Overheard in therapy from a teenager to her parents: “You made me look like the biggest retard ever.” First: Apologies for the socially incorrect statement. But what does this say about teenagers? (Other than that this comment has not changed in the past 4 decades since I was a teen!)
It signifies that their biggest fear is the fear of social exclusion, a fancy way to say they don’t like to feel left out.
Teenage brains are actually heavily wired to focus on social inclusion, acceptance, belonging or fitting in. There is actually a biological and evolutionary reason for this. In our ancient past, to find mates who were not biologically related young adults were often forced to leave their tribes or clans to venture out and attach themselves to a new tribe. What skills would be needed for a solo young adult to approach and join an unknown group of people? Great social skills!
These “pro-social” skills of approval-seeking, caring, submission, compliance, altruism and a need for acceptance would be life-savers in that scary situation for an adventurous teen. (See, there is an actual reason your teen MUST HAVE that brand of jacket.)
The teen who uttered that phrase in therapy wanted to go to a party and feared being ostracized by her friends if she did not. Her parents, in attempting to keep this teen safe physically, were provoking an emotionally driven fear response in her. The fear response triggers “freeze-flight-fight-fold” responses as a means of self-protection, either from physical or emotional threats.
If parents react to statements such as this one merely as an attack they may lose sight of the fact that the teen is actually acting in a self-protective way to reduce the feeling of fear she is experiencing. Many human emotions and behaviors are a means to reduce a feeling of fear or to attempt to calm or soothe dysregulated emotions. At this point in her life, the fear of being rejected by her peers is surmounting her fear of being oppositional to her parents.
But today, in situations where teens want desperately to fit in, parents may only focus on the statement above as defiance and strive to get the teen to submit and comply. “Don’t disrespect your parents,” and “You’ll do what you are told,” may be phrases parents say to a teen in this situation. But parents would be forgetting an important fact that underlies the teen’s comment and behavior.
I urge parents of all ages of children to always remember that kids act in ways that help to keep them feeling safe or they may act out with defiance when they feel scared. My parenting takeaway is based on the fear response. Ask yourself: “What is my child really afraid of? Is my parenting making my child feel safe or scared?” A scared teen, whose main fear is being cast out of her tribe of fellow teens, will protest anything that increases that fear. Being kept from a party of her peers will trigger fear and she will protest — scream, sulk, sneak out of the house.
Reflective listening is always a great parenting solution. Rather than immediately impose your opinion as a parent, ask the teen what her real concern is. Reflect back to her what you understand — that she is fearful of being called “a retard” and being rejected by her friends. This fear is normal and age-appropriate, so parents should be accepting of the fear and work to understand it, rather than punish it. If the teen feels her fears are understood, it may de-escalate her fear and then her cognitive brain might be able to comprehend her parents’ decision to keep her away from the party. Or maybe not. But at least she will feel heard and understood, which is a great way for the parent-child relationship to be repaired and to flourish, even if there is disagreement on whether the teen can actually go to the party.