Is it Disrespect or is it Fear?
By Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP
Joseph (not his real name) came into my office for an intake with his hoodie pulled over his head down to his eyebrows. He sat down and hunched his body over, staring at the floor. His voice was mumbled. Most adults meeting Joseph would view him as disrespectful and defiant and would likely respond in an authoritative manner.
Viewing Joseph this way misses some important clues about what is happening in his nervous system. Like a turtle pulling himself into his shell, Joseph’s posture is self-protective. The vulnerable parts of his body are pulled inward, and his back is his protective shell. He lowers his head, hunches his shoulders forward, and avoids eye contact reflexively, because past experiences at home, at school, or in his neighborhood have revved up his nervous system, which is now stuck in “fight-flight.” He may be verbally or physically reactive when he senses present danger, at which time, the adults who view him as disrespectful might say, “See there—that boy IS aggressive and angry!”
Joseph doesn’t recognize why he protects himself this way--or if he does, he can’t convey what he is feeling on the inside to others, because his ability to communicate has shut down. We communicate best when our “social engagement system” is online. Helpful words don’t come to us when we’re in a high alert state.
Only adults who are willing to regulate their own nervous systems and take the time to gain Joseph’s trust will be able to help him. Perhaps you can see aspects of Joseph in a member of your family. If you are a clinician, you may see Joseph in some of your clients. We challenge you to notice how your own nervous system may be responding to the Josephs in your life.