, stronger, and more powerful).
Our being in a silly, playful mode also sends a signal of safety to the “social engagement” part of the child’s nervous system – which unconsciously picks up on information such as facial expression, tone of voice and body language.
If it feels sufficiently warm and safe to our child, their social engagement system will come back “online”, overriding the stress hormones in their body, and preventing the further release of these hormones by increasing the bonding hormone, oxytocin.
In my experience, it won’t be long before they are able to shift to a more playful mode themselves, joining us in operating from the social engagement system. And, soon, our child is likely to be looking more relaxed, smiling, and laughing.
Laughter can be a really powerful part of the equation, because it also reduces the level of stress hormones in the body, as well as increasing the production of endorphins, which are the chemicals in the brain that improve mood and act as natural painkillers.
Please note that I’m not suggesting that play be used to distract or “jolly” our child out of their feelings. Physical play is a way for kids to expend the surge of fight-or-flight energy that they are experiencing in their body, through moving their large muscles.
And, most importantly, our playfulness communicates a sense of safety that our child’s social engagement system can detect, inhibiting the fight-or-flight response, and helps them to laugh naturally, further releasing stress from their system.
We sometimes also find that, after some playful interaction, and this big boost of connection and stress release, our child might find something to cry or tantrum about. And, believe it or not, this is actually a good thing!
If we can welcome our child’s expression, accepting their feelings, and listening with warmth and empathy, we can support them to release some of the deeper, more vulnerable, feelings that might be lurking underneath their aggression.
THE CHALLENGING ROLE FOR PARENTS
This approach of playfulness and gentle listening requires that we, as parents, are able to operate from our social engagement system, which requires that we are able to feel enough of a sense of safety in the situation, ourselves.
Unfortunately, even though our child might not be a real physical threat to us, just the fact that they are lashing out at us is sometimes enough to trigger a fight-or-flight response.
This is completely normal, and not through any fault of our own. Our child’s aggression can re-stimulate emotional memories that we hold of times when we have felt unsafe.
This happens in the same way our child’s nervous system is triggered into a state of fight-or-flight, and really, all of what I’ve described above, in terms of the hormonal and physiological changes, is the same for parents too.
The problem is that we might then find our social engagement system “offline”. We will be unable to exude warmth and playfulness, and might instead respond in a way that is likely to further frighten our child.
Our own impulse control, the ability to feel our fight-or-flight response and not act on it, will vary from day to day, depending on things like how stressed, emotional, tired, well, and generally resourced we are feeling.
While some days, we may find ourselves able to respond with play, other days we might find ourselves yelling, threatening, pushing or even hitting our child back. Believe me, I’ve been there.
If this has happened to you, I want you to know that you are not alone, and it is not your fault. Parenting, especially in stressful circumstances without sufficient support, can be hard core. And, if we have a child who is chronically aggressive, it can be particularly tough on our nervous system.
And as upsetting as it can be when we parent in a way that doesn’t align with our own values, it can help to have compassion for ourselves, to really acknowledge how hard it can be, to appreciate that we are doing the best we can in the circumstances with the resources we have, and to give ourselves some empathy.
When we are in the moment, it can sometimes help to remind ourselves that, “This is not an emergency” (unless it is!), and, if possible, to take one deep breath and concentrate on it for a few seconds, or focus briefly on our feet and the contact they have with the floor.
There are also things that we can do to resources ourselves and release stress from our systems, that will help to put is in an optimal position to respond to our child’s aggression next time that it happens.
One way, is that we can start to clear the hurt and fear from our systems, by finding someone we feel safe to share our feelings with, and arranging some time to talk uninterrupted about everything our child’s aggression triggers in us.
We can ask them to listen to us with warmth and acceptance, offering space for us to release the painful memories and feelings we hold in our bodies through crying, laughing, raging or shaking.
It is thought that the more we offload our hurt and fear in the presence of an empathic listener, the less likely we are to find ourselves hijacked by the emotional part of our brain (limbic system) when our child lashes out at us.
The practice of mindfulness, such as that taught in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, is also something that can help, and has been shown to lead to changes in brain function that are associated with a decrease in activation of fear.
And there are also some amazing body-oriented therapies, such as Somatic Experiencing, that can help us to release the stored survival energy from our nervous systems, and increase our capacity to handle stressful situations.
Overall, it will be our own felt sense of safety in the situation that allows us to respond to our child’s aggression in a warm, playful way, helping to give them a sense of safety that can help to calm them, rather than fuelling their fear .
If you’d like some playful ideas for helping your child when they lash out, you might like to check out my other posts:
Many thanks to Angela Hill of Kinnect / Sound Body Somatics for providing feedback on an earlier draft of this post.