Strategies to Help Toddlers Experiencing Fight, Flight, or Freeze


Help for Overstimulated Toddlers

My post called Fight, Flight, or Freeze explored the negative reactions that children may display when they become overstimulated as they learn something new.

Remember that these responses have been hard-wired into our systems to help protect us when we’re in danger. Many times, children display signs of fight, flight, or freeze when they feel pressure to perform. Even though these responses are natural, they may interfere with a child’s ability to learn. Adults can help kids work through the frustrations that occur when confronted with something that’s new or hard.

The underlying principle for treating all over-stimulation is the same – you must help the child feel more physically and emotionally regulated. When I work with parents, I use the word “comfortable” to describe regulation.

Making a child comfortable does NOT mean that you will forego all your expectations for that child. That’s senseless! The only way children learn anything new is to be challenged. At times, that will make for momentary discomfort, but we can note when this begins and move in to help a child learn to regulate or work through any tension he’s experiencing.

Most of the time, it begins with helping a child feel better in the present moment.

Helping a child regulate, or feel better in that moment, doesn’t mean the activity stops or that a child “gets away with” being non-compliant. It means that you modify the activity and adjust your expectations in a way that allows the child to resume participation. He or she may not necessarily be enthusiastic or joyful, but they will begin to attend again.

Let me share a few of the best ways I’ve found to help a child regulate and re-join you and the activity:

1. Head it off at the pass!

If you know that a child is habitually set off by an activity, request, or expectation, you may want to carefully monitor for signs of impending over-stimulation and stop it in its tracks.

For example, let’s say that a three-year-old has become obsessed with an app to the point that he’s had twenty-minute meltdowns the last three times the SLP has used this game during therapy sessions. At the beginning of the next session, the child is already having some difficulty calming down with transitions between play activities with toys he’s enjoyed in the past. Rather than provoking a strong reaction on a day when the child already has a short fuse, everyone may be better served by not using that specific app, or any apps at all, during therapy that day. The therapist can purposefully decide to avoid this potentially over-stimulating task.

The same strategy applies to toys that routinely trigger over-stimulation. When a child becomes overly-attached, unwilling, or unable to part with a toy to move on to the next activity, it’s generally not a good tool for therapy. As one mom said to me about using her child’s beloved trains during sessions, “I don’t think Thomas is worth the trouble he causes.” From that day on, we made a very deliberate decision to exclude the trains. When it wasn’t an option, the child didn’t miss it.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to use these toys or activities forever. In a couple of months, when a child has demonstrated pleasant participation with a variety of less obsession-invoking activities, you may decide to try again. Hopefully, the child will respond differently. He’ll be older and will have better-coping skills because he’s maturing. Or you may implement one of the next strategies which can play a critical part in progress…

2. Adjust yourself!

As I always say on my podcast (see the sidebar for more information about the show!) and during the courses I teach, it’s easier to change yourself than the child! By adapting and modifying what you do, you may elicit new skills from the child without changing anything else. I’ve seen this happen over and over in my career. I’ll help mom and dad tweak one little thing that they’re doing with a child at home, and suddenly, the next time I meet with the family, the child has made a giant leap in progress. This happens with me in sessions too. When things are not going as I would hope, instead of thinking that it’s all about the kid, I start thinking about what I can change about myself. Let’s look at some possibilities:

  • If you discover that your own “over-talking” may contribute to a child’s need for a fight, flight, or freeze, pull it back. Say less! Simplify your own dialogue, especially for a child with difficulty understanding language. For example, if a child seems to zone out when you’re explaining what you want him to do, give short, simple directions and not paragraph-long directives. Instead of saying, “In a few minutes we’ll be leaving to pick up some groceries, so I need you to be a good boy and finish getting ready for Mommy,” try, “Let’s go to the store. Get your shoes.”
  • Make more of what you say predictable. Kids love (and learn from!) repetitive speech. Implement verbal routines to see if this makes a difference in a child’s participation and attention. For tips, check out my online video, Creating Verbal Routines.
  • If you find frustrations rising, even on your end, take a breath and relax! Focus on enjoying yourself during the activity. Prioritize having fun! When you feel better, you can figure out how to help the child feel better.

3. Redefine your parameters for successful participation!

Sometimes we work at a developmental level that’s too advanced for a child and he can’t do all that we’re expecting. Any number of examples are applicable here:

Perhaps you’re asking a child to do too many new things so he’s becoming overwhelmed. Reduce your demands. When you modify your own expectations, kids often rally. For example, many children with autism struggle with listening to someone speak while simultaneously making eye contact with them. Maybe you could drop your cues to “Look at me.” Let him adjust to following your commands before you ask him to look at you when you talk.

Maybe your plan is to introduce a new, cool toy so that a child will be motivated to request a turn. However, the toy is so intriguing that the child can’t wait to figure out how it works. Or maybe he’s so excited that he can’t operate the toy correctly and becomes frustrated. If you’re expecting him to do anything else, he can’t! Modify your expectations by showing him how to play or give him some time to process what’s going on with the new toy before you add a new component. If you’ve expected him to ask for another turn or to imitate your words, hold off a little while as he acclimates to the new experience. Let playing with the toy appropriately be enough, for the time being.

If you’re asking a child to use a word to ask for something and he’s not developmentally ready to talk, back off and come up with another response he can use. The child may first learn to request using a gesture such as a head nod for “yes” or simple sign language like “more” or “please.” Once he’s achieving success with those simple gestures or signs, keep moving him along by teaching new signs specific to what he’s requesting.  Many late talking children benefit from using an AAC (Alternative Augmentative Communication) system like PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) or a low-tech device such as a Go Talk or Big Mac to help them learn to communicate before they begin to talk.

4. Implement specific strategies to address what you’re seeing. 

If a child is upset, introduce calming strategies like rocking or holding them. Body-on- body contact is very regulating for most young children. They like being cuddled when they’re distressed.

When a child seems to run away routinely, he may be telling you that he needs to move! Many children attend and communicate better when they’re moving around as compared to sitting at a table. Instead of trying to belt a busy toddler into a high chair to “force” him to settle down, try 10 to 15 minutes of movement first. Ideas that consistently work for toddlers are running around the house or yard, jumping on the bed or a couch, bouncing a child on your legs, swinging in a blanket or in a swing, or even playing several energetic rounds of Ring Around the Rosies.

If transitions are tough for a child, plan for them! Give plenty of notice that you’ll be moving on to a new activity by saying something like, “One more turn then we’re all done” or “Almost time to go inside!” Introduce a specific routine or song so that a child knows what to expect. Predictability often leads to better adjustment during transitions. If you need some new ideas to try, you can find them in my book Teach Me To Play WITH You.

Chewing and sucking are very regulating and calming for many young children. Let them eat! Offer crunchy snacks or a cup with a straw-filled with a cold, thicker liquid. This works like a charm for many toddlers, especially those who are still mouthing toys.

Occupational therapists swear by heavy work and deep pressure. Although there are several ways to achieve both of these strategies, here are my favorites:

  • pushing or pulling heavy objects like a wagon or backpack filled with toys or something from the pantry to add weight such as canned goods or bags of beans
  • squeezing a child’s feet, legs, shoulders, and hands
  • bear hugs from an adult
  • wearing a therapeutic vest for 20 to 30 minutes at a time (Consult your OT for guidelines!)

So, the next time a young child appears to be misbehaving, not interested, or is otherwise, off-target, I hope that you’ll find success with one of these ideas to help him move past fight, flight, or freeze!

One more tidbit… there are things you can do BEFORE a child experiences Fight, Flight, or Freeze. Look for that information in an upcoming post later this week with my two best ways for managing toddler behavior. Hint, hint… it has more to do with you than them!!


Other Resources to Help You Help a Child…

Learn to consistently play with you

Learn to follow simple directions

Learn to talk

Parenting Advice if you’re struggling with a “difficult” toddler (I know! I’ve been there!).


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