Fight. Flight. Freeze.

Fight. Flight. Freeze.

I am sure we have all read and heard about a child’s FIGHT, FLIGHT and FREEZE responses. However, we do not hear as much being discussed about how we continue to experience these behaviours into our adult years.

In the late 1960’s, Dr Silvan Tomkins shared his “Affect Theory” research with the world. For those who may not be aware, we all poses an “Affect System” that gets triggered when the spotlight is placed on us, so allow me to briefly share an insight into what is our “Affect System”, and the connection with Fight, Flight and Freeze modalities.

The “Affect System” is triggered when a person is stimulated by something that is received via the senses. The stimulus can be positive, negative or a neutral one. However, once our affect system is aroused, we may respond positively, which may give rise to pleasure or fun, in a negative way, which may stir up shame or anger and in a neutral way, which may show itself in the form of a shock or a startle. The shock and startle response, is a brief pause in time where it is hard to think or make sense of things. It lasts a few seconds generally until cognition is regained.

The “Affect System” when triggered creates a physiological change in the human body, such as a smile, rolling of the eyes, blushing etc. This is also accompanied by a feeling and when the two interact, we feel an emotion, like anger, fear, joy, excitement or just uncertainty.

This “Affect System” is interconnected to our FIGHT, FLIGHT, and FREEZE behaviour.

When a child is placed in the spotlight for having done something wrong, their “affect system” gets triggered. They will feel uncomfortable, and yet smile, or turn their heads, eyes and look away etc. (their physiological response). However, the adult will usually respond by saying ” look at me”  or “you need to take this seriously, so stop smiling”.

If the child feels that their relationship with the adult is not a safe and positive one, the child may engage in a “Power Battle” with the adult. That is, the child will argue, deny, or participate in a blame game. This is the “FIGHT” response of the child.

The adult can also goes into FIGHT mode, especially when they believe they are losing control and power, so to regain the upper hand, the adult usually reverts to their “safety mode” and takes up a position of “Power Over”, by raising their voice, or implementing a punitive intervention. However, it is quite common for adults before they go into Fight mode to experience the FREEZE!!!!

The Freeze response may not be as obvious to some but it happens when the adult is confronted with a situation that requires management, and for a moment are uncertain how to deal with it. There is often some internal thinking that takes place for them. Used wisely, it can be of benefit to all but when rushed, it can have damaging outcomes. For instance, if a child says something rude and offensive to the adult, the adult is shocked, “FREEZES”, gets angry and the emotional energy surges quickly, so that the response is a statement that is intimidating, and aggressive. It may even contain judgemental, and stigmatising language. Then it is followed by a punitive action because it helps the adult feel as though they have regained the Power status back to the “FIGHT” response.

The “Freeze” response can be useful to the adult, when managed effectively. If the adult is uncertain about what to do, take that moment to reflect, a statement can be delivered with honesty and dignity that addresses the affect of the comment on the person. Then redirect the child onto something else and find the time later to address it properly. Once the adult has had the time to think about what needs to happen and reflects calmly on a way of managing the situation with the child being allowed to do the same, the prospect of coming up with a more positive outcome is enhanced.

For the child, the FREEZE response will take the form of silence or denial and reluctance to engage. This will often enrage and frustrate the adult. Again, take the time to be “with” and “in the silence” and to think of a statement that will disapprove of what has happened or the behaviour and move on to something else, so that the and space time can be used to reflect and address the situation with clarity.

The “FLIGHT” mode for a child can be instantaneous, especially if the child is fearful of what is going to happen to them. They will often run when they feel guilty and when they know that they have done something hurtful. The child may run when they do not have a great relationship with the adult. The feeling of not being safe or in a safe place with the adult can trigger “FLIGHT” responses from children. So, the first thing is not to run after them, let them settle and calm down, then find the best time to interact with them. Again, use language that is respectful, and a tone that feels safe, calming and yet assertive. For the adult the “FLIGHT” response can be to pass the problem onto someone else, which tends to happen in schools and in the home. In the home, one parent passes the problem onto the other. Neither of these behaviours are helpful because it disempowers one and makes the other responsible.  The same applies in schools when one teacher refers the problem onto another. Sadly, that person experiences ,the damed if they do, and damed if they don’t reactions.

While, FLIGHT, FIGHT and FREEZE modalities are a natural part of human behaviour, being aware of these in our actions and responses can help us to manage situations more effectively when we see it being played out in children or other adults.

Build a Strong Flexible Bridge: Personal Thoughts on Teen Mental Health

Build a Strong Flexible Bridge: Personal Thoughts on Teen Mental Health

Teenage Mental Health: Build a Strong Flexible Supportive Bridge

In the past 16 years, I have spent time working with teenagers with trauma and mental health issues. In working with these fabulous young people, they taught me a great deal about emotional pain, vulnerability and importance of listening, supporting and not given up on them.

In Australia, approximately one in six teenagers have some form of mental health or trauma related issue. In a classroom of thirty students, it means, that there are seven kids who are affected and of maybe two or three may seek help from a school counsellor of significant adult. The other students are either too afraid or embarrassed to talk or share with anyone and may not feel as though they have a significant adult or person they can relate too and trust. They fear being singled out, ridiculed and ultimately bullied by others.

As a result these kids often become behavioural concerns and get labelled as defiant, the trouble maker or “the school refuser”. Families then become embroiled in the battle with School, Education systems’, and the Courts, all with the best intentions but often with an authoritarian approach to managing the situation. All of this adding to the traumatic experience for the child, which impacts on their relationship once again with their family. The crisis circle is spinning around and around.

Having worked with these teenagers, they all express a genuine willingness to want to change their circumstances but struggle to get that kick-start. What they taught me was that if you empower them to make decisions and listen without judgement, then it is amazing what they are capable of accomplishing. Often these teenagers struggle to connect with adults and they feel unsafe and constantly under threat. This threat comes from the emotional feelings they pick up from others around them. People who just do not understand what they are experiencing and who make them feel different. They get told “to get a grip on things” or to “build a bridge and get over it” and it is far from being that simple.

From my experience what is helpful, is to ask them “what do they want to do”, and to listen and encourage them to problem solve with our help. To develop a plan with two or three practical strategies that is easy for them to enforce so that they see success and growth in what they are doing. When any adult is working with child who has experienced trauma, it is critical to acknowledge that the change process will take time. It requires supportive adults who are prepared to journey with these kids. Adults who have the endurance to be patient, positive, energised and do not give up when there is a setback.

Any child who has had a traumatic experience cannot manage the change on their own, and it is unrealistic to expect them to bring about change without assistance. By providing adult support, wisdom and positivity is so valuable and when there are setbacks, focus on what they have achieved no matter how small. Then problem solve what more can we do together to get to the next step. Progress is never smooth or linear there will be moments when it’s two steps forward and one step or more backwards. The key is to reflect on on the backward steps and highlight what has been achieved, what has been learnt, and to use what was learnt for the next two steps forward.

The research evidence into mental health states that the brain is capable of repair and healing and that it is possible for the brain to develop new neuron pathways, and therefore create the opportunity to learn, adapt and change. If a safe and secure environment surrounds the child and the adults who work with them believe in them, while the memories of events will remain, the pain will diminish.

I also found that the language, I used with these kids makes a huge difference in how they engage with you. There has to be dialogue and a tonality that is soft, calming, and non-threatening. Avoid emotive language, as well as blameful or judgemental statements because it alienates and further disconnects the child.

To force a child into compliance and work with what the adult’s plan can be a lost cause. This does not work well at, all plans with these children must involve them, and it needs to be kept simple, practical, and realistic. They must be able to achieve some level of success from the plan and what adds the icing to this, is acknowledgment they receive from the adults.