The Flight Response
Two weeks ago Cooper finished kindergarten. After an incredibly unpredictable year of school – the bulk of which was a virtual, peppered with weeks of hybrid classes when covid cases were low – my son somehow made it through. He missed 70% of the curriculum due to the fact he couldn’t access virtual schooling, simply fleeing or melting down within 10 minutes of the first zoom class of the day, until we eventually gave up. For the last six weeks however, his public school had been more or less “back to normal,” and to my utter surprise, Cooper had enthusiastically walked off to school each morning with his dad and fell into a predictable routine that seemed comfortable for him.
Even though I knew he was excited for the summer – lots of down time with trips to the small lakes surrounding our Michigan town – there was also a perceptible underlying current of unease. To prepare for the transition, we spent Saturday afternoon printing out pictures of parks, lakes and activities he likes, so he could choose how to structure his days. We laminated the faces of the people that would be caring for him – me, his babysitter, the au pair, a combination – and he chose a picture of himself smiling with an ice cream cone to move through the days of the week, a concept that still felt nebulous to him.
Monday arrived, marking the first day of summer break. The day went relatively smoothly, with a trip to a zoo with his baby brother, an occupational therapy session, and his regular half hour karate class around the corner from our house. But by the time karate rolled around, I could see his cumulative anxiety rising. He spent the ten minutes before we headed to class rolling on the floor shouting his insistence that his little brother attend class with him. I gently validated his frustration and explained that William hadn’t yet reached the 3-year-old threshold to participate. I offered to skip karate that day and just hang in the backyard. “NO!” he shouted and went searching for three skittles, which he uses to help himself with transitions.
Upon arriving at the karate class, he began to panic when he saw the door already open and some kids inside the studio, even though we had arrived ten minutes early. To exert a sense of control over the situation, he likes to be the first kid to arrive, giving him time to scope out the scene. The karate class went fine, and on the way home, he didn’t seem any more dysregulated than any other day. As we pulled up the driveway to our house, we spotted his dad pushing William on the swing and Cooper shouted in delight as he opened the door to the van and ran towards them.
Done with my caregiving shift, I went into the house to change clothes for my run. But downstairs, I heard the door slam loudly, and Cooper’s feet pounding through the kitchen, a sensory-seeking move that always surprised me in its intensity. I poked my head down the staircase,
“Sweetheart, what’s up?”
“I wanted to swing and it’s raining!” he shouted.
He was in his underwear, his karate whites abandoned somewhere in the backyard, and his brow was creased. I looked out the window and saw a bright, sunny sky, with a few clouds.
“Ok, well, I think it’s just a sun shower. Maybe we could go out in a few minutes?”
But he had already wrapped himself in a blanket with a pacifier in his mouth, and seemed to be calming down in front of the TV. I looked for my headphones for the run, but when I walked downstairs, I noticed Cooper was no longer stationed on his safe spot on the couch. On the back porch, I saw my husband standing in the driveway, looking worried. When he saw me appear, he shouted,
“Stay with William, Cooper fled.”
William continued to putter with his watering can, while my husband ran down the driveway, where a driver had stopped to point him towards the direction Cooper had run. About ten minutes later they returned, both flushed from the flight response.
Why did he do that?, I thought, as a familiar mix of confusion, fear, and frustration flooded me.
But then I reminded myself what I’ve reminded myself so many times in the past year of PDA awareness: it wasn’t one thing. Rather than a single stimulus or disappointment, it was an underlying matrix of triggers, discomforts, and general lack of control that could align to make a sun shower a delight or a disaster. Sometimes I can tell when we’re nearing disaster. But often I can’t, and off he’ll go in a sprinting panic attack beyond his control, down the blocks, six years old in just his underwear, one of us chasing him, all our hearts racing.