David is in 2nd grade and he can tell something is not right with his dad. His dad used to smile a lot and sing Everly Brothers songs all day. But now, he mostly just sits in his studio, working, and when he comes out, he barely talks. Some days, he stays in bed until the afternoon. It was like some other person is living in his dad’s body, a really sad person who seems like he hardly cares about David at all.
Hello, I’m Corey Busch and you’re listening to the Teen Mind—the show where we follow one teenager and his family and learn to change the way we understand and talk people closest to us, especially our teens.
So, today: Why does David have such a powerful anxiety attack over something that seems so harmless, a red C- at the top of his English paper.
And a few quick notes: David and his family are fictional characters. Any resemblance to real people is strictly coincidental. Also, if you haven’t already, I recommend starting with the first 2 episodes before listening to this one. It’ll just make more sense.
When David is in 2nd grade, his dad, Tom Washburn, is 36 years old, a struggling artist and freelance graphic designer, and very depressed. He and his wife, Sheila’s marriage seems like it’s been gradually falling apart for the past 7 years, ever since David came along. He stayed home when David was little, and despite the problems with Sheila, he took pride in his role as stay-at-home dad, and was able to ward off depression with the joys of new parenthood. But when David started going to school, he tried going back to work and found the stress of his marriage destroyed his creativity, and as a result, his work had greatly suffered. His marriage and career in a rut, he fell into a deep depression.
And during this time, Sheila is putting in a ton of extra hours and work, so much of the time, no other parent is around, which makes Tom’s depression have that much more of an impact on David. The depression really makes Tom a skeleton of his former self, and this comes out especially in his interactions with David. He speaks mostly in short, to-the-point sentences, “Put your shoes on.” “Eat your sandwich.” And his non-verbal interactions are drained of affection. He makes little eye contact with David, and the hugs that used to happen several times a day are now rare. And this makes David crave attention from his dad even more, making him seem more needy and clingy, which then further agitates Tom, making him more and more distant.
And one afternoon, David gets home from school, and he can tell his dad had just woken up. Tom musses David’s hair, takes a slurp of coffee, and walks into his studio. About an hour later, David is bored and walks into Tom’s studio but before he can say anything, Tom turns and snaps at David,
“Hey, you need to knock before you come in here! You can’t interrupt me like that. Get outta here, okay!”
And he turns back to his work.
Instantly, David feels a burning and tightening in his throat and he really wants to cry, but holds in his tears till the door closes behind him. It’s a horrible feeling as he walks away, silently crying. At first, it’s just the physical pain, mostly in his throat and chest, but then come the thoughts.
“What happened to my dad? Does he think I’m a bad kid? Maybe I am a bad kid and that’s why he’s acting like this.”
And these thoughts lingered, repeating in his mind for a long time.
And so for the following months, David walks on eggshells around his dad. During this time, their only meaningful interactions are these snaps, when Tom’s anger boils over, filling David with that acid-like burn.
And then one day, David finds out that he’s a finalist in a city-wide art competition. His painting of the lake near his grandparents’ house will be displayed at the central library downtown. And when he tells his dad and shows him the painting, it’s like the old dad comes back. The joy and approval on his dad’s face goes straight to that burning in his throat and soothes it, like a cool, calming medicine.
And it does something more. It makes him think for that second that his dad really does love him and that he is a good kid.
And so David starts working extra-hard in school, especially in art, and shows his dad every time he gets a good score. And he finds that a lot of the time, this cheers his dad up, and every time that happens, he feels that pain go away, and this becomes almost addicting.
And for over a year this pattern continues
And then, around the end of 3rd grade, a miracle happens and his dad starts spending more time with him, he’s smiling more and laughing and it’s amazing. And for a long time, David feels good. He works really hard in school, gets basically perfect grades, and is always trying really hard to make his parents and teachers happy. And almost all the time, he does.
Until finally, he’s in high school. He’s in all advanced classes. School is a lot harder than it used to be. And he’s still doing pretty well, still getting good grades, but in a couple subjects, English and History, he just has a harder time. And as the pressure builds, and it seems like there’s just not enough time in the day to do a good job on everything, that burning in his throat, from 2nd grade, gradually comes back. He’s able to get through, to just push the pain back down, and he makes it through 9th grade okay.
Which brings us to the beginning of 10th grade, the C- and his anxiety attack.
So, what’s going on here? What happens that causes David’s anxiety? Is it that he’s just genetically predisposed to be anxious? Is it the experience of having a depressed dad? Is it nature or nuture?
Well, like most things in mental health, we don’t know exactly, but it’s probably some of both. It is very likely that anxiety is, in some part, genetic. One person can experience a stressor and feel no anxiety, while another person experiences the exact same thing and has an anxiety attack.
Last week, we talked about the amygdala, and how it is the main culprit behind anxiety. Well, one thing we do know is that both kids and adults who have anxiety have, on average, larger amygdalae. Now, does this mean that a large amygdala causes anxiety? We can’t say for sure. But it seems likely that it’s not just environment and upbringing, but that anxiety likely has some genetic component.
And I think this can be helpful for parents, that if your kid has anxiety, or depression or anger or whatever, It’s not all on you, that if another kid were somehow able to have the exact same experiences, he might never have mental health problems.
And at the same time, we can be pretty confident that nurture, does play a part.
And we’re going to take a while digging into the nurture side of anxiety, and we’ll start by talking about frogs, specifically, their game plan for making babies.
A frogs have thousands of babies. Some mother frogs can lay up to 20,000 eggs at a time. And so if every female frog has 20,000 babies, then how is it that we are not swimming a sea of frogs right now? Well, it all has to do with the parenting game plan. You make thousands of babies and then you pretty much just let em fend for themselves, and just bank on the numbers of the thing. A lot of those tadpoles are going to die, but if you have 20,000 of them, chances are good that some are going to survive.
So, what this means is that tadpoles have to get really good at surviving on their own, and they’ve evolved to be pretty independent.
Now, humans, and most mammals for that matter, as we know are a little different. Having witnessed the births of my two children, it seems just a bit more difficult for us to birth thousands of babies at a time. And so our game plan for parenting needs to be different. If you only have a handful of babies to carry on your genes, you’d better make sure that handful survives.
Now, we don’t know the exact evolutionary reasons for this, but we do know that human babies have evolved to be very dependent on their parents. And so this is where we need to introduce a concept that is key to understanding David’s anxiety.
And it’s called, attachment. Attachment is the bond between a parent and child. And You probably think of it as a nice cuddly feeling of love and belonging. And that’s a part of it, but oh, is it so much more. Attachment is a biological need that is hardwired into our species. Children who grow up without a dependable caregiver, or secure attachment as it’s called, have a much higher rate of serious mental health problems as adults. To put it lightly, it’s really important.
And so one way to think about attachment, from a biological standpoint, is that from even before birth, there is a question floating around in a kid’s mind that hangs over every interaction between him his parents. The question being: Will you keep taking care of me, no matter what??
And it’s important here to think about our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and just how dependent kids were on their parents 10,000 years ago. Humans don’t have sharp claws or armor-like skin to help us survive. Our main survival tool is our huge brain, and the brain takes a long time to develop. And so if you send an anciet 8 year old out on his own, it’s like releasing a bear cub when he’s still toothless and clawless. He’s going to die. And so any time before the age of 14 or 15 at the earliest, a human child is hugely dependent on his parents to keep him alive.
And so attachment isn’t just important for babies and toddlers. Secure attachment with parents remains important into the teenage years.
So let’s get back to David. Because like every human child, the attachment question applies to him and his parents: “Will you keep taking care of me, no matter what?” And before his dad’s depression, the answer had been a pretty consistent and emphatic “yes.” But as Tom’s depression got worse, especially since Sheila was working so much, that “yes” started to seem a little less certain. And so every time his dad was too depressed to play with him, every time he went to bed without a goodnight kiss, every time his dad snapped at him, our old friend, David’s amygdala would perk up. And it would say, “See this guy? He’s supposed to be keeping you alive. I’m not so sure you can count on that right now. I think this would be a good time to panic.” And by now we know what it means when the amygdala panics…you guessed it…fight or flight.
Now, one thing about the amygdala is that the more it encounters a particular threat, like the feeling of rejection from a parent, the more sensitive it becomes to that threat or to anything that resembles it. A well-known example of this is PTSD among military veterans. A veteran who witnessed a lot of explosions likely has an amygdala that is very sensitive to anything that sounds like an explosion. So even something as innocent as a car backfiring can trigger his amygdala so badly that he goes into a full-blown panic attack.
And it seems like we’re comparing apples and oranges here. Combat explosions are much more life-threatening than feeling rejected by your dad. But take a second to think about that. Yeah, it’s starting to sound like our comparison last episode between me almost crashing my car and David’s C-.
So, again, the question is, why does our body react almost identically to physical threats like explosions or car crashes, as it does to social and mental threats like rejection or failure?
So, let’s think about it: You’re a 7-year-old child living in a band of hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago. Your parents start to act strangely and are paying less and less attention to you. You are experiencing life-threatening social rejection. And You’d better be freaking out—because if something happens to your parents, your chances of dying go way up.
But if you kick in fight or flight, and cry like you’ve never cried before, your parents might snap out of it. Because deep down you know your cry is almost impossible for your parents to ignore.
And so we’re starting to see why rejection is such a powerful force on our lives. Almost all of us, in some way or another, fear rejection. And because David experienced so much of it, his amygdala learned to fear it more than most people.
And that’s why his amygdala panicked so hard at the sight of that C-. His amygdala had learned that the best way to avoid rejection was through success, especially in school. So when it saw that C-, it saw failure. And when it saw failure, it saw rejection. And when it saw rejection, it saw death.
It sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. The fight or flight response, which is the main cause of anxiety, is designed to protect us from dying, that’s it. Anxiety, fear, anger, panic—all of these emotions, at their core, are designed to protect us, not from feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable, but from death. And I bet if you think about your own strong emotions, many of them are probably caused by a fear of rejection, and therefore, a fear of death.
And so I’m just going to give you one practical tip this time. And that is to listen to your amygdala and to teach your teen how to listen to theirs.
I listen to my amygdala almost every day when I listen to my own anxiety. I have had some anxiety for much of my adult life. And I’ve found it calms down a lot when I listen to it.
Just last week, I was feeling anxious about a workshop I was putting on at a school later that day. I could feel my anxiety was trying to tell me something, so instead of trying to push it away, I listened to it. I heard it tell me that it was worried about messing up this workshop because I wasn’t well-enough prepared. And because I knew that, deep down, it was trying to protect me from rejection, and ultimately death, I didn’t argue with it. I listened. And I told it, okay, thanks for letting me know. How about if I spend one more hour preparing, does that sound good? And I felt it relax.
So teach your teen about their amygdala, or just have them listen to this podcast. Then, when they’re anxious, angry, afraid, panicked, help them to listen to their amygdala, listen to their anxiety or anger. Or more importantly, do it yourself. I think you’ll find it makes a big difference.
And so next time on the Teen Mind, I’ll teach you a strategy for understanding and talking with your amygdala. It’s a strategy that has changed my life. And hopefully, it will change yours too.