Want to know what can bring about a fight, flight, or freeze response in even the calmest parent?
Being in the passenger seat as your child practices driving.
Not long ago a friend of Claire’s was very upset because her mother “lost it” when the teen made an error while driving. She’ll be the first to admit, it was a pretty darn big error which involved a near collision, multiple cars, and horns honking.
A fair amount of freaking out ensued – driver, mom, younger siblings.
Hearts were pounding as adrenaline rushed through veins. We’ve all been in that kind of panic at some time in our lives.
Words were spoken – the kind that fly out of your mouth before you can even think. Those words were followed by another exchange of words. Which were followed by some very hurtful words – the kind you wish could pull back into your mouth and away from the ears of the one who heard them.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt and the teen was able to pull the car off the busy street and into a parking lot where she promptly got out of the car and refused to get back in. Remember, flight is one response to a stressful or traumatic situation.
I can’t blame her.
Understanding the Brain (and Trauma)
When she told me the story, she was very angry with her mom. I asked questions, and the additional details gave me a better picture of what had happened.
It was clear that some basic miscommunication had led to a very stressful moment.
We talked about how she might have been feeling as a young driver – how frightening it must have been. I asked if she felt embarrassed about her error and maybe even ashamed. It’s very vulnerable, and a little scary, learning to drive.
Then I gently talked about what her mom might have been feeling. This led to a simple explanation of the brain and how we all react to trauma. I even shared the hand model and how we “flip our lids” in stressful moments.
In times of stress, our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that allows us to think clearly and have self-control (the “upstairs brain”), can “flip,” or no longer be in charge. Then we are no longer thinking clearly as our brain is taken over by the more primitive part of our brain (the “downstairs brain”). We drop down to our basic stress responses of fight, flight, or freeze. Our emotions rule us. We lose our filters and self-control.
Here is Dan Siegel, author of several of my favorite parenting books, including The Whole-Brain Child, describing this in a video:
Understanding the Brain Helps Us Understand Each Other.
When we understand even the most basic aspects of how the brain responds to stress, we increase compassion for one another.
It turns out, this teen’s mom had a traumatic car accident years ago and was particularly triggered by the event. Understandably, her stress responses were even more reactive than normal.
I encouraged her to talk with her mom and try to reconnect. I mentioned that moms are completely imperfect – I should know.
This simple way of understanding the brain and how it functions is useful for all ages, from very young children to adults. This mom didn’t hate her daughter or think she was stupid. She was flooded with stress chemicals, her brain was overwhelmed, and she reacted.
What Can We Learn?
The next time you’re driving with your teen, or in a similarly stressful situation, make a hand model of the brain (don’t worry, nobody will even notice).
When you feel yourself starting to stress and you feel like you could “flip your lid,” hold those fingers down over your thumb.
Give calm instructions. Take slow deep breaths. Say a little prayer.
And above all else, remember you love this amazing kid.
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