Meeting face to face with a bear in the woods. Taking a math test.

What do these events have in common? Each are events that cause the brain and body to feel stress. 

Seeing a bear in the woods is a dangerous, potentially life threatening, situation.  The brain responds accordingly, sounding an alarm to alert you of the danger. The rational thinking brain shuts down and your impulses kick in. Your thinking brain shuts down so that you can use all your energy to fight, freeze, or run away. 

Feeling worried over an upcoming math test can cause you to work harder and study more so that you can get a good grade and pass the class. But sometimes, the brain makes a mistake and treats the math test the same way it treated the bear. Just as it did with the bear, the rational thinking brain shuts down and you go into fight/flight/freeze mode.

Big feelings like anger and fear can cause those stress alarms to go off in your child’s brain, too. Some kids’ brains need extra practice to be able to tell the difference between big feelings and real danger, otherwise their brains may go into fight/flight/freeze mode unnecessarily. When this happens and your child’s thinking brain shuts down, he or she may have a hard time focusing and making good choices.

How do you recognize if your child’s brain is getting confused and sounding the alarms when it shouldn’t be? Kids who are in that fight/flight/freeze mode despite there not being any real danger may:

  • Scream
  • Throw tantrums
  • Excessively fidget
  • Run
  • Daydream
  • Whine
  • Say mean things
  • Push
  • Feel unable to move
  • Cry
  • Have physical ailments such as stomachaches or headaches

So how can you help your kid’s brain practice recognizing what is real danger and what is not?

  1. Talk to your child about the different parts of the brain – the amygdala that sounds the stress alarms and the pre-frontal cortex thinking brain.
  2. Help your child connect big feelings with physical responses their body experiences when going into fight/flight/freeze mode – the racing heart, sweaty hands, tingling toes, and tummy aches.
  3. Externalize and name your child’s fears and worries.
  4. Practice and encourage strategies that can be used as soon as kids start to notice the alarms going off and their body responses. 

What are some simple strategies you can try with your child?

Deep breathing – pretend you are blowing out a candle

Self-talk – give your child control by talking back to his/her fears and worries, for example, “You are not the boss of me, Worry!”

Grounding techniques – name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel/touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste

Guided imagery – imagine being in your favorite place 

Not all calm down strategies work the same for each child. It’s important for kids to practice their calm down strategies during both stressful and non-stressful times. Kids may need reminders and coaching before they are able to use calm down strategies on their own during times of stress.  With continued practice and encouragement, you are helping your child learn self-regulation and coping skills they will be able to use throughout their lives. 

Beth Nakad, LCSW

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