Primitive Reflexes: A Child in Constant Fight or Flight Mode
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You have an important presentation at work in a few minutes and you have to stand before the entire board and give the analysis for the past quarter. Your heart starts beating loud, you breathe rapidly and you feel tense. There is a queasy feeling in your stomach and you start to sweat. These are all physical symptoms of the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response within each of us was designed to help us deal with feeling fear in our lives. Nowadays, it is more likely triggered by more complex worries such as job interviews, an exam or social situations. This response is normal and needed for both adults and children. The grief and concern for parents comes when their child is constantly in this anxious mode. The problem isn’t the fight or flight system. The problem is when this system activates when no apparent danger is present.
At our learning center, we often hear parents say, “My child’s emotions are never grounded.” Frequently this is accompanied with, “It seems like he is always on edge” or “She is in a heightened state of awareness all the time.” These statements may be a clue into your child’s response to stimuli, and may be an indicator of the child retaining a primitive reflex call the Moro Reflex. In previous articles, we discuss in depth what theseprimitive reflexes are, but in short, they are what controls a baby’s movement in the first year of life. These important primitive reflexes are critical for the infant’s growth and development of motor, sensory and brain skills. For more information on primitive reflexes, click here.
Overview of Primitive Reflexes
Before we discuss more about the fight or flight response, it’s good to have a brief overview of these primitive reflexes and why each is present when a child is born, and more importantly, why a child may struggle in school if they do not disappear after the first few years of life. More information on how to test for these reflexes and exercises to help your child are below.
Each primitive reflex provides essential responses to the world and why children with normal development naturally move into adult reflexes or replacement reflexes. The following is a list of the primitive reflexes seen in infants and the time frame associated with each one:
- Moro Reflex: This reflex acts as the baby’s “fight or flight” response to the world. This important reflex usually integrates into the adult startle response by four months. (More about the Moro Reflex further in the article)
- Rooting Reflex: Stroking a baby’s cheek will cause the child to turn and open the mouth. This helps with breastfeeding. Usually disappears by four months.
- Palmer Reflex: This is the automatic flexing of the fingers to grab an object if palm is stimulated. This reflex should integrate by six months.
- Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR): The ATNR is seen when you lay a baby on its back and turn their head. The arm and leg on the side the child is looking at should extend while the opposite side bends. This response should end by six months.
- Spinal Galant: This reflex happens when the skin on the side of an infant’s back is stroked. The child should swing towards that side. The spinal galant should inhibit by nine months. Check out this article that relates to Spinal Galant.
- Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR): The TLR helps with head management and prepares the baby for rolling over, sitting up, crawling, standing and walking. This reflex actually integrates slowly while other core systems mature and should disappear by three and a half years old.
- Landau Reflex: Helps with posture and is not present at birth. When the child’s head lifts it causes the entire trunk to flex. This reflex emerges by three months and disappears around the first year.
- Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR): STNR or the crawling reflex divides the body along the midline to assist with crawling. You can view this reflex by watching the baby’s head drop towards its chest while the arms bend and the legs extend. Interestingly, the STNR appears briefly after birth and the reappears between six to nine months. It should dissolve by 11 months.
Now why is this important and how does it have to do with my child’s fight or flight response in the classroom or with their friends and peers? Here’s the link and what you may notice in your child.
How Is the Moro and Fight or Flight Response Linked?
As you can see, there are several reflexes that the child begins with at birth. Isn’t it astonishing how primitive reflexes adjust over time to help a small little body work? What happens when one of these primitive reflexes do not disappear or integrate? Well, let’s take the Moro Reflex for example. We find that if a child or adult still has the Moro present, there may be some distinct behavioral or learning obstacles to combat. As a well-known guru on primitive reflexes, Sally Goddard, explains in her book, The Well Balanced Child, that if the Moro Reflex does not inhibit, the child has exaggerated reactions to sounds, hot and cold, touch, and visual and hearing input. She is clear that the Moro Reflex is not the same as the startle reflex in adults. The Moro is much more heightened than the adult startle reflex, which is why a child may continue to have sensitivities in school or at home even when they grow older. The Moro reflex never left their body. One of the core symptoms we see in a child that displays the Moro reflex past the normal integration time is the constant fight or flight mode.
When kids are in the fight or flight mode, they are reacting and responding on instinct and survival. It is not only scary for the child during these moments, but for parents and other caregivers it can be frightening. The unknown of how to respond can be devastating to the adult if they don’t know how to help their child. In order to understand how to react with understanding, we must be aware of where this fight or flight originates in our child. This constant heightened state or anxiety might be a manifestation of a poorly integrated Moro Reflex.
If your child has retained the Moro reflex, you may see some of the following symptoms:
- Frequently in the “fight or flight” mode; always on edge; heightened state of awareness
- Exaggerated startle reaction
- Motion sickness
- Poor impulse control
- Poor coordination (particularly in sports), which leads to sequencing and memory issues
- Easily distracted
- Significant mood swings
- Poor eye movement leading to processing problems
- Difficulty ignoring background noise
As parents and other individuals watch and spend time with a child that is frequently in a heightened state or on edge, it can be stressful, exhausting and concerning. You want to help your child calm down, but many times the young person doesn’t allow help or has so many barriers you are not sure what approach to take.
Here are some suggestions that may benefit the situation when the fight or flight mode has taken over:
- Encourage deep breathing. This is important even if you are the only one taking some deep breaths. This works two-fold. One, the child is likely to pick up on the breathing and join in, and two, this will help you remain calm in the stressful moments.
- Try not to rationalize or bargain with the child.
- Find a calm, peaceful place that your child likes to go in the house. When they experience anxiety and panic, remind them or direct them to go to that place.
- If the child has found a calm retreat, allow them time to be alone.
How to test for the Moro Reflex and Fight or Flight
There are three ways to test your child for the Moro reflex to see if it is still present in your child. It is how we determine if it could be the cause of your child’s balance and coordination issues, fight or flight mode, fidgeting and behavior problems.
Have your child lift their arms out straight on the right and left sides of the body. Then have your child balance on one foot and then switch to balancing on the opposite foot. If your child wobbles or falls over it could be a sign they have retained the Moro reflex.
Help your child cross one foot over the other and lift their arms above their head. Then have your child take their arms and touch their toes. When they have completed the first exercise, help them repeat the same exercise by switching legs. If your child displays poor balance and falls over, it could be a sign your child has retained the Moro reflex.
Stand behind your child, have them close their eyes and stand up straight with their hands touching their chest (elbows bent). Tell your child to fall backward into your arms (catch them under the armpits). When your child falls backward, if they flail their arms outward instead of keeping them toward their chest, this is a sign they still have the Moro reflex present. While their eyes are closed you can also snap your fingers close to their ears. If the noise startles them and they flail their arms outward, this is another sign of a retained reflex.
Exercises to prevent fight or flight responses
If you have tested your child or student for the Moro reflex and are sure they have retained it, then your child will most likely continue to show signs of fight or flight in the classroom. We need to help your child with specific exercises that will “remove” the reflex that should have disappeared when they were a baby so your child’s body can calm down and no longer feel that anxiety.
In order to help you with these exercises, we have created a new membership site that contains videos, instructions and pictures that directs you through the process. We know you have been asking us for a membership to all our videos and now we finally have one for you. The membership includes full access to our videos, instructions, pictures and intervention we do with our students. Each month we post new videos, content and information to not only help your child or student with these reflexes, but also hand-eye coordination, sensory-motor activities, midline crossing exercises, fine motor tools, toys for learning and equipment used for Executive Functioning, vestibular, and proprioception.