Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Trigger Warnings & The Teen Brain on Fear

Warning: the content of this blog post is more adult than teen.

We young adult authors put a whole lot of thinking (or we should) into what we put on the page. We feel a certain responsibility - as parents, teachers, librarians, former teens - to make sense of the world for our readers, not to make life more difficult for them. And certainly we don't want to throw anyone into PTSD hell.

So along come two new ideas/studies that have me churning about what I might write next and whether I will inadvertently light up a young reader's brain with a post-traumatic stress reflex.

Trigger warnings (see this article in The New Yorker) are flags that the material about to be read (or studied in the classroom or viewed on the screen) may trigger a post-traumatic response to memories that are evoked by the material. Huckleberry Finn would come with a trigger warning for those who have experienced racism; Taxi Driver would come with a trigger warning for those who have experienced sexual assault; Game of Thrones would come with a trigger warning for those who have experienced...just about any negative horror you can imagine, and some you don't want to.

My first thought upon hearing about trigger warnings was, "Oh, for pity's sake." How would a teacher teach anything, even things in the canon, without a trigger warning? Shakespeare alone would merit multiple warnings about violence, misogyny, anti-Semitism. And forget the bloody Greeks: certain bits of The Iliad might ruin anyone's day.

Now new studies have determined that brain development in teens is not steady-state (golly, what a surprise.) The amygdala, that part of the brain that processes fear, develops earlier than the prefrontal cortex, which regulates reason (i.e., processes overcoming fear.) If you've ever wondered why so many of us get stuck reliving the dreadful anxieties that were born in high school, now there's a scientific reason why. Our brains keep trying to process the fear and anxiety that were brought on by those teenage experiences, even well after we are able to process newer fears and anxieties.

I find this newest brain research raising a level of concern, for me, that the experiences of adolescence that adults dismiss as trivial or advise as character-building may in fact be setting up kids for years of adult therapy.

I am not advocating sheltering young people from the bumps and bruises of life. Indeed, to a certain degree, resiliency is born of the ability to weather downturns and is necessary to achieving success. Furthermore, I do firmly believe that when teens are coping with a stressful situations - and even situations that are filled with horror - one of the best coping mechanisms is reading about it in the safety of one's home, room, school, library. Just look at what Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak has accomplished in terms of raising awareness and giving voice to the victims of rape.

One of my works in progress is a contemporary YA novel and addresses a brutal attack on someone who has come out of the closet. Should it come with a trigger warning for those who've experienced abuse because of their sexual orientation?

I wonder whether you'd like to weigh in on this issue. What do you think about trigger warnings? What about this new brain research, and the vulnerability of teens to fear and anxiety? I'd really like to hear your opinions.