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Teenagers and Environmental Anger

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I recently stumbled across this video and decided to show it to a group of primary school teachers I was running a workshop with. These teachers were seasoned campaigners. They were vastly experienced and between them had seen just about everything that could be thrown at them in education. Yet this video flawed them. The jovial atmosphere in the room before the video evaporated and the room feel silent.

The video itself is not specifically traumatic. But there is something about the young boy’s reaction that triggers something in all of us. In analysing the video it is possible to see that this young boy was going to be very happy (and indeed excited) to play with the beads and the cup. Yet as soon as he perceived anger from the adult, he froze. Every instinct in his body was saying “it is not safe to play”, “it is not safe to explore my environment”, and “I am best to do nothing here to avoid getting her more angry”.

This is a powerful reaction and really does get at just how powerful anger can be on our capacity to learn and develop. Imagine a child growing up in an environment where anger is a daily occurrence. This child will go into chronic patterns of self-protection, being too afraid to explore the world. This compromises emotional learning, not to mention educational learning. From a neuroscience point of view, what is happening here is that the emotional part of their brain (called the amygdala) which is designed to detect threats is being constantly triggered. This emotional brain has a deep evolutionary function – to keep us alive. When we were cavemen it would alert us to potential dangers like a saber toothed tiger lurking around the corner. Yet this part of the brain has a motto that “it is better to be safe than sorry”. So it is easily triggered into a false alarm. So while parental or teacher anger looks nothing like a saber toothed tiger and is in fact not as dangerous, the emotional brain will perceive the anger in the same way (as dangerous), leading to young people falling into chronic patterns of self-protection. For some it is withdrawal, for others it is anger and fighting back. This primitive responses highlight that this emotional brain has evolved very little and looks pretty much as it did when we were caveman.

What has evolved is our pre-frontal cortex or smart brain. This smart brain is the home of logical and linear thinking. It helps us to determine is something really is a threat, and what the best way to deal with it is. The trouble is that when our emotional brain is chronically switched on, our smart brain does not work as effectively. All our neural traffic is being diverted away from our smart brain to our emotional brain. Evolution would tell us that the caveman was better in emotional brain mode so he could get away from being a saber toothed tiger’s lunch than he was reading Shakespeare.

This is also why yelling at your teen when they make a poor decision or get angry themselves is not such an effective method.

Parents are always asking me “David, I need some tools to manage my teenager better”. My typical response is that the best piece of advice that I can possibly give you is to reduce the amount of negative expressed emotion you show in the house. When you do this you facilitate a sense of safety. When a child or teen feels safe, they give their smart brain (PFC) permission to switch on and explore the world, and at the same time send the message to the emotional brain (the amygdala) to “relax, I can take it from here”. Here young people can maximise their wellness and harness the capacity of their smart brain to take on information, remember that information, form friendships, make positive choices, and regulate negative emotions.

This is simple but profoundly important advice. Whether you are a teen, a parent, a teacher, or an employer, you are responsible for your emotional reactions. And that emotional reaction will directly impact on the emotional wellbeing of the person you are directing that emotion to. If we do not facilitate a sense of control in our young people we will never see the best of them or their brains.