Standing in line for a conference recently I met a confident business woman who was leading a successful business. After chatting for a few minutes, I asked if she had children. Her eyes darkened and teared up, and this strong woman seemed to crumple before my eyes. Her 17-year-old son was “shutting down” in reaction to the demands in his life. She found it progressively harder to help him stay engaged. At a time when this young man should have been discovering life and himself, he was doing the opposite.
Teens are experiencing a very different world than most of us did at this critical stage: schools are targets for gun violence, social media tools intended for connection can be weapons used by cyber bullies and simply bad adolescent judgment. Norms for behavior, relationship, and even gender are in flux. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it contributes to even more uncertainty and overwhelm for kids.
It’s also important to remember that even though older teens can look like adults, their brains are still developing in very important ways, especially as it relates to decision making and judgment. All of this contributes to being quickly triggered into overwhelm.
The foundation of overwhelm is fear, and for an adolescent, fear of rejection or humiliation can feel every bit as powerful as physical threats. As with any fear trigger, the typical reactions are fight, flight, and freeze. That freeze reaction is the “shutdown” that my acquaintance described. And, of course, the more her son froze and withdrew, the more it became his conditioned pattern and the less competent he felt to respond in other ways. So the cycle was actually accelerating, and now the mom’s sadness and hopelessness was becoming part of the pattern.
Obviously, emotional shut-downs can be caused by a lot of things, and involving professional help can be an important consideration for any family. Here’s what I shared with this wonderful, caring mom as a starting point. If you are noticing this pattern beginning with a young family member, I offer these ideas to help YOU to help them.
First, and perhaps most importantly, the focus must be on THEM. Do not make this about your parenting, or what others might think, or anything else beyond the person who is shutting down. If your agenda is anything other than that person, no matter how reasonable, they’ll feel it. Along those lines, it requires patience, not pushing. It’s important to find a time when they feel emotionally available to talk about what’s going on, and it’s unlikely to be on your timeline. This is why it’s so important to keep them as the focus.
A second important point to make before you begin the process is that shutdown comes from the person not feeling competent to handle what they’re dealing with. Your job is to help them understand their strengths, capabilities and resources, not to run off and “fix it” for them. Problem solving and actions need to be a team process, so that the teen can begin feeling empowered to manage their own lives.
When you have those conversations (and it most likely will be more than one conversation), it’s important to help them feel safe and validated in their way. You can easily become part of the shutdown pattern, not the solution, if you don’t help them feel safe enough to talk about what’s going on. They may not be able to answer questions like, “how are you feeling?” – because they may be confused or even afraid of their feelings. Gently find out about what they’re focusing on, what they are thinking, and who or what most triggers them. It’s SO important to stay curious, and not react to anything they say. Your job at this stage isn’t to “fix” anything, as much as you would like to. And especially don’t try to fix them!
If you feel it would be helpful to share the Dynamics of Overwhelm (“I could die,” “it’s all too much,” “there’s not enough,” and “I’m not enough”), please do so. However, as I’ve described above, offer it not as a “here’s your problem” solution, but more from a “does this resonate?” place. As the two of you talk more about what’s happening, more clarity and opportunities will arise, and the easier it will be for your teen to share with you.
The more they are willing to share, and the greater the clarity that the two of you can develop, the more you both can move from understanding, to empowerment, to solution.
P.S. This process works for adults and even spouses, too.