Overload and the Freeze Response
Has your child ever given you the “look”?
For many children, when they become overloaded, they will exhibit a “freeze response” that may present in the form of a glazed look, zoning out, or looking away. They may also engage in stimming, close their eyes, put their head down, or cover their ears. This is the tell-tale sign that your child has become overwhelmed. Their brain’s are not able to process the information that it is receiving because it may be too fast or too much to process. To avoid overload, the brain will try to shutdown or block out the stimulus. When this occurs it is typically best to “back off” demands, decrease the stimulus, and allow the child to rebound. You should be respectful of this sign as the child is trying to keep themselves together by getting away from the stimulus that may be causing overwhelm.
The Incorrect Approach
It is easy to incorrectly view this unresponsive behavior as noncompliance or resistance, so we may increase prompting in an attempt to get the child to respond. This is only added to the problem as the load will be further increased. The child will not be able to keep it together and rebound. The initially temporary freeze response will turn to “fight or flight”, a panic response. At this stage, the brain essentially “freaks out” or panics and will act out even more in an effort to either fight or flee the situation. This could result in the child being labeled as disruptive, aggressive, or even violent!
How to React
Now when you see this “freeze” response, change your own response: (1) Acknowledge that the child has been overwhelmed (2) Decrease all demands and lower your own voice (3) Reassure them that everything is okay and they are safe and accepted. (4) Give them time to rebound. To prevent further overloading the child, minimize your interaction and allow them to escape to rebound. It is important that you help them to feel safe at this vulnerable time. Oftentimes the child is able to rebound by decreasing the demands and stimulation.
It is important to attempt to analyze and understand why this particular even overwhelmed your child. Were the demands too hard? Or were they coming too fast? It may even be that the child was getting exhausted. Other possibilities include overwhelm due to activity or noise that is around them, panic from an unexpected situation, or even performance anxiety. After the child has successfully rebounded, remain aware that their nervous system is still drained and could be easily overwhelmed again. Decrease the demands by breaking them down into easier steps, continue at a slower pace, and provided additional support to help the child. By respecting these cues and decreasing demands, many children can rebound quickly and continue the activity at hand. However, others may need to get away to a safe area to regroup and rebound.
By respecting this “freeze” response and supporting your child, he/she will trust and follow your lead.