Instinctive Reaction to Physical Pain – Parents Have This, Too!

There are times in life that people have an instinctive reaction called “fight or flight.”  If you’re reading a psych book, it’ll go into further detail and explain that it’s also known as acute stress response.  It kicks in when we experience extreme stress, whether it’s physical or emotional.  Newsflash: that instinctive reaction is just that – instinct.  It does not pay any mind to who is causing that acute stress response.  Our instincts are what have been bred into us.  It’s what kept our ancestors alive in the times before indoor plumbing.

A friend of mine is militantly anti-spanking.  (I’m of the “it’s a big, dangerous tool that should only be used for a very big job” kind of thing… like if he’s a danger to himself or others.)  Recently, her child hurt her… to the point that it left a mark.  She had an instinctive reaction to fend off the attacker… even though that attacker was her own child.  She slapped her child without even thinking about it.

It’s something that she’s never done.Instinctive Reaction to Physical Pain - Parents Have This Too! (Cloth Diaper Addicts)

She felt horribly guilty for striking her own child.

That’s a natural response, too.

Now it’s time for true confessions time: I’ve slapped my children when they hurt me, too.  Without thinking about it.  Without having time to get angry.  Without malice, without retribution, without anything at all.  I know that my instinctive reaction to physical pain is to fight.  My “fight or flight” response leans strongly towards “fight.”

The first time it happened, Norton was getting anti-diaper change.  It was starting to become like wrestling a bear.  He kicked me.  In the face.  Hard.  So hard that my eyes watered and I was convinced that he’d broken my glasses.  Before I could even register that it hurt, instinct took over.  I slapped his leg.  He cried.  I felt bad.

I spent a lot of time beating myself up for it.  How I must be a terrible human being for allowing that instinctive reaction to impact my child.  Someone should have called CPS because I clearly had no self-control.  Blah, blah, blah.  After a little (okay, a lot of) reflection and some conversations with my besties, I realized that instinct is something very base and primitive.

And it’s normal.

It sucks, and I do still have that strong leaning towards “fight.”  I will always have that strong instinctive reaction because it’s how my brain is wired.  A more passive person may have an instinctive reaction to withdraw when hurt by her child.  In short, don’t beat yourself up for a natural response.  Just try to do better by teaching our children better.  (You know, don’t bite, don’t kick Mommy in the face, don’t rip Mommy’s hair out… that sort of thing.)

Have you ever experienced “flight or fight” from something your child has done to you?  How did you handle it?

About Suzi

Suzi is an American ex-pat living in British Columbia. She's a cloth diaper addict, wife, mom of three, and President of the Prince George chapter of Cloth for a Cause.


  1. I think everyone goes through this. Sometimes your emotions and responses overtake your rational thinking. It is hard to be a parent, especially when your kids don’t want to listen. I have four kids and I have learned that when I get upset and yell and “throw a tantrum” they kind of shut down and won’t respond to me and that makes me even more mad, lol. But when I am calm and rational they respond better, even if they are hurting me physically which I haven’t really had happen to an extreme yet, and not really on purpose. It can be a really hard situation. Thanks for the great article.
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  2. I have never even thought about this! Interesting read!

  3. I also don’t spank but have done this, too. At one time or another both of my kids have hurt me either unintentionally or in the midst of a major loss of their minds and they have been hit back. I also didn’t realize it happened until my kid is looking at me with those doe eyes and started to cry. Then yup, the guilt sets in. You’re right though, it is completely instinctual and you don’t even have time to think about it.
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  4. I’ve been there – it happens. I don’t beat myself up over it. I was spanked as a child and will spank my child if necessary. It’s like touching a hot stove and getting one’s hand burned…
    Lauren S. recently posted…Milk Diapers Nursing Pads GiveawayMy Profile

  5. I have slapped my daughter instinctively. She bit me and would not let go. Without thinking, I smacked her in an attempt to get her to stop clenching down on me. Yes, I felt horrible. After the incident, I explained to her about reflexes. I would never hit her intentionally, but instinct took over. And, no, she has not bitten me like that since!
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  6. Ah yes…this happened to us with biting as well. I was actually told by a doula/breastfeeding expert that a little “flick” to the cheek would help to curb the bite game that my son had become so fond of. I did it. It worked on him, absolutely left me besotted and feeling so darn guilty. But, guess what? He got over it and continued with his meal and I still have nipples. I don’t advocate for spanking or anything physical, but sometimes you DO have to defend yourself, even against your kids.

  7. I’m sure that’s hard to deal with….we never want to hurt our babies!

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