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By Dan Blair Marriage Counselor and Family Therapist
We cannot underestimate the amount of stress we are under, especially during a pandemic. We are seeing the breakdown of our healthcare system and the effects of racism. Anger and conflict are all around us. We all have to start at the first step: changing ourselves.
The first half of this article reveals the anatomy of stress, and how we can respond to it. The second half applies what we learned to our kids. Hopefully you shall understand ways to help you and your child recognize and respond to intense emotions in a healthy way especially during times of stress. Perhaps there will be an intervention you can use to motivate your child to engage in school work and other responsibilities, while working through feelings of frustration and anger. Most importantly, I hope you find at least one way to improve your relationships with your child, reduce conflict and have more enjoyable interactions.
We are all stressed. Here are a range of stressors and of course life changes, illness and death is part of the picture. Loss of job, financial problems and internal stressors, like feeling inadequate or rejected, can plague us all.
Acute and chronic stress come from a perceived threat to physiological or psychological harm. Acute stress consists of “fight or flight” responses. When that does not work to deal with the problem, we resort to “freeze” mode. We may dare not make a move in this situation, but maybe unable to stop dwelling on it. Examples of acute stress are someone cuts you off in traffic, extra demands are placed on you, even being attacked. At some point acute stress becomes chronic stress, which resets the threshold. That is the line that is crossed when normal levels of stress go beyond what we can handle for an extended period of time, like a shelter in place during a pandemic, or systemic racism.
Response to stress is either intentional or automatic. Intentional response is taking deep breaths, walking away from an argument or carving out some relaxation time. You could even try to use humor, like when I promised my wife I will for sure fix a leaky faucet during the next time we have a pandemic. Automatic response gets more serious, and credit goes to fight or flight system. With practice, intentional can become automatic over time.
We are hard-wired for the automatic response commonly called “fight or flight” but is actually called the sympathetic nervous system. The brain is a survival machine and it uses emotions to enhance survival and prepare for threats. In this system fear and anger run along the same pathways in the brain. Our brain can generate instant energy in 1/20th of a second far before we realize it at one half of a second subconsciously pre-directing our behavior. A flood of stress hormones trigger instant responses in your body. Before you even feel anger or stress, signals in your brain prepare your muscles for instant action. Heart rate and blood pressure increases, airways in the lungs expand, along with less blood flow to the brain and digestive system.
What happens in the body involves the limbic system. It is always scanning for threat. The amygdala sounds the alarm and stress hormones are released. The hippocampus selects memories that are the most intense as a guide for action. This becomes a trigger and over time distorts accurate recall as our fears gradually become worse. This is what keeps us up at night, and is usually about the unknown future based on an undesirable event.
Part of the brain can actually go offline. This is not good unless you are actually in danger. Adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones compromise our ability to put on the brakes of our own negative behavior, see the impact of our behavior and words on others, switch gears and see options and other points of view. Now we are less able to use humor, be creative, empathetic, logical and recall accurately. Anger, anxiety and stress are related to lower immunity, cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, cancer, pain, insomnia and substance use. Contributing factors include ADHD, depression, anxiety and trauma, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, substance use, fatigue, low blood sugar, hyperthyroidism and other medical conditions.
It also lowers our window of tolerance for stress. Ideally, we are in an optimal arousal state that we can effectively regulate throughout the day. As long as you have the tools necessary to keep the regulation within these thresholds, you are able to function well, engage with others, and make good decisions. If we move too high, we are in the hyperarousal state. Too low and we are in the hypoarousal state. What does excess stress do over time? The boundaries shrink and it becomes much easier to move into the hyperarousal and hypoarousal state. Our goal is to practice with tools that widen the threshold and increase our capacity for handling stress.
It’s important to recognize our own survival responses if we’re going to help our kids. In the hyperarousal category we tend to get anxious, restless, irritable and argumentative (fight). Or we tend to actively avoid emotions and conflict (flight). If this is not effective, we move into feeling tense and ruminating on the regrettable past or unknown future (freeze). Over time in the freeze response, and we are vulnerable to moving to a hypoarousal state which I call sleep and submit. In the sleep response, we sleep more, move less, and feel lethargic. In the submit response we are giving up and may be agreeable, but often will not follow through (but still apologize)?
Tools for hyperarousal state to counter fight, flight or freeze: A, B, C, D, E
Awareness of the feeling of anger or anxiety in your body, before it is overwhelming. Where do you first feel it? For example do you feel it in your shoulders? Chest? Stomach? Hands? Elsewhere?
Mindfulness is building a relationship with your feelings thoughts and sensations in an accepting, curious and compassionate way versus fearing or rejecting them. It is listening to them. You may ask yourself: Where do they come from? What are they there for?
It is focusing on the present, especially when overwhelmed. What am I doing or thinking right now? How do I feel about that? What would feel better?
Breathing techniques address hyperventilation, which leads to higher reactivity (increase in oxygen and a decrease in carbon dioxide leads to a rise in the blood pH level). You can lessen the intake of oxygen to create a balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide. You can experiment with doing the opposite for some of these techniques to find a way to recharge versus relax.
- Belly breathing is deep breathing using your diaphragm
- Your stomach should extend, not your chest
- Breath in through the nose and out through the mouth
- Breath out slower than you breath in, and pause after you breathe out
- For kids, you can also use balloons, bubbles, or use “hot cocoa breathing,” (pretending to smell hot chocolate and gently blowing it so that it cools).
Calming techniques use the experiential part of the brain versus the striving part. We can focus on the five senses to reduce muscle tension. Just notice what you think about when your mind wanders and gently come back to your senses.
- Sounds, relaxing music, and nature
- Sights, pictures, movement
- Touch, textures, blankets, bath, sun
- Tastes, sweet, crunchy, spicy, sour
- Scents, lavender
Distraction techniques include anything that effectively holds your attention for some time until the adrenaline can metabolize. Walking or counting backwards seems especially helpful, drawing blood flow away from the brain’s alarm system.
Expression techniques express emotion in non-destructive ways. Talking to supportive person, journaling, artwork, coloring, dance, music and other creative options. Even exercise, yoga or any movement can put the adrenaline to good use and a by-product is carbon dioxide.
Tools for hypoarousal state to counter sleep and submit: ACES
- Routines and rhythm of life
- Meaningful work that gives you a feeling of accomplishment
- Expectations: wishes or realistic? Within your control?
- Make a list
- Prioritize it and put it in a schedule
- Time with positive friends, family, faith, pets, nature
- Random act of kindness
- Ask for help
- Grieve and forgive
- Google “hobbies”
- The great outdoors
- Sleep hygiene
- Healthy eating habits
- Regular breaks
- Pay attention to emotions and needs
Optimal arousal checklist.
- Are my brakes working? Self- control
- How about the steering fluid? Can I stay focused? See my impact of what I do on others? Integrate multiple perspectives?
- Transmission fluid? Do I have enough tools to shift up or down to regulate your own behavior
Once we are in check, we can face our kids. Unfortunately, kids may not be a fan of self-control. Hyperarousal for them can be a power trip, fight or flight for control, accompanied by endorphin release to help them when they’re feeling anxious or down. I am not saying kids are like pigs, but to quote George Bernard Shaw: “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
Calming parts of the brain can be underdeveloped. Alarming parts are overdeveloped and chaos can become comfortable. Have you ever feel disoriented or anxious in the middle of the night? Some kids can feel like that all day. The question to ask yourself, is your own feeling and actions squelching the fire or adding to the fire? Kids read our voice tone, facial expressions and body language and react accordingly. Plus, kids test your allegiance to them. In other words, they want to know are you really there for me when they are upset. We often do not know why. Triggers can be external (environmental), but they could also be internal, like fatigue, dietary, and sensory. There is a difference between external and internal triggers and behavior. Internal triggers feel out of control and are difficult to express, while external behavior usually has a goal.
How do we teach regulation? Try CPR.
Don’t argue. Discipline should not be exhausting. The less you talk at this point the better. Perhaps start by giving the child choices and compromises so he’s not fighting loss of control. Stress, anger and anxiety are contagious so how you feel when you’re with the kids has more impact than what you say. Take the time to ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” If needed take a break and separate as long as the child is safe.
Connect before you correct to show them you understand them, which reduces their anxiety. You do not have to agree. For younger children, get on their level, ask them to find your eyes or try appropriate touch. Maybe if you have time let them talk without you countering them to lower their emotional intensity. Learning emotional regulation skills is often more important than anything else at this point.
Physical and verbal aggression though is designed to shock, upset and control you. Don’t let it work. If the child is too disruptive and the attempts to calm are making it worse lead the younger child to a safe place in the house and give older children space as long as they are safe. If the child is dwelling on you the adrenaline is still triggered. Unless the child is unsafe, wait until the adrenaline is metabolized. If the child is willing you can try releasing endorphins probably through stretching walking exercises jumping swinging or other outlets. After a time come back and model awareness, breathing, calming, distraction or expression techniques. Do not correct behavior yet. When the child is calm and ready to listen a time can be set.
Practice improves behavior better than reasoning. Kids learn by practicing and playing. Like in learning the guitar, or playing a sport, actually doing something is better than just explaining it. You can practice the wrong way to do it first to reinforce the difference. For example, slamming the door versus shutting the door. Introduce the option of a redo, a chance to start over when frustrated. Practice awareness, breathing, calming, distraction or expression techniques.
We also need to demonstrate problem-solving and rational thinking. Knowing that the positive needs to outweigh the negative, have plenty of good times, good talks, recognize their daily accomplishments and show affection.
When calm, you can use the problem-solving triangle. The bottom corners of the triangle represent both sides of an issue. Both sides can share their perception of an issue. Each side shows understanding of the other side. Surprisingly, there is no need to agree or disagree to teach effectively. Then, instead of focusing on who is right or who is wrong, focus on the top of the triangle, which represents multiple brainstormed solutions. Agree on a solution to try, hopefully build on the kid’s ideas. That is called a “we decision.”
Just like in life, work before play. Once responsibilities are completed at a specified time, routine privileges can be accessed. For extra reinforcement, add a special privilege at times. Behaviors can be tracked if needed with checklists, and stickers for younger kids. Positive consequences usually are effective and include praise and celebrations. Use consequences that are logically related. An example may be researching a topic, volunteering or providing restitution. Most importantly, be consistent. For older kids predetermine consequences with them. They do not respond well with surprises.
The only talk at this point is based on empathy; no use to discuss or argue when informing them of a consequence. Negative reactions teach negative reactions and impede learning. Using fear, threats or isolation may be effective in the short-term, but not the long-term. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Force is all conquering but its victories are short-lived.” Hopefully, wrong choices are not reinforced by our negative reactions. The law of conflict means kids automatically oppose your position when they are upset and they can’t receive new information. The law of practice means behavior is skill based requires repetition. Kids watch you more than they listen to you. The law of self-determination means the more freedom is limited the likelihood of poor choices increase. Kids need to be able to make their own choices and will learn best with consistent consequences.
This approach can take a long time to develop. In times of stress though, we have a need to lower expectations to effectively deal with increased demands. Give more generous breaks between tasks. Another suggestion is to limit exposure to bad news that you can’t do anything about. Kids in general have difficulty with regulation but now it may be worse. They can have difficulty putting on the brakes from acting on incoming stimuli, are distractible, impulsive, and have lots of energy. Difficulty can also be seen in disengaging from enjoyable activities.
Structure can help. We can create routines that we can follow and include time for physical release of energy. In addition, we can prepare for transitions and less structured times. These times are often difficult. Use relaxation techniques before moving back to focused activity. A chart with pictures that the child drew shows daily routines. As the child completes each task he or she can move a closed pin to the next picture. A checklist on a whiteboard or paper can also be used. The child can practice sustaining attention through random sounds or beeps. Using an app like Beep Beep, or a system of your own design, every time there is an auditory cue, it can be a reminder to stay on task, or you can keep track of whether or not you are on task. The more you can reduce distractions the better. Build in plenty of breaks to move around. Perhaps different stations for different subjects. You can use visual and auditory timers, like the Time Timer app. Background music or noise can help block auditory distractions, or headphones. Also fidgets to manipulate or seat cushions, like Movin’ Sit Jr. or Disc O’Sit Jr can help contain the extra energy. Using a buddy system, where one child works with or helps the other works for public health clubs. Maybe it will work here. Or, consider apps like Inspiration and Epic Win to help kids organize, focus, and complete tasks.
- Post the expectations with pictures or words at the places where they’re needed.
- Prompt behaviors before they’re needed. You can use signals. For instance, kids know what the school bell means.
- Determine the average time your child can focus on task. For now, you can make that the goal before a break.
- Use social reinforcement, encouragement, and mini-celebrations.
- Use time-in and time-out. Time-in is used for one on one attention and calming, time-out reduces sensory inputs for a time. Even a short time-out may help, having the child watch the second hand go around the dial for a minute or two.
During the pandemic, it may not be a time to press harder on yourself or kids. Pressure can enhance performance, but at some point it impedes performance. Understanding that each family member has individualized needs to perform at an optimal stress level, feeling understood and supported cannot be underestimated. Managing emotions by accepting them instead of acting them out is the first step. Listening for underlying needs is second. Addressing needs on both sides of a conflict has a superior chance of working. My son frequently bemoans over lack of seeing friends and boredom. Just the other day, though, he said 2020 was his best year for family fun!
Copyright © Dan Blair 2020.