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Psychoeducation: Teaching Kids About The Fight or Flight Instinct

What’s inside this article: An overview of what psychoeducation is, and how parents can use psychoeducation to help when their children are struggling with emotional regulation, by teaching them about how their brain works.

When parents are faced with the challenge of tackling difficult behavior like meltdowns and angry outbursts, they often look to solutions such as different discipline strategies, offering rewards, taking away privileges, etc. 

 There is a myriad of different parenting strategies out there, something for every parenting style.

But one thing that not many parents consider, probably because it’s actually a therapeutic intervention, and not a parenting technique (but it can be), is psychoeducation. 

Psychoeducation can help children with mental health challenges, like anxiety or OCD, as well as children with ADHD, ASD, ODD, and other conditions.

What is psychoeducation?

In psychology, psychoeducation means providing education and information to those seeking or receiving mental health services, such as people diagnosed with mental health conditions and their family members.

As a parent or educator, it’s about teaching kids or teens about how their brain works and why they sometimes react the way they do.

Psychoeducation can also mean teaching more about topics that surround children with a lot of worries – because, as the old saying goes – knowledge is power.

For example, if a child had a phobia of spiders, it might help them to learn about how rare it is for spiders to bite, and how most spiders are relatively harmless. 

Meltdowns & Outbursts

Does your child struggle with complex behavior challenges like meltdowns and outbursts?

This is often a challenge for children who find emotional regulation difficult.

If they do, you may see behaviors such as:

  • Strong refusal/noncompliance
  • Yelling or screaming
  • Running away
  • Hiding
  • Hitting
  • Breaking or throwing things
  • Spitting
  • Self harm

As parents, it’s important to understand why these kinds of behaviors occur so we can address them appropriately.

But it’s equally important to help your child understand why they do these things.

A lot of the time, children don’t even understand their emotions, so simply having big emotions is completely overwhelming and leads to meltdowns. Then kids can feel like there is something wrong with them.

What most kids don’t know – and many parents don’t either, is that these intense reactions are a normal brain response. The problem is, it’s happening more frequently than necessary due to lagging skills in social-emotional development.

And that normal brain response that I’m talking about is called the Fight or Flight Instinct.

Fight or Flight Instinct

You’ve probably heard of fight or flight before, it’s also sometimes referred to as fight, flight, or freeze.

It’s a stress response that happens in our bodies when something is mentally or physically terrifying or too overwhelming for us.

It’s a survival instinct that actually involves one part of our brain (the amygdala) to shut off communication with the prefrontal cortex, sometimes called the “thinking brain”.

Then we are reacting but we aren’t really in control of our behavior.

I recorded this short video below to explain how this works and why some children seem to be in this state so often.

Why is Psychoeducation Important for Kids?

When children (and adults) have a thorough understanding of how their brain works, and why the react the way that they do, they feel more in control of their behavior.

They also become more aware of their own triggers, understand and notice stress earlier, and understand the importance of learning different coping and calming skills.

How to Teach Kids about Fight or Flight and How Their Brain Works

I created an illustrated narrative for kids and teens that explains, in a very simple to understand way, how the brain works, what fight or flight is, and why it happens.

There is a link at the end of this post to download this narrative for free.

What’s in the Narrative?
Your Brain: Explaining Fight or Flight to Kids

First the printable explains that different parts of our brain have their own jobs. It highlights some important areas of the brain then briefly describes what that part of the brain does.

Including, how all the areas of the brain work together. The text covers the prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) and the amygdala (where fight or flight is activated).

Then, describes how if you’re in danger, overwhelmed, or really upset, and the thinking brain isn’t able to do it’s job, the amygdala takes over.

When the amygdala takes over, the prefrontal cortex is “locked away”

It explains some of the behaviors that happen during fight or flight, and how a person may feel like they have no control over their actions.

Lastly, the text explains that this can happen to everyone.  It’s a natural brain response. 

The text goes on to explain how the more skills the thinking brain has, the less often it feels like it can’t do its job. When the thinking brain doesn’t feel overwhelmed, then the fight or flight instinct doesn’t take over as often.

The last page is a list of skills you can “teach” your thinking brain to help it get better at its job. 

Note: This product is available for free. I do not want there to be any financial barriers preventing parents from downloading this if their children need it. 

However, on the check out page, you will be asked if you’d like to say thank you with a $5 payment. This is a voluntary payment that helps support my work. You have no obligation to do this.

Your Brain: Explaining Fight or Flight to Kids

The last page of the printable covers some skills that kids may need to learn/practice to get better at managing stress and improving behavior.

I have created blog posts and/or printables around some of these skills so you can check out the links below to get more information on specific skills.

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