Our family is currently fostering a cat who had been taken to an animal shelter. She is sweet, loving, hungry, and easily started. The noise associated with simply turning a page in a book will instantly cause her to jump. Her hair stands on end and she display full fight or flight mode. What’s going on?
We have a theory in our family – she likely learned that unexpected noises are dangerous. She probably was hurt at some point when she heard such a noise, so the noise is now paired with danger. Her nervous system responds to current unexpected noises as though they are
dangerous. Better safe than sorry, especially since she lived on the streets. Now think about all your clients, students, patients, and athletes. Are they any different?
Everyone has had a unique learning history that explains their current behaviors. Thinking about their behaviors from the lens of learning history helps providers see that all behavior is caused, and all behavior makes sense in the context in which it occurs. When a young person behaves in a way that irritates us, it is not personal, it’s based on a long history of events that we inadvertently activate. Let’s break this down:
Behavior: Student tells teacher that he is stupid. The class laughs, the teacher is annoyed. Teacher’s thoughts: This student is a troublemaker and security needs to set them straight. Learning history: This student has a history of experiencing social isolation and the laughter they get after a comment like this is rewarding.
Behavior: Athlete says “f*** this” when given a challenging task by a coach. Coach’s thoughts: The athlete needs to find another team.
Learning history: The athlete has a history of been mocked at home for not performing tasks correctly.
Behavior: An adolescent client provocatively tells the therapist in the first meeting that their website sucks. Therapist’s thoughts: This client is disrespectful; limits need to be set. Learning history: The teen has a history of being criticized. The teen is afraid and has learned to attack first to protect themselves.
The complicating factor here is that our own learning histories also get activated! If the teacher in example 1 has had experience with feeling stupid, the coach in example 2 has a negative history with being challenged, or the therapist in example 3 has a painful history with being insulted, then these teens may inadvertently activate them. Then we have teens responding to adults based on past experiences, and adults responding back based on past experiences. What a mess!
How do we disentangle from all of this? Stop. Really, just freeze. When you notice that your emotions are activated by a young person you work with, stop. Slow it down so you can observe what’s happening.
Emotions evoke action, and action can be quick. Simply get used to stopping when emotions fire up. Investigate the emotion, consider why the emotion is so strong. Consider that the teen is likely acting on past learning, the way the cat was. Ask the young person for some context. Try to understand their unique experience. This builds empathy, inserts a pause before responding, and allows you to access your most professional and wise mind.
We can’t eliminate old learning. It will always be there. We can provide new learning by responding in ways that are kind, respectful, and fair. Simply stopping and responding thoughtfully is powerful. Providing new learning changes lives.
~Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C