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Most of us have looked after a child who is continually on guard and on the look out for danger. Even when you think they are relaxed watching television or reading, they are suddenly out of their chair, eyes wide and on the alert. Sometimes as a result of a slight noise, while at other times you may have heard nothing. They are agitated, may sweat, and their breath comes fast and shallow. If you were to take their pulse it would be racing. This can be as a result of what is known as hypervigilance.

A child with hypervigilance will be continuously scanning the environment, searching for anything that could mean danger or pose a threat. They are on high alert in order to protect themselves. This can lead to obsessive compulsive behaviour and the child may have difficulty interacting with other. Because hypervigilance is a state of increased anxiety it can be exhausting.

Hypervigilance is often found in children with ADHD and PTSD (often as a result of abuse) and they will be continually monitoring their environment. Children with ADHD tend to scan situations very quickly for cues and then draw conclusions based on a few details, which can lead to them misjudging or misreading the situation. Because they are continually scanning for threats, their ability to think logically, problem solve, or respond appropriately to demands is often limited.

Hypervigilance is found in adults as well as children. It can be broken down into two groups: threat hypervigilance and resource hypervigilance. Those with threat hypervigilance feel a constant sense of danger and are always scanning situations for the possible sources of danger. Those who are resource hypervigilant feel a terrifying sense of emptiness, almost as if they don’t really exist

Escaping the threat

Children who are hypervigilant will usually find a reason to escape the perceived threat by, for example, running off or out of a room. If this is not possible they can remain in a state of alert and might use a coping mechanism like holding someone’s hand or putting their head under a cushion. In some cases it can be extreme enough for the person to become almost entirely preoccupied with scanning their environment for threats. They may become agitated in crowded or noisy places and may adopt a variety of obsessive behaviour patterns as ways of coping.

If you have concerns about a child you are fostering, then discuss them with your support social worker or the child’s social worker who will be able to make the appropriate referral if necessary. There are things you can do to help though. Exercise is helpful as it burns adrenaline and release feel-good hormones. Teaching the child to relax and take deep breaths can help, and obviously reassure them that they are safe. 

Cathy Glass