FIGHT, FLIGHT OR FREEZE – how to handle childen’s stress

On July 8, 2014 by Trude

FIGHT, FLIGHT OR FREEZE - how to handle childen's stress Experiencing acute stress gives a reaction that will vary from person to person. However, researchers have narrowed the reactions down to three, four or five. We’ll look into these, because:

Highly sensitive persons tend to become acutely stressed more easily than the rest. It’s a part of being highly sensitive; you are alert and try to analyze all situations. If something happens fast, yo have to think fast. If the situation doesn’t match previous situations, you analyze. This takes time. So when a highly sensitive person is forced to react quickly, an acute stress reaction arises.

I think it is important that we are aware of this. Society often demands a quick reaction. School, work, social settings, competitions. The highly sensitive person needs to be aware when it happens, in order to buy time. “One second, I haven’t thought of that before” or something of the sort. And school needs to be aware of it. Because if a teacher demands a reply out of thin air, the sensitive pupil, reacting with acute stress, will probably not answer as well as he would if he had the time to think. His answer will not give a reply that represents his understanding or knowledge.

Once upon a time psychologists named the reactions to acute stress fight and flight. You will oppose or leave the situation. But both of these are active reactions. Some people react by freezing. I know I used to. Your brain blocks, and you don’t seem to react at all. Lately both freeze, fright and even faint have been added to the list. From this you may see a pattern. Children (and adults) react in very different ways to acute stress.

It is important that people whose work implies evaluating people understand these reactions. Teachers, for instance, who want well-behaved children in their classrooms, should understand that acute stress leads to undeliberate behaviour. Therefore they should tro to avoid inflicting acute stress.

I remember a teacher once hit me with a question and I had one of these panic reactions. I still remember the question, and I certainly know  I knew the answer, but what I didn’t understand washer behaviour. What was she after? My own reaction blocked out every possibility of thinking straight, so I froze. My panic response was to say something random, and the teacher strengthened her opinion of me as a rebellious type.

I think you find many situations like this in schools. Over-interpretations of situations make children insecure and lead them into stress. Reactions: Fight: loud and rebellious. Flight: Running away. Freeze: No response. Fright: Crying. Ever seen this in a classroom? It is certainly not the behaviour we want. So let’s learn how not to stress the children. Because punishing a child because he is stressed, is not a good response. Punishment for stress will never lead to less stress. Maybe a different reaction, but not a smaller one. That is why acknowledging stress is vital.

Acute stress is normal, and not something we should avoid altogether. It is a part of life, of experiencing new things. But we need to know how to deal with it. And the first step is to understand when and why it happens. As I’ve already said, this varies from person to person.

Children don’t understand their reactions, unless they are particularly wise. Some highly sensitive children are exactly that. They don’t understand why their teachers don’t see what they are doing to them. They will lose confidence in their teachers.

It might be correct that 80% of the children inthe classroom handle their punishment for bad behaviour well, because they are not already in such a stressed situation. But highly sensitive children who are punished for their reaction to stress, will only have added more stress to their stress, and may never recover properly. Because it doesn’t feel fair, and thus the world seems like an unfair place.

So what to do? Well, kind words are a good place to start. And questions that they will have plenty of time to answer. “Why did you react in such a way?”, “What should we do to make you not react that way?” for instance, will give the child responsibility for his actions and will enable him to learn from them, as long as it isn’t made into yet another stressful situation. Give him maybe even until tomorrow to give a thought-throug reply. And then you might not even have to think up a way all by yourself – because all the hours of thinking has given the child a chance to solve it himself.

 Ever met an adult with the same sort of reactions? Fight, fright, freeze etc? Maybe they are highly sensitive people who have never learnt how to deal with stress. Then also, it might be a good idea not to attack, not to create more stress. Take the stress away from the situation, and you might find that the person underneath is quite a nice character well worth listening to.

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