How Understanding the Brain Helps Parents and Teens

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.


This post may contain Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Kris
    October 2, 2017

    We had a very scary experience when my daughter was learning to drive. No one was injured but we flew over a curb and blew out a tire. Everyone in the car was very shook up. I stayed amazingly calm to my daughter’s uncontrolled rants about how bad of a driver she was, how she was never driving again. She kept asking me why I wasn’t mad at her. I asked her if it would have been easier if I was. And she surprisingly said yes, then she could be mad at me instead of mad at herself. I think that is part of the thing with teens. If they can engage you in a fight, then they can be mad at you instead of themselves or the situation.
    It was a blessing that this happened and no one got hurt and she was able to grasp the magnitude of the responsibility she was being given when I handed her the keys.
    I have learned so much from you and these resources that it helped me to stay calm and bring her to a calm place too. And our little one was in the back seat soaking it all in. Powerful! Thanks for all you do! You have made me a better parent.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 2, 2017

      Kris, thank you for sharing that story and your daughter’s words – very insightful. I’m honored that my writing has helped you as a parent; writing helps me be a better parent too.

  2. vivienne
    October 3, 2017

    Would you come have tea with me right now!? Funny, I just thought that maybe you would understand what it feels like in my life at this point and I popped onto your blog and you wrote about it.(not driving but the trauma/stress stuff) I have been feeling quite attached to a couple of my trauma kids and I just got that socked in the gut feeling when I realized to them some of this is still a “game”. It feels immature to me that my kids hurt my feelings but uumm, yeah, they do. Is there a quick way to help them realize relationships are not about playing games to manipulate and control? (: How do I stay engaged and a safe place for them and not feel affected by how they do life?!

    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 3, 2017

      Vivienne, it is hard not to be affected by our children’s behaviors and actions toward us, even when we know it comes from their brokenness. We are human with our own hurts and histories, and we are so far from perfect. I struggle with this too. The temptation for me is to close off or become distant, when that is not what my child needs. Having safe friends (and Russ) to speak truth to my heart, staying connected to the Lord in prayer and the Word, surrounding myself with beauty – all of those things remind me I’m loved by God and He knows I’m doing my best – He knows how frail and imperfect I am, AND YET He gave me these children to love and mother in spite of all my weaknesses. I don’t think there is a quick way of helping them realize relationships aren’t about manipulation – it’s a very long road of healing for many of our kids. It’s being a safe person for them time and time again, loving them, forgiving repeatedly, and continuing to try. Hang on, look for spots of joy in your life, and find at least one good friend to walk this road with you – the kind of friend you can tell the truth to and she’ll still love you. And tea would be great 🙂

  3. vivienne
    October 3, 2017

    Thanks! One of my friends who is not an adoptive mommy seems to
    have clarity and wisdom on some of the things I struggle with. I am guessing it is because she is a friend of God! He is good and while I would love to have someone in my neighborhood that was in the same shoes it is fabulous that the internet allows for a form of community
    with people that never move in the same local. Some days I just need to know there are others out there that are doing this too and they don’t feel it is easy or that “all kids do that”! (:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept the Privacy Policy