The human body acts like a clever GPS warning system.
But rather than telling you about an impending traffic jam or indicating that there is a speed camera ahead, it warns you when it believes you are in danger.
For some children the problem with this is that the body’s GPS works a little too well and it takes over control of their behaviour. At the first sign of conflict, the brain sends hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into the blood stream which creates changes that impact physiologically, emotionally and cognitively in a child and this in turn can make it extremely difficult for the child to resolve the problem. Children need to be equipped with skills to calm down their bodies and minds in order to make better decisions.
UNDERSTANDING THE BRAIN
To understand this further it is helpful to look at the brain.The brain can be divided into three different subtypes: the survival brain (reptilian brain), the thinking brain (neocortex) and the emotional brain (the limbic system).
The limbic system includes the hypothalamus, the amygdala and the hippocampus.
The limbic system plays a significant role in children’s emotions and ability to manage stress. This part of the brain is fed information through the five senses – in particular, the senses of sight, hearing and touch, and releases chemicals that are responsible for preparing the body for fight or flight. It is these chemicals and others that trigger the
physiological changes in the body that make it challenging for children to make good decisions when experiencing conflict or bullying.
WHAT THIS LOOKS LIKE IN THE BODY
The physiological changes for children include; breathing faster, heart racing, sweaty palms and muscles tensing up.
Children often don’t understand what their body is doing and why. They may feel nauseous or have butterflies in their stomach, their muscles receive a flood of energy that makes them feel like hitting, kicking, punching or throwing, and their self-talk might sound something like “She’s not going to get away with that!” or “Nobody likes me!”
They may have difficulty identifying their feelings and expressing themselves verbally. A child in this state is a potential threat not just to others but also to themselves.
CHRONIC STRESS ON THE BODY
When children experience these physiological changes frequently it is stressful. Research has proven that repeated exposure to stress, such as that experienced during an unresolved conflict, or in bullying, can stop the brain from learning.
It inhibits the creation of neural pathways and can lead to anxiety and depression. Over time this can lead to serious chronic illnesses. So a child, in a distressed state with no tools to help their bodies to calm down, is not only likely to lash out and hurt others, but is simultaneously harming themselves.
CALMING THE BODY
The opportunity for problem-solving, conflict resolution and helpful conversation can only come when the child is calm. Consciously making physical and mental changes can help calm down the body. Some examples include:
Slow breathing: Breathing during conflict or bullying can become short and shallow. This stops the flow of oxygen that is necessary to reason well and impacts on their tone of voice. Teach children to breathe in through their noses, hold it for five seconds, and then breathe out slowly through their mouth. They should not make eye contact with anyone during this process and they should try to take slow breaths from their diaphragm rather than their chest. Continue this slow breathing for two minutes.
Relax muscles: Show children how to tense their bodies up like a robot. Hold this tension everywhere below the shoulders for about five seconds and then relax like a jellyfish. Let their bodies flop until you instruct “robot” or “jellyfish”. For maximum fun, practice it as a game and play it with a group of children.
TIPS FOR PARENTS
BED TIME: At bed time, practice slow breathing or muscle relaxation with your child.
SIBLING CONFLICT: Encourage your child to practice calming the body when they have conflict with their siblings.
TIPS FOR TEACHERS
RETURNING TO THE CLASSROOM: When the class comes in after lunch, use this time to practice calming down skills.
SHARING EXAMPLES: Have the children share stories of when they had an issue and calmed down their bodies at home or at school. Keep a list of ideas and discuss the effectiveness of each.
TO FIND OUT MORE
For more about how to help calm your child down, read Empowered for Life – Equipping children to deal with everyday conflict and bullying. This valuable and informative book is helping schools and parents ensure children have the skills to manage their emotions and resolve conflict or bullying constructively. If you would like your child’s school to offer a whole school, proactive and educative program contact us for more information about the BRIDGE BUILDERS program.