One of the things I find myself saying to children I see (I’m a child therapist) is ‘control your controllables’. They find this quite funny but also hugely reassuring. Imagine you’re being bullied, either at school or online and you don’t know what to do? Realizing that you can’t control the bully means there’s one less person to worry about. The person they need to focus on is themselves. It’s no good just hoping the bully will stop picking on them instead it’s them who needs to change. The one thing they can control is how they react to the bully or to whatever they are anxious about.
So first let’s look at their stress response. How does your child typically respond to stress?
There are three different ways.
The first is ‘fight’. Now that doesn’t mean they actually hit back. It means that they are ready to. They will stand strong and firm in a ‘no nonsense’ pose with both feet firmly grounded on the floor, strong eye contact, shoulders back and rigid, core facing out. We are animals – core out (or belly button out) towards the bully or threat, tells would-be attackers that we are ready to fight back. In most cases that would be enough to put them off. There’s no need to say anything because their body is doing it for them.
‘Flight’ is the opposite. Core is away from the threat, body posture is weak, arms and shoulders are all over the place and they are not engaging. They are now at the mercy of whoever is attacking, whether that be a verbal or physical attack. In most cases what you would recognize as ‘flight’ would be a child stepping away, looking down, folding( belly button in) in a defensive way, shoulders drooping and head down, fidgeting with their hands, mumbling and moving from foot to foot, not grounded.
‘Freeze’ is not the in-between state. Freeze is the option where they stand firm, like the fight mode, but they disassociate. This means that they develop the ability to switch off the emotional response and engage the brain in considering their options. It’s like imagining they are a CCTV camera watching what’s going on, noticing what’s happening and deciding rationally what options are available. It’s quite a good one for moms to use in fact, as a way to pause and consider the options when your kids are really pushing the boundaries. It’s tempting to move into ‘fight’ (shouting at them) or ‘flight’ (taking yourself into the bedroom until you can face sorting them out) but ‘freeze’ means you say to yourself ‘OK so what’s actually happening here? Who has said/done what? Is this something I need to sort out or will they calm down?’ or whatever your preferred parenting style may be depending on your own kids and their ages.
Your children will tend towards a preferred response to stress. Tell them what the options are. Discuss them. It’s good for them to know they have a choice. The more choice they have in stressful situations, the more power and control they will have over the outcome.