As parents, there are lots of situations that might trigger us into “Fight or Flight”, ranging from feeling powerless to get our child’s cooperation, to feeling shocked when our child does something that hurts us physically.
But we know that interacting with our kids in that state is not going to be helpful. It will likely trigger our child into an agitated state too, and lead us into a downward spiral of heightened and hurtful exchanges.
When we’ve been triggered into “Flight or Flight”, it’s because our autonomic (automatic) nervous system has detected a threat in our environment through the process of “neuroception”, and we are no longer feeling safe.
The sympathetic nervous system floods our body with adrenaline (epinephrine), causing an increase in blood flow and a surge of energy in our large muscles. From an evolutionary perspective, this was to prepare animals to physically fight or run away from a predator.
So the question is, how can we support ourselves to return to a felt sense of safety in of our nervous system, in which we will feel and appear more relaxed, peaceful, welcoming and loving again?
There are 3 main things we can consider:
❤️ DECREASING OUR “DANGER CUES”
“FLEE” – It can help to “escape” from the “threatening” situation, at least temporarily, or somehow get some space for ourselves. In particular, we might want to move away from whoever we feel triggered by, but without blame. We can offer a simple explanation like “I just need a minute for myself”.
SELF-TALK – Some things that we tell ourselves, for example, that our child did the thing that triggered us “on purpose”, can cue danger in our system, fuelling “Fight or Flight”. Instead, we can remind ourselves that they’re not intentionally trying to upset or hurt us and that they are doing their best.
❤️ INCREASING OUR “SAFETY CUES”
CO-REGULATION – If there is another adult in our environment who is in a “Safe and Social” mode, we can approach them for co-regulation, perhaps having a hug, and asking them to listen and support us through this.
SELF-EMPATHY – If there is no other adult available, we can offer ourselves a similar kind of regulating experience. We can give ourselves empathy (e.g. “You’re angry! I hear you! I’m here with you.”). Yes, I’m suggesting that we talk to ourselves! But it doesn’t need to be out loud.
SELF-TOUCH – We can also offer ourselves gentle, soothing touch, like hugging ourselves around our shoulders, or whatever feels good. And we can try to tune into the pleasant sensations that creates in our body.
GROUNDING – Even simply bringing our attention to the “here and now”, for example, by focussing on the sensation of our body sinking into the support of the floor or seat, can help to bring about a sense of safety in our nervous system.
❤️ SHIFTING OUR SYMPATHETIC ACTIVATION
MOVEMENT – Doing something with our muscles to expend the “Fight or Flight” energy from our body can be really helpful. One simple way is to mindfully push with our hands against a wall. Alternatively, we can tune into our body, and sense how it would most like to use the muscles to move the energy.
CRYING – Crying is another way to release activation from our body. So if we feel enough emotional safety, either in the presence of another person or on our own, we can welcome any tears that arise, and allow ourselves to cry until we feel complete.
Doing these things can help our nervous system return to “Safe and Social” mode, in which we feel calm and connected, firstly with ourselves, and potentially also with others.
We will then be in a better position to return to our child and interact in a more effective and enjoyable manner, offering them co-regulation, if it is needed.
These days, we are often parenting in isolation, with responsibility for multiple kids simultaneously, which doesn’t make it easy to get space to regulate ourselves.
But I’d encourage you to consider the ways that you might be able to achieve these three things, even if it means shutting yourself in the bathroom for a few minutes!
We want to endeavour to do this in a way that isn’t scary or hurtful for our child, and that shows we are taking responsibility for our own reactions and our own regulation.
But, if things go a bit pear-shaped, we can repair with our child later, letting them know that we’re sorry we scared or blamed them, it wasn’t their fault, and we are looking after ourselves.
I wonder if it might help to come up with a simple plan of what you might be able to do and say next time you get triggered, so that when you need to do it, you will be somewhat prepared?
You might even want to practice it while you are in a less activated state, maybe just a bit irritated or annoyed, so that you can get the hang of supporting yourself in this way under less challenging conditions.
I’d love to hear how it goes!
And if you’d like to read an example of how these things can be put into practice, check out this post: Frustration is an early warning sign … take heed!