You might know that I have a long list of illnesses. Several years ago, I was stuck in a cycle of frequent hospitalizations. After one such hospitalization, I was discharged in time to attend my son’s championship baseball game.
I love watching my kids play sports! I’ve been fortunate enough to watch countless sporting events for all of my 7 children throughout the years. However, I vividly recall this particular game for a reason.
I remember feeling overwhelmed with excitement. It was as though I could feel adrenaline speeding through my veins. This wasn’t the world championship of little league baseball or something, but I was excited.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was teetering on the edge of a fight-flight response. Due to chronic stress from multiple hospitalizations, my stress response system was ultra-sensitive. This left me with a vulnerable nervous system. The smallest incident could trigger a fight/flight response in my body without my control or consent.
Throughout the game I noticed that our team was at an obvious disadvantage. Our age-division was called “coach-pitch”. That’s because each coach pitched to their own team. Our coach threw at a decent and fair speed for our players. The other coach was throwing gentle lobs to his players like they were 3-year-olds! Lollipops! He was throwing lollipops!
Once I realized the injustice of the lollipop pitching, that was enough! I was ANGRY! Out came crazy mom. It’s so embarrassing now, but I was THAT mom.
The worst part was that I felt like I had no control, and I didn’t. It was completely overwhelming. I’m quite certain it was my father’s glare hitting me upside the head that made me pause long enough to realize I was acting crazy. That split second was all I needed to know that I had to walk away from the situation.
That story happened a long time ago. I would like to believe that if it were to happen now, I’d handle things in a much more mature fashion. Maybe. Maybe not. In that event, I was having a biochemical, physiological response to a situation that I could not control.
I couldn’t just stop the flood of chemicals pouring into my system and return to homeostasis. Especially since following a fight-flight response, it takes the body about 20 minutes to clear out the abundance of hormones and become regulated again.
During a stress response the brain’s cortex shuts down. That’s the part of the brain responsible for problem solving, impulse control, cause-and-effect thinking, etc. Our coping skills are stored in the cortex. Our verbal skills are also located in the brain’s cortex. So things like, “use your words” won’t help a child when they are in a fight/flight or protection mode. At that point, the brain cannot THINK. It can only DO.
When the cortex goes off-line and the brain is in protection mode, the brainstem becomes fully engaged. The brainstem is the lowest, innermost part of the brain. It controls our body’s autonomic functions such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, releasing hormones, etc.
For a young person with a history of complex trauma, living on the edge of a fight/flight response is their “normal”. Because of this, what seems like an insignificant matter to me could be enough for my child to become dysregulated and flip out. It doesn’t make them disobedient, defiant, or difficult. It means they have a vulnerable and sensitive stress response system. What they need is felt safety, connection and co-regulation from an understanding adult (more on that later).
Although this is a watered down version of the neuroscience, I hope it’s enough to give you a fresh and informed perspective on behavior. Because the truth is that BEHAVIOR is a SYMPTOM!
When I stopped taking my children’s behavior personally and treated it as a symptom, things changed for the better. Behavior is a symptom of what is happening neurologically. Lasting, positive change happens when we reframe our children’s behavior by seeing it as it truly is, a symptom. We can then learn about the WHY behind the behavior. And that is what makes significant, lasting change happen in our relationships.