Help Your Child Deal with Feelings of Threat
Fight, Flight, Freeze or Deal with the Problem
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
So someone is scolding you, criticizing you, threatening you or saying something you know is not true. You don’t feel safe. What do you do? What does your child do? Here is what most people do:
Ways Human Beings Deal With Threat
- Moving toward the aggressor (fighting and returning the negative energy).
- Moving away from the aggressor (fleeing) Sometimes this is an appropriate choice.
- Moving away from the aggressor in the mind (dissociation into helplessness).
- Stay present and let the aggressor hurt you (submission).
- Staying present to deal with the problem (standing up to the aggressor, stating feelings, negotiating, problem solving, etc.)
The ways that humans cope with threat and stress are learned responses. (Learned from our parents and the people in our childhood most likely.)The old ways of fight or flight or give in are not the best choices. Problem solving and dealing with the aggressor is the response that brings increases in self-esteem.
Why do we human beings get mad? Anger is a response to threat or loss to our body, possessions, self esteem (we feel devalued some way) or values (those beliefs that we hold dear). Anger is often a response to feeling hurt and not being able to talk about it. Anger is a normal human emotion to a stressor that threatens us in some way. Sometimes just knowing that someone cares about their deepest feelings helps the release their hurt and anger.
There are strong family and societal laws about not feeling or expressing anger or other uncomfortable feelings. Yet we live in a world that has considerable stress and great anger. Most children come from families where “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” is the rule. Many families are caught in emotional pain around events of which they have little or no control. Many parents show the effects of stress resulting in dysfunctional behavior, ineffective parenting and methods of discipline that depend upon pain and threat. Children get caught up in the emotional pain of those around them but do not have the understanding or skills to deal with it. They grow up coping with threat and stress in the same unsuccessful ways that have not worked for their parents.
Psychological research shows that human beings generally try to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Failure to pay attention to the built up inner feelings over the years can result in heart failure, cancer and other diseases and a host of psychological symptoms.
The child who has been hurt suppresses his feelings of insecurity and anger out of fear of retaliation or being exposed at seeming weak. Some children cannot express their deep anger over a traumatic event such as physical or sexual abuse because of the deep-seated shame. Instead they focus on little events over and over which appear superficial to the listener or displace their anger on someone or something else. They often have a repeated theme of “It’s not fair.” Repetition of this lesson and other anger work of a symbolic nature (play therapy, story telling, doll play, pounding pillows) gives the child permission to bring the suppressed feelings up in a safe way and work them through. But it is not enough just to beat pillow. The hurt behind the anger has to be accessed and brought out to talk about.
One common reaction to feeling overwhelmed by threat and confrontation is to dissociate. Dissociation is a typical human response to deal with threat as a way of staying safe in situations of threat. Becoming confused, overwhelmed, going numb, “losing one’s tongue” and spacing out are all forms of dissociation. Shock after a trauma is a stronger form of dissociation. An alternative to the fight-or flight-cave man responses by fighting or running away, is to run away in your mind. Shame, hurt and feeling robbed of your power accompany this response. Helplessness through dissociation can become a conditioned response to all forms of threat.
The antidote to defending one’s self through denial or feelings of anger or guilt is to learn to breathe and stay present and hear what is being said. Confrontation and criticism are stressful for anyone to deal with. Listening to others express anger without feeling threat and engaging in defensive behavior is one of the most difficult skills for children to learn. Keep stressing feeling good about taking responsibility for one’s actions even if others do not. Taking responsibility for one’s own actions is the key to good mental health.
A Most Necessary Skill: Anger Containment
Anger is a common response to threat. Yet some children and adults become angry over small things keeping themselves upset. Containing anger and moving to a higher-level response is a skill that children as young as three years old can learn. Switching the anger response from aggression to one that is more socially acceptable helps them make friends and increase self-esteem. Children can learn to understand their anger and from this understanding make better choices. Their hurt and feelings of shame need to be brought to a conscious level where they can be recognized and labeled. Getting the child to acknowledge his anger before reacting is a step that slows the response down so that choices other than exploding can be made.
Some people have beliefs of “I’m entitled to have my own way and if I can’t, I have the right to get angry.” (Getting angry when his expectations are not met or when he has to own up to responsibility or doesn’t get his way.) Entitlement comes from a deep inner belief that the world is not fair because things were not fair at home for him when he was little. The child grows up and applies his “It’s not fair” way of thinking to many situations thus almost guaranteeing that he will lose. Trying to make the world fair when it typically is not causes the person to be continually upset. What is missing here is the skill of discriminating small events of threat from large ones and letting the little things go. Entitlement beliefs that are left unchecked can lead to selfish, antisocial behavior.
Cue the Child to Show Him How to Think and Act in Positive Ways
Give children “I believe in you” type cues often. Positive cues give children tools for taking care of themselves. Used on a regular basis, these cues help children develop positive self-esteem. The combination of reflecting children’s feelings back to them and using positive cues help change children’s behavior. Kids need to hear these key phrases over and over again in order to learn to feel good about expressing their feelings.
Positive cues give an immediate alternative to the upset child. These key phrases do not belittle or shame the child. They give information to help him save face by instructing him what he can do to take care of himself. They remind him to make a responsible choice to feel good about himself. They work! The constant repetition of these cues helps the child internalize these positive messages as his own.
“Get your control. Take your power. Stop and think. Make a good choice.” are generic therapist or teacher cues that remind children that there are different alternatives how they react in uncomfortable situations. With practice and much reinforcement, children can learn to feel pride in coping effectively with their anger and letting small incidents of threat go. Children can learn to speak feelings in the moment of heat and choose from a number of alternative responses. Internalized self statements such as “I can breathe. I can make peace. I can deal with this” and “I’ll chill out” give the child opportunities to take control of his own behavior and feel good about himself.
Learn the cues that emphasize good problem solving given in these lesson plans and your discipline problems will decrease drastically! Time spent in making these cues part of your automatic response to children disruption will dramatically change your life as a therapist! Regular use of these types of cues will decrease tattling and increase-mind-your-own business behavior. Children who view themselves as good problems solvers who can choose from alternative ways of responding to threat will be less likely to become hostile and resort to gang behavior.
Add these cues to your repertoire gradually by practicing one cue for several days until you hear yourself saying it automatically in response to a specific inappropriate action. The phrase “Use your words” can have a powerful effect in decreasing aggressive behavior. Post several visual cues around your room to assist your learning.
Helper Words for Children
What you say to children makes a difference in how they act. Positive cues on how to react empower the distraught child when he is most upset. They are reminders to the child that he has a choice of action. The use of a correctly phrased cue after a child’s disruptive behavior is the most important tool you have in your arsenal of skills. They bypass the shame that child feels when he misbehaves and give information how he can think and act differently. Positive adult cues are shame busters! Invest in learning them. Learning these cues takes minimal effort on your part and gives a thousand fold return on your investment of time. Study and rehearse them until they become automatic. Your use of these cues will help that you be less stressed.
Cues for Parents and Teachers (who want to stay out of child-to-child conflicts):
- How could you two practice peace right now? What’s another thing you could do instead of yelling at each other?
- I know you two are upset with each other but I also know that you could work it out.
- Notice how hot you are getting. Are there some Helper Words you could say to cool yourself down?
- It looks as if you are getting upset with yourself. Stop and think what you could tell yourself to build some peace inside.
- What Helper Words could you use right now to give you some peace?
Helper Words for Children
Helper Words are things children say to themselves to remember positive ways of dealing with conflict. Practice having the children say these phrases out loud in response to conflict. Write these Helper Words statements and post them around the house.
Helper Words For Children:
- I check in with my body to find out my feelings.
- I can say my feelings.
- I have a right to my feelings. I speak my feelings.
- I can tell people how I feel. I am a feelings person.
- I can chill myself out. I cool myself down when I’m mad.
- I am most powerful when I share how I feel.
- I can be in control when I get angry. I breathe and blow my anger out.
Angry children want to learn to deal with their strong feelings but do not have the tools to do so. They enjoy learning the skills of anger release. Current psychological theory says that aggression is not an innate quality in humans but is an optional strategy that is learned and used because it is highly powerful in intimidating others.
The longitudinal research shows that children who display aggressive and antisocial behaviors when young show psychopathology in later life with problems of violence, alcoholism, marital problems and turning to crime. They lack basic trust and do not have the positive social skills to work things out peacefully. By helping the child release their pent up anger and teaching them skills of negotiation to deal with conflict, you give them a sense of control over their actions thereby increasing self-esteem.
Children who come from homes where dysfunctional coping and harsh discipline are modeled can learn positive skills that present an alternative way to respond to threat and stress. Share these cues with your child so he can use them. Set up practice sessions of the “I feel ____, when you _____” message at home.
There are many different types of intelligence. Emotional intelligence is necessary to be successful in the today’s world. Dan Goldman, author of Emotional Intelligence, says that the five components of living a happy, healthy life are:
- being aware of feelings
- handling distressing emotions
- motivating themselves and achievement
- understanding emotions in others
- possessing social skills for getting along with others.
These necessary life skills can be taught to children as individuals or in groups just as reading or math. With practice, a child can learn these skills and practice them until they are programmed into his brain.
Today’s message is “Own your own feelings!” This message is hard for children and most adults to learn. It takes a certain level of maturity and understanding to realize this basic concept of psychology that we are responsible in how we react to threat. People can do things to us that activate our emotions, but in the long run we choose how to respond. The more we learn about others and ourselves, the less angry humans we become.
Teaching Self Respect and Respect for Others
Children are can inhibit aggressive behavior when the social environment requires it. Recent research shows that schools can reduce bullying as well as theft, vandalism and truancy when they emphasize respect of self and others. Set high standards of behavior for children by giving them the specifics of what you expect from them as well as providing them tools for dealing with conflict.
Violence is anything that denies or diminishes the humanity of another person. We can teach children to gain personal power by affirming, cooperating, communicating and problem solving during times of conflict. Children are exquisitely sensitive to the subtle expectations of adults in the social situation. When therapists set specific positive expectations to control aggression and teach prosocial skills, children are capable of moderating manipulation and tyrannical behaviors. With training, children can inhibit aggressive angry responses and substitute more healthy ways of dealing with threat.
Teach children to associate helping others with respect. Equate altruism and feeling good inside. Get your child involved in some volunteer programs that helps others. My daughter takes her preteen to help out at the soup kitchen. Another parent involved her children in collecting socks for homeless people. There are many opportunities in your community to serve others. This develops you child’s self-esteem as someone who cares about others.
Children define themselves by their clubs, hobbies and interests. If positive ways of achieving self esteem are not there, young people will get in negative ways. Young people who deal drugs say they feel respect from peers by engaging in their illegal activities. Not having appropriate ways of feeling good about themselves, they get high on hurting others. We need to emphasize the true meaning of gaining respect–doing things that encourage and empower others!
Modeling Positive Ways to Deal with Emotions
Your modeling speaking your own feelings helps children learn to do the same. For example, when a child laughs and rolls his eyes when being corrected, say with firmness, “I feel angry when you roll your eyes like that. You need to be listening to the message of taking care of yourself by making better choices. I feel upset when you laugh when you are corrected. This is about your learning. This is not about laughter. Now let’s practice my giving information and you being big enough to hear it.” Speak your own mads when you feel upset with the group.
Your owning the expression of your honest feelings out loud to your child is one of the most powerful tools you have! (As long as you are fair and friendly about doing so.) This social skills approach teaches children that there is a better way. Give the children this constant message: There is a better way to treat people and be treated. There is a better way to act. There is a better way to live. We can choose to live the better way where everyone is safe and no one gets hurt. We don’t have to wait for parents to change to learn this new way. We can start living the better way now. Maybe then this better way will generalize and others will learn it too. When we use positive social skill nobody loses and everybody wins!
The Necessary Social Skills for Dealing with Anger
Read through these sub skills of anger and you will realize how complex it is. These are just the ones I figured out from years of working with children and adults. I’m sure there are many more skills. Almost no one knows how to do anger in ways that are affirming rather than destructive.
Research shows that the major skills necessary for living in happy relationships are avoiding conflict and negative statements, problem solving, affect regulation and conflict management. Dealing with internal distress is absolutely necessary to happy relationships. That is why I like the Tapas Acupressure Technique and the Emotional Freedom Technique.
These anger management skills can be learned and practiced until they become a habit.
To Channel Anger Into Constructive Action
___ To identify and name feelings and use the “I formula” when appropriate
___ To speak feelings appropriately when feeling threatened but refrain when it’s not safe.
___ To deal with others who discount feelings and do not want to listen.
___ To express anger in safe and productive ways that increase self esteem.
___ To change anger constructively to MAD–Make A Difference
To Release Current and Old Anger in Effective Ways
___ To displace anger symbolically when it is not safe to express it directly.
___ To use positive displacement of anger and refrain from negative displacement.
___ To use cool down thoughts to break into self-angering thoughts.
To Learn Assertive Ways of Dealing with Threat
___ To stand up and speak assertively when threatened.
___ To say No, state boundaries and Bottom Line and leave if boundaries are not respected.
___ To shield against the negative energy of name-calling and ridicule.
___ To take care of self when parents fight. (It’s not my problem. It’s a grownup problem.)
___ To break into dissociative states of fear and numbing out.
___ To use techniques of self-soothing when upset. (Breathing, rubbing one’s body, rocking, etc.)
To Learn to Contain Excessive Anger
___ To learn to discriminate between big and little deals. (Don’t sweat the small stuff.)
___ To realize and accept that you don’t always get what you want. (Break into entitlement)
___ To learn to identify irrational thoughts and statements that fuel anger.
___ To break into self-angering thoughts and use cool down thoughts.
___ To learn to analyze and correct mistakes instead of beating self up.
___ To interrupt intrusive, negative thinking by using cool down words.
___ To keep cool when others are trying to push your buttons.
___ To take Time Out when overheated during an argument and then return to problem solve.
To Learn to Feel Empathy and Respect Others
___ To listen to others when they are upset.
___ To recognize and refrain from actions that are hurtful to others.
___ To stop blaming others under conditions of stress.
___ To take responsibility for one’s own actions and wrong doings.
___ To refrain from sarcasm, name calling, egg ons and put-downs.
___ To see things from the other person’s perspective.
___ To observe the effect of one’s actions upon others and express sorrow for hurting others.
___ To treat others with respect and altruism.
To Observe Rather than Over React to Threatening Events
___ To learn to observe and identify body reactions, emotions and thoughts during threat.
___ To use observation of physiological cues to break into anger or fear responses.
___ To find and express sadness, confusion and hurt that may lie under the anger.
___ To analyze the threatening event and identify and break into triggers.
___ To bridge current angers back to old unresolved childhood issues so they can be released.
___ To stay present in the threat of danger rather than lashing out or stuffing anger.
___ To change the self-angering or self-depreciating meanings given to threatening events.
___ To make self-empowering statements showing that you are in charge of your body.
Note: I composed this list of social skills for living a happy life from my curriculums on anger management. The many hands-on activities that are featured in the curriculums came from my work of seven years of doing groups with angry children in a psychiatric hospital day school. See my catalog for ways to teach these skills of emotional intelligence and anger management. Please email this article on to your child’s teacher, guidance counselor or principal and direct them to this website at http://LynneNamka.com.