The Deer in the Headlights: Understanding the Anxious Freeze

15 Apr

Your Anxious Child: Emails to Parents. Edward H. Plimpton, PhD

The Deer in the Headlights: Understanding the Anxious Freeze

Perhaps your child will not go to school, or take swim lessons or get that needed shot at the doctor’s office. So you have created a reasonable plan to help her. It involves a series of incremental steps, baby steps or exposures to the source of the fear. But this step by step plan isn’t working. Your child just freezes up and will not budge. What is going on here? The show stopper may be that your child is not engaged in the standard fight or flight response to anxiety but rather a more defensive freeze or immobility response. The importance of the freeze or immobility response has slowly received increasing recognition in the therapy world and it definitely has implications about how you respond to your child.

The freeze or immobility response comes into play when the organism, be it a child, corporate lawyer or zebra, is overwhelmed. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s take the zebra. The lion has caught it, and has the zebra by its throat. Under the circumstances, the poor zebra can’t run away or fight, so it tries to play dead and hopes that this will basically gross the lion out so it will leave her alone. While the circumstance may not be as dramatic, children also can get overwhelmed for all sorts of reasons, and they end up freezing up. So they may stop talking, stop engaging in any eye contact, and become more rigid in their posture. Adults can often get irritated at this lack of responsiveness, and at our worst we assume the child is being manipulative. And that might be part of the picture, but it can also be that the child just feels overwhelmed. And as adults we often discount or minimize events that may be overwhelming to a child because we don’t experience them as such.

So what to do? First, a child in freeze is a child not engaged with people. And we know when someone is highly anxious, their rational or smart brain goes into hiding, so reasons or rational explanations are of little use. Engagement is the thing. You can start with nonverbal engagement when possible, such as tossing a ball or taking the dog for a walk or blowing bubbles, and sometimes simple touch can be effective as well. The child’s body is all revved up and needs some form of physical discharge. The physical activity, in turn, helps the child get out of the freeze response, and then he or she is more available to be engaged with others, such as teachers or parents. Indications that a child is coming out of freeze are smiling, laughter and spontaneous talking.

The freeze or immobility response does not respond to reason and hence requires some special consideration. Failure to recognize freeze responses will lead to a standoff where everyone is just digging in their heels. Think about engaging your child in a more physical manner to help him/her get out of this frozen state.
copyright@edward plimpton

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