Fear is one of our more powerful survival tools. We feel fearful as a way to alert our bodies and minds into action, when we perceive a threat. As a result, fear almost always leads to action. This means fear bypasses the prefrontal cortex, where reason resides, and heads straight into action mode. Because your thinking brain does not have time to respond to fear, your mind and body come hardwired with automatic responses. The automatic responses it will almost always go to are Flight, Fight, Freeze, Submit and Attach. Also, we often cycle through multiple fear responses, to one threat, as the situation progresses.
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These fear responses happen all the time, to everyone, but often they are misunderstood by the people around us. If someone is yelling in your face and calling you names, the typical response is usually not to think ‘wow they seem scared right now. How can I connect with them?’ Unfortunately our own fear responses kick in and we also react with our limbic system, and not our cortex. Teens are not generally known for their self-reflective skills, so both parents and teens, alike, may not have a lot of insight into what’s triggered their child’s thoughts and behaviours. While everyone is upset, is not the time to try and figure it out. Find a way to calm down and reconnect, then reflect on how everyone felt during the moment of conflict. You may be surprised about how your child truly feels. It is often not the obvious message their behaviour is conveying.
You might be saying to yourself “what is my child scared of when I have asked them to put away their shoes and coat a thousand times? I don’t use punishments, threats or shame, I am not someone to be feared.” Your child’s fear response (usually flight or fight, in a scenario such as this one) can be triggered by their internal need to attach. For whatever reason, they have not complied with your request, now they sense your disapproval and are fearful about the fact that they have disappointed you. They are worried they aren’t good enough for you and their lack of compliance may hurt your connection to them. We often think “well then why wouldn’t they just do as I ask?” Well, that would be more indicative of a trauma response; attach or submit. Most teens will instead fight (self-explanatory) or flight (any avoidance tactic).
Try telling them how you feel about the mess in the hallway; “when the hallway is all cluttered up, it makes me feel anxious and overwhelmed. That’s why it’s so important to me that everyone puts away their shoes and coat.” Then go ahead and do it for them (I know, shocking). This demonstrates grace and you would be surprised how powerful this is with teens. They are often not expecting to catch a break. They may not say anything but it will sink in, eventually. It will not be as effective if you add the caveat “I’ll do it this time for you, but next time it is your job.” It is always their job but it is your job to nurture and care for your child. You get to decide when doing something for your child creates a sense of nurturance, and when it seems to hinder their developing independence.
Identifying Teen Trauma Symptoms
When someone experiences a trauma, they will often react to perceived threats in the same way they would real threats. Fear and trauma can greatly impact teen behaviour because of it’s ability to hijack our emotions. This can make it challenging to think and act rationally when we are in fear mode. Teens are in a sensitive period, where so much of their emotions are already hijacked by fluctuating hormones and development. Add basic fear responses to the mix, things can get overwhelming for teens and their families. Trauma symptoms can often become heightened during the teen years. Just because you are not aware of a trauma, does not mean one did not occur. It is a scary thought, but would you rather your child suffer in silence, for fear of making you uncomfortable, or would you like to know what to look for and how common trauma responses may manifest in a teen?
Non-age appropriate “tantrums” are a common symptom of trauma, for all people, not just teens. All teens can have extreme mood fluctuations but the ones who really struggle to self-regulate at times, may be suffering from PTSD. It can be challenging to see the difference but the meltdown will feel much more like a desperate toddler, than an angry teen. Many teens get upset over things that adults deem irrelevant or “not a big deal.” A traumatized teen may do this to the extreme. They may have an inconsolable meltdown over getting an A-, spilling milk on their shirt or forgetting to set the PVR for their favourite show. They especially tend to meltdown over small disagreements and squabbles in fear that the situation will escalate and result in a negative consequence for them (punishment, exclusion, abandonment, rejection or shame).
A persons response to trauma or a trigger is automatic and not able to be controlled. It is a conditioned response but also involuntary as it is initiated by our limbic system, and not our prefrontal cortex. It takes a lot of work to override trauma responses and almost always this requires professional help and time to practice new, healthier responses to the same feelings. All of that can be a struggle for teens. Expectations for a teens capacity to cope with trauma, should always be within reason. Seeking professional help can provide families with tools and insight into how to best support their teen, and help their family to connect with each other in meaningful ways.
The Five Most Common Fear Responses
When someone has experienced a trauma, their brain will develop automatic responses to triggers. This is in an attempt to protect the person from experiencing the trauma again but it can cause them to be hyper-vigilant and see danger where there is not and/or see manageable risk as an unmanageable threat. These responses are also typical for people in general, as they are the five most common fear responses. We have these survival skills because they are effective in protecting us but they can also be triggered into overdrive, making it difficult to figure out what is a threat, and what is not. This can cause mood fluctuations, which I believe, are sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD and Bipolarity. Understanding how anyone responds to fear may help you make sense of some of your teens behaviours.
When a teen has a fight response, it means they feel the threat is manageable. Take that as a compliment. Your teen feels safe enough to release these feelings with you. They feel secure in your relationship, at least at that moment. They will stand up to the threat and try and overpower it. This is where a power struggle is just going to further fuel their instinct to fight. Trying to slow things down and connect through compassion can help turn off that fear response and allow you both to relax and discuss the issue, rationally. Any time we yell or make threats or try and hurt someone emotionally, we are displaying fear. Something has triggered a fear response but the risk seems manageable, so fight is the automatic response.
“What do you need from me right now?” is a great place to start when you want to shift the energy and focus of the interaction. Up until this point, you have likely been focused on your needs (having a clear hallway). Just for a short time, try focusing on their needs, and then you can go back to trying to fill your need, as well. A relationship between a child and parent has to involve reciprocity, but in a secure relationship, the parent usually gives first, then the child may be motivated to connect deeper with the parent, and will give back, in a way that is meaningful to them. It is a dance we do so effortlessly, at times, with infants, but when they become bigger versions of themselves, we forget they just have needs that aren’t being met. We can help with that, like we did when they were snuggled up in our arms.
A flight response may cause a teen to run off to their room, isolate themselves, leave the home without permission, break curfew, refuse to talk about issues, etc; any avoidant strategy, may be a flight response. Often teens who were punished for challenging emotions as small children, will isolate and avoid during times of confrontation and stress. They fear further rejection and so they try and hide when they have big feelings, since that has worked for them in the past. This teen may not feel particularly secure about your connection, at this time. I will also say that some people do just tend to avoid more and the blame should not be put solely on the parents shoulders. Our society condemns feelings and celebrates the suppression of emotions. To combat this societal narrative, that is exacerbating our mental health crisis in the western world, try to create a space that supports the expression of all emotions:
“It’s ok to feel frustrated about your homework, it looks hard.”
“It can feel very lonely when you’ve been excluded”
This is when your teen does not answer, when they seem frozen. Some more traditional parenting perspectives see this as “disrespectful,” when in fact it is a fear response. Possibly answers they have given in the past have lead to negative consequences and they are frozen trying to come up with the best answer. Then they are accused of lying, when their answer is more what their parent wants to hear, than the truth. If you tend to do this at times, think back, did anyone in your life treat you this way? How did it make you feel? What do you wish they did instead?
Try not to force answers, nobody likes to be put on the spot and interrogated. Even for big challenges like stealing, drug use, risky sexual behaviour, forcing answers and using power to instil a lesson about these issues, is not going to create intrinsic motivation to not do it again. It may, however, create a deeper divide between you and your child. It may encourage them to lie to you more frequently and it may break their trust in you and your relationship. Teens make big mistakes sometimes, it is important that they know that
“everyone makes mistakes, it is what you do after that defines your character” J. Milburn
This is when a person feels defeated. When you have somehow managed to exert your power over your teen, either with a threat or shame, or something, when they finally comply with your request, and agree with you, put their tail between their legs, and do what they are told, that is submit, a fear response. You have achieved your goal of getting them to obey, but at what price? You have stripped them of their power, their pride and have reinforced a trauma response; to submit to those who exert power over you. This is dangerous, especially as they enter into their first romantic relationships, social dynamics at school and relationships with authority figures, outside the home. These can all be impacted by a teens tendency to submit when triggered. It can essentially groom them for the victim role in their teens and adulthood.
If you and your child calm down and discuss the situation and then they decide to comply with your wishes, willingly, without having fear, shame or guilt as a motivator, than that is not submit, that is connect. Not a fear response, a response to love, you have turned the tables, congratulations!
Our instinctual need to attach to others is the most powerful force within us. This instinct can override basic needs, as our mind recognizes the long term advantages of being attached to someone. It is all about survival but it is more than that. As a baby, we are completely dependant on the adults around us. Human babies attach through a variety of methods, mostly influenced by the level of reciprocity, synchrony and responsiveness of their primary caregiver. This need to attach stays with us and can be triggered during times of distress. A teen who begins to profusely apologize for their previously erratic behaviour (the meltdown) may be having an attachment fear response. They desperately seek your approval and validation and become more panicked, the more it is withheld. They may suddenly act very kind and you may think these are mood swings, but they may actually be a variety of fear responses.
If you notice your teen doing this, try and meet their need for connection. The attach response is often one used to resolve the issue. It is next level, when their brain kicks into “ok you need to calm down and make this person happy or your safety is at risk” mode. What we want is for teens to feel safe enough to experience their emotions, respond in a healthy way (cry, write, draw, talk to others, exercise, meditate) and then be able to discuss what happened. If their brains are trying to attach as a fear response, it can have the same effect as the submit response, and be quite dangerous as they gain more independence and enter into new relationships, outside the home.
Typical Teen Fear Responses
Traumatized Teen Fear Responses
Often a person has multiple fear responses to one trigger. As an example: teen gets caught talking to her boyfriend on the phone later than she is allowed. The reason she was on the phone was they are in a fight (trigger, any confrontation can be a trigger). Then the parent confronts the teen (double trigger) but because the teen trusts the parent, they begin to argue (fight). This fight escalates and parent decides that taking away the phone is an appropriate response. Now teen goes into panic mode because she will not be able to resolve her issue with her boyfriend (need to attach). This could cause her to suddenly flee (flight), leave the home and go flying into the arms of her supportive boyfriend (attach). This is how it may go in a fairly typical home, that is absent of abuse, neglect or trauma.
In a home where the child has been controlled and feels scared of their parents, this is more likely how it would go: teen gets caught talking to her boyfriend past phone curfew. Teen is startled when caught and becomes silent as soon as the parent opens the door. They may avert their eyes and have trouble explaining themselves (freeze). Then they will likely hand the phone over easily or possibly even without prompting and accept whatever punishment is doled out, without argument (submit). They will apologize and try hard to achieve the validation and approval of their parent again (attach). They will then run into the arms of their boyfriend when they finally escape the family home (attach again).
Understanding why teens may be acting a certain way can help parents support them more effectively. Many teens feel misunderstood. Traumatized teens tend to feel lost, and that feeling of helplessness and isolation can cause them to spiral out of control and make unsafe choices. Teens often make choices that we deem as poor or irresponsible. We need to try and understand where they are coming from. You didn’t wonder why your toddler poured their milk on the ground intentionally, you knew that’s what toddlers do, explore their environment. Teens also make choices that do not seem rational, we need to try and support them as they learn how to think for themselves.
Next time you and your teen are at odds, think about what could possibly be their fear right now? Also, what fear are you having and possibly reacting to? Often we are also reacting with fear; fear of failing our children, fear of being judged by society or even the people closest to us, fear for our children’s safety and well-being. All of these are triggers for parents and can also send us into a reactive mode, instead of a rational and responsive mode. Try thinking about how fear may be impacting everyone in your family. You may be surprised what you discover about yourself and the people around you.
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