All too often parents question and seek a better understanding of why their children act or react in ways that are often labeled as “challenging” or “misbehavior.” The frustrating thing is that there is no single answer to this question. In fact, various influencing factors can contribute to how children respond to certain situations. In this blog, I talk about one factor from a neurobiological stand point that applies to every child’s level of reactivity and that is level of “arousal.” Arousal describes the state of the brain’s neurological activity or level of excitability within the nervous system. While this is hard to measure, understanding that there is a connection between the brain and human behavior allows parents and professionals to shift from thinking of certain behaviors as “intentional” or “manipulative” to “functional” and “unintentional.”
Some children are much more reactive (even to minor things in the environment) than others. It is likely that these children have a sensitive arousal system and smaller threshold of tolerance for change or ability to make adjustments to meet the varying demands of the environment. When these children are faced with some common situations such as being asked to do something, having to stop doing something they like, doing a difficult task like schoolwork, trying new things, losing a game, when their requests are refused, when getting in trouble, etc., they likely experience an overly heightened state of arousal which triggers a “fight” or “flight” reaction. A “fight” reaction can look like a tantrum/meltdown or physical reaction such as kicking, throwing things etc. A “flight” response can look like running away (fleeing) from the situation and or hiding to avoid facing this situation that has prompted this imbalance of arousal.
Typical nervous systems are flexible and adaptable enough to allow for tolerance of various environmental demands and participation in a broad range of tasks. Children that have challenges with the regulation of arousal are unable to adapt as flexibly to normal day to day varying demands. In addition to being more reactive, these children also may take much longer to return to a state of optimal arousal after having been in a state of over-arousal as mentioned above. Typical nervous systems can return to an optimal arousal state after facing a stressful environmental event without having to do anything to facilitate this. By now you have likely gathered that the brain is critical in the regulation of human behavior and that regulating arousal is no small task. Regulation of arousal plays a role in almost everything we do including how we react, sleep, control our emotions etc.
Having a basic understanding of how arousal is related to a child’s reactions hopefully elicits a greater desire to understand what your child’s reactions mean, which will then help you respond in a way this helpful. Your child may be “overly reacting” because he or she is truly perceiving the demands of a particular situation as “threatening” even if there is no threat involved. This messaging to the brain is uncontrolled by your child leading to a quick, non-thinking response often labeled by parents as “extreme”, “intense”, and “challenging.” As such, responding with a harsh and punitive style only makes behavior worse in these children. Instead, they benefit from having parents de-escalate their automatic threat response first before employing some form of disciplinary action (e.g., time out, loss of a privilege, etc.)
Although any child can have a meltdown or fleeing reaction to a situation, some childhood disorders that make children more susceptible to having arousal imbalances and regulation challenges include but are not limited to ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorders. If you have a child that has been displaying significant behavioral and emotional regulation challenges, it is wise to rule out the presence of a childhood disorder that may be contributing to your child’s struggles. In the absence of such disorders, working with a trained professional in the field who can help you understand better the temperament of your child and offer parenting approaches that work best with your child’s temperament is useful in decreasing extreme reactions. Lastly, if you are a parent with a child suffering from a chronic medical condition or chronic sleep challenges, regulation problems are likely part of their condition and may not necessarily involve a co-existing childhood disorder as mentioned above.
Maria Kanakos, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist