Family, Kids & Relationships

Learn how the fight or flight stress response impacts your parenting

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Did you know that stress can trigger a freeze, fight or flight stress response, and get in the way of your hard-earned parenting skills? That’s why all parents — all humans! — have moments where they lose their cool under stress.

It’s helpful to understand the physiological responses your body can undergo when you’re under stress, so that you can learn to respond in ways that are more in line with your values and the type of parent you’d like to be for your kids.

Therapist and author Deb Dana, LCSW, applied the polyvagal theory to explain the three main nervous system states — a safe “home” state, a “fight” or “flight” stress response, and a “freeze” stress response. When we’re in our safe mode, we tend to be able to communicate and connect with others. However, if we are triggered by stress, we can easily go into a fight, flight, or freeze state.

Unfortunately, kids will sense your dysregulated state and are likely to mirror it — in other words, it will just add more chaos to an already chaotic moment in your family. So how can we learn to be more aware of our brains’ and bodies’ stress responses so that we can learn to calm them down and act more intentionally?

Read on to see which mode(s) you tend to go into most often when feeling stressed or overwhelmed as a parent. Then, choose two or three of the calming strategies that fit your personality the best, and practice them. Mix and match the calming tools to find what works best for you and your stress level.

Fight response

What it looks, sounds, and feels like:

  • Yelling at your kids or partner
  • Saying things you’ll regret later
  • Being defensive or saying “because I said so”
  • Clenching your teeth or other angry body language
  • The urge to slam, throw, or hit things

Calming tools for parents:

  • Punch a pillow or take a walk
  • Put on music or think about a song that matches your mood
  • Do active chores like laundry or yard work
  • Take 5 deep breaths while feeling your belly fill on the inhale and deplete on the exhale

Flight response

What it looks, sounds, and feels like:

  • Hiding in the bathroom or heading out to the car
  • Pacing around the house, fidgeting
  • Feeling trapped
  • Saying “I can’t do this anymore”

Calming tools for parents:

  • Say positive affirmations such as “I have the tools to handle this” or “This feeling will pass”
  • Tell your kids you’re taking a 30-second timeout and put on a timer
  • Think about how a parent friend you admire would handle the situation, and make a note to text them later
  • Organize/clean something while voicing your feelings

Freeze response

What it looks, sounds, and feels like:

  • Silence or saying “I don’t know” to everything
  • Being too overwhelmed to say, do, or decide anything
  • Feeling numb or zoning out instead of engaging with kids
  • A sense of dread
  • Wanting to give up

Calming tools for parents:

  • Notice three positive things about your child
  • Narrate out loud what’s happening around you — just the facts, no judgment
  • Shake, stretch, or swing your limbs
  • Give/receive a nice, long hug

These unwanted stress responses can happen more frequently if you’re burned out or sleep deprived, suffer from anxiety, or have unhealed trauma. You deserve to get some help — you don’t have to feel like you’re in fight, flight, or freeze mode so much of the time.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.