Why Our Teen Triggers Us

 In Parenting, Relationships

Lots of self-reflection after terrible arguments with my teenage daughter to understand that I was being “triggered”. I’d always taken my reactions at face value: she was being rude, stubborn, selfish and my response was normal. I didn’t recognize my triggers and until I did, little change could happen.

But, I still felt guilty and ashamed by my reactions which often resulted in me responding in the same mean way, with an added wallop of criticism and harsh judgement thrown in.

I didn’t want to keep acting that way. That wasn’t the mother I wanted to be. Insight made me realize things she said or did activated triggers based in fear and anxiety. They prompted an angry, forceful response that sometimes was hurtful or counterproductive. I needed to learn to understand and manage them.

At the time I was learning a lot of about the brain and its functions as part of my coaching practice. It was a relief in a way to understand that much of my automatic reactions were coming from my brain’s limbic system which creates the “fight-or-flight” reaction. That was the good news because it wasn’t a personal character flaw

The bad news is our response may have little to do with our teen

And as Dr. Lissa Ranken writes our fight-or-flight response might have been ready before we got into a conversation with our teen due to other stressors. Our teen’s refusal to clean her room or go to school was the final confirming our lack of control in our life.

And what’s fascinating (and embarrassing) as that I would become (and my clients describe this also) like a teenager myself. No longer an adult, I was right there in my 15 year old self. Dr. Loretta Breuning explains that our teen self is alive and well inside us because “the status struggles of adolescence form the core of our emotional brain”.

Humans are wired to seek status in the form of peer recognition and approval

This innate primal urge becomes intense in high school. We seek attention and popularity and feel terrible when we can’t get them. Where you sit during lunch and who’s at the table with you can color your entire world in a negative hut.  Our brain’s “constantly deciding whether to submit or seek dominance in relation to those around you,” explains Breuning.

So when we get into power struggles with our teens we’re geared to seek dominance over them, vice verse. We call it “respect” or assert “I’m the Mom” but really we’re afraid of feeling powerless and unacknowledged as the authority.

Of course, it’s absolutely appropriate to expect our kids to fulfill duties and master emotional skills (like their bad moods)  as part of growing up and maturing. But the lesson will only stick if we behave like the mature adult we wish them to become. Which means becoming super aware if anxiety, stress, or depression is lurking in our brain ready to erupt into fight-or-flight if our teen acts her age and lashes out or ignores our requests.

For me,I recognize my need for relaxation techniques and purposeful efforts to calm my thinking and my nerves on a regular basis.  This has helped me feel better and experience much less conflict and turmoil with my teen.

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