Understanding the Wisdom of your Child’s Stress Response

It's truly incredible how kids have an innate and uncensored way of resolving their upset feelings! Understanding your child's dominant stress response allows you to see beneath the behaviour and respond with more awareness and empathy.

Kids don’t say, ‘I have had a bad day,’ they say, ‘Will you play with me?’

This quote is great AND kids are just as likely to act out, be rude or defiant, or unable to cope with the most minor things than they are to ask nicely for a board game. 

It’s truly incredible the way kids have an innate, uncensored way of always trying to find ways to resolve their upset feelings.

And yes, it’s tough when it’s an ‘irrational’ meltdown about something that can’t be fixed, but HOW our children express their stress tells us so much about them.

And once you understand your child’s dominant stress response, you have the opportunity to see beneath the behaviour and respond more empathetically. 

Awareness is the first step to creating change so we side step power struggles and you can be the bigger nervous system in the room.

In fact, kids need to BORROW the maturity of our nervous system to process things in a way that resolves things.

So, let’s dive into the 4 dominant stress responses!

The ‘Golden’ Child 

Dominant nervous system response: Fawn

Children who people please are almost always overlooked!⁠ They are not the kids who get us tearing our hair out, trawling for solutions to their behaviour on Instagram memes.⁠

It’s not something parents generally come to Play Therapists for help with because why would you want to change the child who quickly apologises when they’re asked to stop something?⁠

⁠How can I tell if my child is actually in a fawn response?⁠

Tune in deeper and get curious about whether your child is genuinely free to say no.⁠

Are they free to express disappointment, anger or upset AS WELL?⁠ Can they advocate for themselves? Can they make sure they also have their needs and wishes met in a game with maybe louder or more ‘fight’ orientated peers?⁠

You might notice tendencies towards perfectionism, wanting to get it right, or down playing themselves.

The fawn response is the most recent stress response to be recognised in interpersonal neurobiology. If that doesn’t speak volumes about ‘if it’s not a problem, don’t fix it,’ I don’t know what does.⁠

Also, so many of us parents are only just discovering boundaries and unpacking people pleasing tendencies ourselves. It’s no wonder we haven’t spotted it in our kids! After all, we can only hold space for what we have integrated in ourselves so, go gently in this area!⁠

The ‘Anxious’ Child

Dominant nervous system response: Flight

It’s common to think we will “pass down” the same coping mechanisms we have to our kids. But sometimes, our kid’s stress responses are an attempt to balance out and bring us back into regulation, and at a nervous system level are quite different. 

As a kid, I was COMPLETELY attuned to my dad’s freeze response. 

He’s shy and has his own traumas and grief, so when we’d leave the house, he’d “mask up” and put on a brave social face when we went out. But in doing so, his authentic self would disappear under the “freeze” and “fawn” response that was his pattern.

I was labelled bossy, strong willed, loud and demanding as a kid. Whilst some of that oomph is definitely my character (it’s Eleanor here), I had an insight that my “intensity” was in direct proportion to my dad’s “freeze.”

He wasn’t available to connect with me, which was really scary! I would go into FLIGHT. I’d feel tense, scan the environment for threats, get fidgety. 

Other signs of a flight response are hyperactive, restless, or avoiding an issue and hiding away.

My loudness, intensity and bigness were an attempt to bring him back into connection with me. This usually to happen when we left the house because when we were at home, my dad was completely relaxed.

But when he was in certain social situations, his freeze response would get triggered, he would go into the Dorsal Vagal state, and I would act out. 

As a little one, it was simply my attempt to bring my dad back into connection with me. I was expressing what was being suppressed. This was my instinctual attempt at bringing my environment back into a regulated space.

Our Anxious Child’s stress response is all to bring us back into CONNECTION. Again, there is wisdom behind our children’s reactions once we can see beneath the behaviour!

The ‘Dreamy’ Child

Dominant nervous system response: Freeze

Our ‘Dreamy’ kids are the ones who shut down, don’t answer when we ask them something, whine, or say ‘I don’t know’ a lot. It’s like they are somewhere else, daydreaming when they feel stressed. 

I used to LOSE it when my kids ‘weren’t listening’. I found it SO frustrating! 

I’d ask them to get their shoes, and they’d wander off, and then by the time it was time to go, they’d be playing Lego, no shoes in sight, in their own world! 

It was beyond frustrating if I was on a deadline and had three other young ones to wrangle! I’d think “why can’t you just listen! 

Without awareness, it is easy to feel like our kids are intentionally trying to slow us down, but more often than not, kids are doing their best with what they’ve got. 

The ‘Explosive’ Child

Dominant nervous system response: Fight

My EXPLOSIVE child once threw sand in the face of one of the other parents in playgroup! 

He was two or three, and I watched him hogging the swing while I breastfed the baby.

Cringing while he ignored the impatiently waiting kids, I moved as quickly as possible with the babe because I could sense the situation building!

Unfortunately, another mum swooped in and, with a lot of tension, came right in close to him and said with authority, “No, it’s not just yours. You need to share.”

To which my son promptly matched her energy, looked her square in the eye as he reached down to pick up some sand, and said, “No!” and then threw the sand directly at her face!

Honestly. The humbling situations I’ve navigated with this kid.

If I didn’t already have older, empathic, sensitive, mostly compliant kids, I reckon I would have fallen into a pit of despair with this guy! I remember feeling super judged and so apologetic toward the other mum, who was deeply offended.

I had NO idea why he was “so hard!” Nothing seemed to “work” with him!

Cue over a decade of personal work, research, study and a whole lot of growing and learning as a family!

My son is wired towards the FIGHT response when he feels unsafe. So he literally EXPLODES. He fights back!

It was such a perspective shift for me when I learned that this response meant he felt capable of making himself SAFE when he was stressed. He could take on the threatening or strange situations all by himself.

What is your main challenge in having an explosive child or a child with any other stress response? Do you have more clarity around your child’s stress response?

Despite the challenges we face as parents when dealing with stress responses, did you know that you can set things up in your family for it to be MUCH EASIER than this?

Have you noticed that children process their experiences through play?

They will act out scenes from the day, or they will role play aspects of their life that they are trying to understand or work through.

And, when kids can do this in our presence, THEN they can heal. Play is a way for them to regulate. Play is INCREDIBLE!!

As a play therapist, it never ceases to amaze me how children know exactly what to do to release and resolve what is burdening their system.

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