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No Time for Questions: Responding to Distress in Young Children

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

By Philip Mott

A young child’s roller coaster of emotions throughout the day is partially due to their age but is often connected to their sympathetic nervous system. This in-born system is responsible for what is commonly known as the fight or flight response. During this response, the brain and body will release a heavy dose of chemicals to sharpen a person’s senses and prepare to, well, fight or get the heck out of there! The purpose of their sympathetic nervous system is to protect them from harm and to escape stress. It’s important to recognize this difference as a parent because you are no longer approaching a child who is ready to converse and explore the world. The cause of their stress, real or imagined, has hijacked their attention for the time being.

You can think of yourself as a kind of first responder to an emergency. First responders do not show up and start asking what they can do to help. They address the most obvious cause of the emergency until they feel the situation has been fully dealt with. A child in fight or flight mode feels like they’re in an emergency. (I’m thinking specifically of situations when they seem fine physically, but they’re extremely upset about something.) The reason adults often ask questions during this time is that we’re not the ones in fight or flight. We are trying to reason through the emotions. But this is no time for questions. What parents ought to be doing is taking the fight or flight signals seriously and respecting a child’s need for basic actions until they can regain a calm mental state.

What are the signs of fight or flight in a toddler or preschooler?

You could probably make this list more accurately than me. The things I watch out for in my kids are:

  • Following me around the house

  • Quivering voice

  • Tantrum

  • Slamming a door

  • Burying their head in their hands

I think children can be reasoned with, so it’s not fair to say that a young child is unreasonable. However, they do become unreasonable in times of stress. Taking these signals seriously and adjusting how you communicate will help you immensely. Any behavior that is out of the norm for them could be evidence that their stress level is rising.

Commit to Action

Depending on when you catch the signs, there are a thousand actions you could take. I won’t and shouldn’t try to cover them all because that would be overwhelming. For example, if I feel like stress is rising, then one of the things I do is avoid eye contact. I don’t want to tip them over the edge accidentally. Eye contact can be perceived as extra expectations. Sometimes you’ll decide to wait a moment to see if you can figure out what has happened. Other times you may decide to pick them up and take them somewhere else. The hardest part is knowing that you’re going to be wrong a lot.

You may feel as if the respectful way to approach your child is through thoughtful questions. Answers are hard to come by when your child is feeling stressed. As I look back on my years as a teacher and as a parent, I know that asking questions, or trying to make conversation, does not help. When you commit to action, try to make the commitment to withhold questioning while their frustration is running high.

With our youngest, I started discovering that she responded much better and recovered more quickly when I took action on her behalf. If she was screaming in the basement, then I’d come to take her hand and walk her upstairs. If she was lying down crying, I would pick her up and carry her somewhere else. Instead of trying to reason with her to bring her to a calmer state of mind, something that is practically impossible with someone in fight or flight, I shifted to getting her to a place where her mind could come back on its own. With our older two, when they had tantrums, we would often just sit there with them until it eventually went away, which took much longer. (We may have also spent a lot of time asking them questions during this time)

Back to Normal

Their breathing goes back to normal, the crying or red face subsides, and their body disposition relaxes. Our youngest’s tell is that she will ask a question about something in the room completely unrelated to the incident. It’s like her curiosity is back, and she’s looking for new stimulation. Our oldest’s tell is that he comes out of his room.

If there’s a time that you might be able to get some insider information about the incident, this would be the time. Try not to push it, though. There’s a very good chance that the incident wasn’t important enough even to warrant a discussion, as odd as that sounds. There are times that I’ve been too quick to ask questions to try to get to the bottom of the issue, and I put someone right back into fight or flight. As I’ve gotten more in tune with their signals and taking their emotions seriously, I’ve become less likely to slip into a figh or flight response myself. I’m freed to be more compassionate, warm, and patient. We can get back to giggling and exploring the world together. I can ask as many questions as I want during these times, and their sometimes nonsense answers fill our house with laughter.

Photo: Allan Mas,

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