Fight, Flight, or Freeze… What a Child’s Negative Reaction Could Be Telling You


We’ve all been there.

You’re trying your best to play or work with a late-talking toddler or preschooler and suddenly, out of the blue, he launches a toy across the room!

Or she bolts!

Or the child withdraws and, for lack of a better description, “checks out.”

You’re left wondering, “What happened?”

Sometimes we chalk this up to the child’s behavior thinking something like “there he goes again,” or “she’s being a little stinker,” or even something like “he’s in his ‘Terrible Two’s.”

While that could be true, many times toddlers, particularly those with developmental delays, are not displaying these negative reactions because of bad behavior, poor parenting, or anything else you may come up with to explain a sudden change.

My experience has taught me that those kinds of changes usually can be attributed to a central issue:


Just like adults, when a child is overwhelmed, he or she will respond with one of the following three reactions:




Let’s talk about how each of these may look in an over-stimulated toddler.

Fighting can be painfully (pun intended!) obvious. A child may lash out at you, or even a toy, with unexpected aggressiveness. She may hit, bite, pinch, scratch, and lunge at you or pull your hair in an attempt to control her out-of-control feelings. If her target is the toy or an activity, she may throw, break, kick, or otherwise try to destroy an object.

Flight can be identified easily when it’s dramatic, but even during more subdued cases of flight, the end result is the same: the child avoids the activity. He leaves you and what you’re attempting to do with him. It doesn’t matter if he runs, walks, turns away, or subtly redirects his attention to something else…he’s gone!

Freeze can be difficult to spot because sometimes there is no discernible point when over-stimulation has occurred, as we see when a child is engaged in fight or flight. During freeze, a child withdraws and shuts down. His eyes may appear glazed over. Once a mom described her daughter’s freeze response as: “She gets this blank look on her face.” When babies are overstimulated in this way, they fall asleep; with toddlers and preschoolers, it can be trickier to detect. A noisy child may suddenly become quiet. An active child becomes uncharacteristically still. A child may begin to cry or suck his thumb.

Over-stimulation occurs in all of us, even adults, from time to time.  It is a natural part of life. To some extent, over-stimulation is an unavoidable part of growing up. All children are apt to become frustrated when they are learning something new that’s not coming easily for them.

That’s what makes this situation even more challenging for young children with developmental delays and here’s why…


Think about that for a minute. Can you imagine facing an entire day of one hurdle after another? Would you be cranky? Would you complain loudly for all within earshot? Would you try to get out of there and move on to something less stressful? I know I would! I’d crash by noon!

That’s what it’s like for a kid who is struggling developmentally.

Thankfully, many children with developmental delays have strengths in other areas that will compensate for their deficits. They may not feel frustrated or over-stimulated all day, every day.

However, many children with communication delays may indeed experience that feeling all the time because that’s how important, all-consuming, and prevalent communicating and interacting with others is. We literally do it all day long. That may explain some of a late-talker’s behaviors that have been difficult to understand.


We can’t just leave it at “understanding” these responses. We have to know what to do about it!

I believe that we should carefully observe a child’s reactions when he’s not happily participating with us, whether it’s during therapy, or while engaged in a daily routine at home, or when he’s playing with little friends. When we note signs of over-stimulation beginning to emerge, we should do our best to address this issue, so that we can help a child move back to what we hope he’s doing most of his day, which is having fun and enjoying himself while he’s learning more about his world.

In time, with our consistent intervention, we can guide a child to spend less and less time in that uncomfortable, over-stimulated state. Eventually, we want her to learn to do this on her own. That’s maturation. For now, for very young children with delays in their development (or maturation,) we will have to provide external support to make that happen.

The good news is that, no matter how a child responds when he’s over-stimulated– whether it’s fight, flight, or freeze–there are plenty of options for helping. Not every strategy will work for every child, and some strategies may not work all the time in any one child, but that’s okay. You’ll just move on and try something else.

That will be the topic of my next post Strategies to Help Toddlers Experiencing Fight, Flight, or Freeze.

Until then…


It’s so hard parenting a toddler who is “difficult.” I know, because I’ve been there!! For more parenting recommendations, read Tips for Parenting Difficult Toddlers.

If you need specific ideas for working with late talkers on their language skills, I have some great resources for you!

Teach Me To Talk is my first DVD and teaches six simple strategies for helping late talkers develop communication skills. (CEUs are available for therapists!)

If you’d rather have a book with specific milestones and activity ideas, check out Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual. Birth to 3 SLPs tell me they use this book every single day to select goals and plan therapy sessions for their clients. Moms love it too because it guides their efforts at home –  no more guessing what you should be doing to help your child learn to talk! (Save money and order both the DVD and book as a set!)

Teach Me To Play WITH You is a therapy manual with an entire chapter devoted to problem-solving strategies – – -what to try when a kid won’t cooperate with you when you’re trying to work with her!

Building Verbal Imitation Skills in Toddlers walks you through a detailed, but EASY, a sequential method for moving a non-verbal child from silence to words.

Want all 3 books? Get the Therapy Manual Combo Pack! They’re on sale with the coupon code included in your email (if you’re signed up!) on 11.18.2016. Hurry! It’s a weekend sale : )

If you’re not on the email list, sign up today! Click the big green banner under SIGN UP NOW on the home page AND you’ll receive a free eBook too!


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