Stop Blaming Kids!

And Start Understanding When a Child’s Stress Response Goes Awry

Stress is an internal reaction to either an external or an internal event, creating a systematic reaction geared towards the restoration of homeostasis, the body’s balance. We do have biological mechanisms to help us negotiate through stress and challenges.

Our stress response system is a physiological coping response. It involves the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the autonomous nervous system, the neurotransmitter system, and the immune system. During an acute stress response, the autonomic nervous system is activated and the body experiences increased levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones that produce an increased heart rate, quickened breathing rate, and higher blood pressure. Blood is shunted from the extremities to the big muscles, preparing the body to fight or run away. This is also known as the fight-or-flight response.

The key to overcoming acute stress is the ability to work through the threat effectively so the body and mind can return to a balanced state.

The Stages of the Stress (or Threat) Response System

  • Arrested Response: stops you from what you are doing to alert to novelty or possible danger. Something’s different...I instinctively stop to check.
  • Startled Response: involves a surprise expression in the eyes and face and a shivery jolt to attentiveness throughout the body closely related to the arrest response in time sequence.
  • Scanning: the threat or novelty usually through scanning visually by extending the neck, turning the head toward sounds or pivoting the body looking for movement or identifiable threat. “Where is it?” “What is my past experience with the threat"
  • Evaluating: determining if the threat is dangerous. “What is it?” If harmless, a return to activity and relaxation or If deemed dangerous, self-protective responses are triggered including Freeze, Fight and Flight. The question here is, “How does the body try to defend?”
  • Completion of Self-Protective Responses: coping with the threat and/ or negotiation of the Fight, Flight and/or Freeze response effectively.
  • Discharge of Energy: mobilization to meet threat through completion of the fight or flight or coping process.
  • Relaxation Response Returns: the body regains a balance. The parasympathetic nervous system can now effectively slows the heart rate, decrease muscle tension, balance blood flow and allow digestion and a balanced state.
  • Possible Sense of Mastery: the exhilaration of success in defeating threat referred to as “Pronking” in animal studies, the thrill of successful escape, a return of confidence and empowerment.
  • This is how the stress or threat response system can work effectively. However, if any one of these natural biological sequences is thwarted before the relaxation response is attained; a person may remain locked into the threat response in a way that remains uncomfortable such as an adolescent being bullied at school or a young child being neglected at home. If the organism is unable to eventually discharge the energy and return to a relaxation response, we remain in a highly charged state referred to as “tuning.”

    In contrast with acute stress, chronic and unresolved stress destroys. Chronic stress becomes a state of ongoing physiological arousal. This occurs when the body experiences so many stressors that the autonomic nervous system rarely has a chance to activate the relaxation response. (We are built to handle acute stress, not chronic stress.) In this case, our fight-or-flight response which was designed to help us fight a only a few life-threatening situations spaced out over a long period (like being attacked by wild animal every so often), can wear down our bodies and cause us to become ill, either physically or emotionally.

    Traumatic stress can also occur with one terrifying and life threatening stressor such as a natural disaster, personal assault or sudden loss of a love one. This is more known as “shock trauma” or “type one” trauma.

    It is critical that we understand the role of stress and how it has been stored in a child’s body creating a cascade of disturbing images, sensations, thoughts and emotions. Since trauma is often experienced in the body as a physiological arousal, adults who work with children need to understand that these body sensations and emotions are overwhelming for children and are generally out of their conscious control. Instead of judging a child’s acting out behavior, I want you listen to the behavior for evidence of deep fear, stress and pain.

    Typical body reactions with children that have had overwhelming and traumatic stress include shock and shutdown (the total numbing that comes from extreme stress) and hyper-arousal or aggressive tendencies. Many times this behavior gets misread by adults who mistakenly consider it willful misconduct. Once you begin to understand this, you can put more effort into calming the child’s stress and provide them with the restorative practices they so desperately need.