What Do You Know About Childrens Freeze Response?

Many years ago I was impacted by a segment on the show 20/20 on the subject of spanking that featured one of the preeminent researchers of our time, Murray Strauss. On the show, he was trying to explain to parents that they didn’t need to hit their children for something like running into the street when a parent’s panicked yell will stop their children in their tracks.

Neuroscience and a child’s freeze response

I have shared this information many times over the years as a way to encourage parents to recognize that they do not need to use physical punishment to send a strong message to their children when something is dangerous. I think for most parents, this seemed more like a parenting opinion rather than some kind of fact. Now, however, I have the neuroscience to explain why this is true!

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

Most of us know that we have a pretty sophisticated nervous system in our bodies. It allows us to move, respond to things like touch, taste, sounds, sights and smells.

Our nervous system is strongly connected to our muscles and influences things like our heart rate and blood pressure. Neuroscientists refer to it as our autonomic nervous system, which has two distinct branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

Functions of our nervous system

In The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., Dr. van der Kolk describes the sympathetic branch of the nervous system as “responsible for arousal, including the fight-or-flight response” and the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system as the one that “promotes self-preservative functions like digestion and wound healing. It triggers the release of acetylcholine to put a break on arousal.” [Page 77]

In Why Therapy Works, author Louis Cozolino shares the following: “This parent-to-child warning mechanism, seen in many animals, is designed to make children freeze in their tracks in order to protect them from predators or other dangers. This freeze response is reflected within the autonomic nervous system by a rapid transition from sympathetic curiosity to parasympathetic inhibition. Experientially, children are snapped from a mode of exploration to a startled freeze. As a result, the child stops, looks downward, hangs his head and rounds his shoulders.… It is nature’s way of expressing what an adult might articulate by saying, ‘Please don’t hurt me’ or ‘Okay, you’re the boss.’” 

So Dr. Strauss was right.

The alarm yell a parent makes when seeing a child in danger instantaneously triggers a freeze response because of the switch within that child from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system. The yell causes an instantaneous putting-on-the-brakes reaction.

No hitting is needed to have a child be deeply imprinted by a parent’s terrified reaction to a dangerous behavior. The parent can quickly scoop a child up and return him to a safe situation, and then the parent can explain the dangers. The child who is now in a high state of alert can take in that information as being extremely important.

Hitting a child in these moments only serves to break the connection between parent and child, often causing confusion. It will have less of the impact in the child’s mind about the danger than happens if there was just the parent’s alarmed yell, followed by an impassioned explanation afterwards about the danger.

So much for the argument, “I had to hit my child to make the point that this is dangerous!”

Invitation to reflect:

1.      Have you observed how your children freeze when you shout out an alarm because something they are about to do is dangerous?

2.      Does this information on the science of how our nervous systems are switching from sympathetic to parasympathetic explain this freeze response in our children?

3.      Now that you know this, can you better understand why Dr. Strauss said that parents do not need to hit their children in order to scare them into avoiding danger?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network