About four weeks into lockdown our daughter’s behaviour started to change. Our usually sweet little girl became angry and unreasonable. We saw behaviours we hadn’t seen since she was a toddler and we didn’t see them often then. This is probably something you are all experiencing right now whether your child is, 4, 14 or even 24 (maybe even your 40-year-old spouse?).
There are so many worries, emotions and fears to process right now for us all, and this is much more difficult for younger brains. Young children will not yet be able to understand what they are feeling or fully grasp what is happening around them.
Also, did you know that in adolescence some parts of your brain actually shut down so that they can develop in preparation for adulthood? These are not the exact statistics, but in essence what this means is that teenagers have twice as many emotions and half the brain capacity to deal with them. Sound familiar?
In my previous Blog, ‘Conversations with my 4-year-old’, I spoke about using empathy when your young people are struggling. I spoke about acknowledging their feelings and being able to stand alongside them while they feel them. This is all still true, but at this point things might be getting a bit tougher.
That’s why I want to teach you a little bit about fight or flight and why there are certain times when young people (or you!) can’t be reasoned with or talked down from extreme emotions or behaviours. (I.e. TANTRUMS)
There are three main parts of a human brain, I’m going to call them lizard brain, mammal brain and human brain.
Your lizard brain is where your survival instinct lives and it’s the part of the brain that tells you to run away if you see a tiger!
Your mammal brain has things like playfulness, love and curiosity and also grief, fear and loss. We share these things with cows for example. (So cows can play!)
Your human brain, amongst millions of other things, contains your ability to be reasonable and do things like reflect or negotiate!
When your brain thinks it is in danger the lizard part springs into action, releasing all sorts of chemicals into your body to get it ready to either fight or run away.
Are you still with me?
In order to do this, the brain re-wires itself to bypass the human part. We call it “Flipping your lid”.
This is what happens when young people (or old people) have a meltdown! So, what this means is that when someone is in fight or flight mode, scientifically, neurologically, physically, they cannot be reasoned with. No chance! Nope! Nada! Again, does this sound familiar? (insert crying emoji)
The good news is that the mammal part of the brain stays wired in so you can use love, playfulness and curiosity to help someone calm down. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you when someone is in fight or flight; these apply to anyone of any age:
Another response that goes along with fight or flight is freeze. This is harder to spot as young people might not be doing things that are right in your face like the others. But it’s worth keeping an eye out and if your young person is unusually still or quiet, they might be experiencing these emotions.
The best thing for someone who is highly stressed is empathy and connection. This can come from a human or an animal so pets can also be great for helping young people stay calm. Once they are calmer you can talk about what behaviours may not have been safe or appropriate but remember to pick your battles and give them extra space to feel extreme emotions right now, because I expect you are feeling those emotions yourself! I am!
Here’s a video made by the Young People Cornwall CAMHS board about fight or flight, great to show your young people.
And another from Pooky Knightsmith about the importance of being ‘Curious not Furious’
– Blog written by Terrie