Feeling Unsafe is a Fast Track to Red

Have you ever had one of those situations where all of a sudden, you or your child are just on red (in fight, flight or freeze) and it seemed to have come out of nowhere?

Maybe you were having a lovely time at the playground and your child just suddenly lost it with another child and started throwing sand or kicking someone else.

Or you might have been chugging along on your day, doing ok, when that one thing happens and you’re suddenly yelling, impatient, punitive and have trouble putting your words together.

When a person perceives a threat from outside oneself, the body can go into an automatic red-light state, or your survival brain (think fight, flight or freeze). There’s no green. There’s no yellow. People who have experienced a lot of overwhelming life events are much quicker to go to red, as the neural pathway to get there is well-grooved. The amygdala, or fear-receptor of the brain, is set up to protect you from danger- real or imagined – and its job is to protect you from anything that may do you harm.

When your brain perceives a threat, the amydgala automatically switches on to protect you. It will go to the method that you’ve used most in the past first. So if you normally defend yourself by yelling, you’ll be doing that before you even realize it. If you shut down, you’ll possibly find yourself unable to speak and may not even know why. Or you may feel like just leaving and never coming back. Our brains, and especially the amygdala, are very sensitive to facial expressions in particular, but also tone of voice, postures, and other non-verbal communications, so this whole experience can happen outside of our conscious awareness.

This happens anytime we do not feel safe.

Safety isn’t about whether there is actually a grizzly bear 10-feet away, but rather it’s about the perception of safety.

When our kids wake up scared from a bad dream, they don’t feel safe. And yes, you and I know that there isn’t really a boogie man under their bed, but it doesn’t have to be real to have the same reaction in their brain and body as if it were real. When little ones have trouble settling in at night by themselves, they’re not feeling safe and they need connection with someone else who is calmer than they are to settle themselves.

Shifting your perspective and understanding so you can look at what’s happening as a need can open up different possibilities for how you can respond to them. It doesn’t mean you have to co-sleep, though that can be an option for many families, but perhaps that you stay with your child until they’re feeling settled in their bodies instead of dismissing their feelings as invalid.

When your child does something that pushes your buttons and you find yourself reacting in a way that’s out of proportion to what just happened, you’re probably back in the more primitive places in your own brain and your perception is that you’re not safe. This can happen when your child won’t go to sleep, when they won’t eat, when they look at you in a certain way, or when they do something that doesn’t feel safe to you.

So when you or your child has fast-tracked to red, keep in mind that, deep down, there’s a feeling of not being safe.

With you, it can be something that’s very old and isn’t really about the present moment. The old experience it reminds you of may be outside of your conscious awareness, but it doesn’t change that it has an impact on you. You don’t have to know where it came from, and simply acknowledging that you’re on red goes a long way here.

For your child, whatever it is going on for them is happening right now, and you have the opportunity to help your child regulate in connection with you. That’s the same thing you needed when you were growing up and probably didn’t get. (Not because your parents were awful, but simply that they didn’t know this information.)

Does knowing this change how you feel about what’s happening? Instead of asking what you can do to make a behavior stop, ask, “What do you need to feel safe? What does my child need to feel safe?” And see what happens.

By the way, next week on our podcast, we’ll be beginning a 3-part series with one of my favorite people and knower of great wisdom about our growing people and ourselves as parents, Carrie Contey of earlyparenting.com. We’re going to be talking about Taming, Transforming and Transcending Your Triggers, or those places where there’s “Velcro” where an experience sticks to you instead of sliding off like Teflon. There’s so much great practical information in this series for parents with children of all ages, so I hope you’ll join us.


Rebecca Thompson Hitt

Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

Rebecca Thompson Hitt has 193 posts and counting. See all posts by Rebecca Thompson Hitt

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