Your Child Deal
with Feelings of Threat:
Fight, Flight, Freeze or Deal With the Problem
Lynne Namka, Ed. D. ©
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
Human Beings Deal With Threat
l. Moving toward the aggressor (fighting and returning
the negative energy).
2. Moving away from the aggressor (fleeing) Sometimes
this is an appropriate choice.
3. Moving away from the aggressor in the mind (dissociation
4. Stay present and let the aggressor hurt you (submission).
5. Staying present to deal with the problem (standing
up to the aggressor, stating feelings, negotiating, problem
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Most Necessary Skill: Anger Containment
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.
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.
the Child to Show Him How to Think and Act in Positive Ways
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Words for Children
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.
for Parents and Teachers (who want to stay out of child-to-child
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
What Helper Words could you use right now to give you
Words for Children
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
Words For Children:
I check in with my body to find out my feelings.
I can say my feelings.
have a right to my feelings. I speak my feelings.
can tell people how I feel. I am a feelings person.
can chill myself out. I cool myself down when I'm mad.
am most powerful when I share how I feel.
can be in control when I get angry. I breathe and blow
my anger out.
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.
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
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
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:
1. being aware of feelings
handling distressing emotions
motivating themselves and achievement
understanding emotions in others
possessing social skills for getting along with others.
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.
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.
Self Respect and Respect for Others
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.
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.
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.
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!
Positive Ways to Deal with Emotions
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.
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!
Necessary Social Skills for Dealing with Anger
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.
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.
anger management skills can be learned and practiced until
they become a habit.
Channel Anger Into Constructive Action
To identify and name feelings and use the "I formula" when
___ 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
___ 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
___ To use positive displacement of anger and refrain from
___ To use cool down thoughts to break into self-angering
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
___ 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
___ 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
___ To learn to analyze and correct mistakes instead of
beating self up.
___ To interrupt intrusive, negative thinking by using cool
___ 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 stop blaming others under conditions of stress.
___ To take responsibility for one's own actions and wrong
___ 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
___ 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.
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