I remember when I saw my 14 year-old son, curled up on his bed, holding his head and crying.
“Just because I’m older and bigger doesn’t mean I can calm myself! Everyone expects too much from me! I can’t take the pressure – I need to you to be like you used to be!”
I felt complete bewilderment as my heart broke open anew. As I reached out and held him in my arms, I rocked him gently to sooth and comfort him, I mentally scanned over the previous several weeks and attempted to pin-point when the fear reaction had begun to re-surface. He had been doing so well! He showed up with confidence at appointments, engaged in conversations, and had fun with learning – what could be driving this fear? Then I remembered his initial reaction upon being scheduled for the year-end testing had been one of startle and intense fear.
“You are reading so fast I can’t keep up with you to mark your score!” the educational assessor remarked, “Slow down, and try taking a breath between each paragraph, as you read it again.”
When he heard the assessor tell him to read the paragraph again, Rylan stared silently at her a moment, then leaned forward and placed his forehead on the desk. “I can’t do it.” He stated in a monotone voice. “I’m done.”
Being in an unfamiliar setting, and perceiving what was said as a requirement (pressure) had triggered a heighted emotional state of mind within Rylan, and directly shaped how sensitive he became as he lost his ability to function. Without the calming influence of his prefrontal cortex available to him, his limbic system reacted suddenly, without warning.
During adolescence the prefrontal area of our brains is in a state of reconstruction so teenagers’ can be prone, at certain times, to “flipping their lids” (temporarily losing their ability to link separate areas of the brain to one another). It’s helpful to know that the limbic system and brainstem are more active in adolescents than they are in children or adults, this means teens can interpret neutral responses as hostile or aggressive - not to be trusted. “Flipping your lid” is very energy consuming and can happen even when youth are developing well.
I remembered feeling surprised by Rylan’s shut-down reaction. Yet I noticed at the same time he was able to use his words, once his head was down, to express he was done. Moving to sit beside him I placed my hand gently on his shoulder, smiled at the assessor, and requested, “Would you be willing to give us a few minutes alone?”
As the assessor left the room I focused my attention on my inner sensations and silently offered Rylan my presence. I connected with the beauty of the needs to be seen, to matter, and for shared reality while taking a couple of slow, gentle breaths. Rylan lifted his head, looked into my eyes, and expressed earnestly, “I don’t know why, but I just can’t do it today. It feels like too much pressure. At home I read silently to myself and here I have to read out loud while I’m watched.”
“It’s nice when things are more familiar maybe,” I guessed, “I’m wondering how it might be if you could simply read to yourself, and then answer the comprehension questions out loud. Would that be supportive?” I asked.
Sitting up and stretching for a moment, Rylan replied, “Yeah that would help, would you ask her then and sit right beside me?”
Remembering that previous moment in time, as I held my son in my arms, a déjà vu experience hit me; I saw a kaleidoscope of younger versions of this boy, repeatedly doing his best to engage with educators, and becoming completely knocked off balance by his inner experience of not being seen, heard, or resonated with. Of feeling intense pressure to meet “conditions” held in place by the cultural system.
I felt my heart soften and body relax as I sank into my own long-term intention, as his mother, to choose heart connection first, to value relationships over outcomes or strategies, to choose Love. Slowing down and looking through the lens of my teen’s growth, development, and his capacity for integration, really supported me to feel compassion for his inner experience.
Choosing to prioritize staying present in relationship, with attuned resonant empathy and reflective dialogue, especially in the midst of limbic reactions, provides people of all ages, not just adolescents, with the calming influences of a prefrontal cortex. Access to a “surrogate” prefrontal cortex increases our capacity to nurture the growth of our own prefrontal cortex integrative fibers, which in turn sends soothing circuits to calm limbically heightened emotions.