‘Essence of Adolescents’

“Ugh, teenagers!”

“Teens just go brain dead for a little while and then come back.”

“It’s all the raging hormones — they act crazy!”

“If we can just get through these years, we will be ok.”

In the book Brainstorm, Daniel L. Siegel, M.D., provides abundant research on the changes that take place within the brain of adolescents — occurring between the ages of 12 and 24. Siegel says often the wild ideas believed about teenagers are simply myths. They do not “act crazy” because of raging hormones or “go brain dead,” nor do the parents have to just survive and get through these years. These adolescent years are survivable and even, dare we say it, can be enjoyable. This is a time of extreme brain development and that means the adolescent is undergoing construction to get rid of (pruning) what they no longer need in their brain and to speed up the processes and connections of what they do need. These brain changes come with great growth opportunities for the adolescent but also some challenges. It’s also an incredible opportunity to build connection and attachment.

Siegel found there are natural changes that happen during this time of life that direct adolescents to begin to move toward interdependence, causing them to seek peers more often than parents. This, he says, is an “essence of adolescence.” At the same time, adolescents still want to be seen, safe, and soothed by their parents in order to feel secure. During this time, it is vital that parents stay connected to their adolescent through communication and mutual experiences.

Siegel developed an acronym to help parents remember this “essence of adolescence:”

Emotional Spark
Social Engagement
Creative Exploration

The rest of this article will address the “novelty-seeking behavior” in adolescents and how parents can connect with their teen through this. Teens experience an increased drive for rewards in their brains because of the natural developments at work. The challenge of this season means teens may act impulsively at times, overestimating the pros of an idea and diminishing the cons. Through this mindset, an adolescent may be more willing to try new things and creatively experience all that life has to offer. If living this way sounds inspirational, that’s because it is. Siegel says adults often lose this sense of adventure, but are actually still meant to experience it. Adult brains can continue to grow and develop in this way if they are mindfully engaging in life, stimulating their emotions, bodies, thoughts, and senses (Siegel, 2015).

So, it begs the question, what if parents remembered that they were once adolescents who underwent these brain changes? That they became more of who they are today because of that brain development? What if parents spent these unique years trying to connect with their teen while participating in the “essence of adolescence” to keep their personalities and relationships growing more holistically? If these are questions that you want answers to and you desire to further develop your relationship with your teen, consider dismissing these common negative myths about adolescents. A good goal to have is to empower your adolescent with structure, preparing them to launch into adulthood, but with support.

Another interesting challenge parents may face with their teens, especially those who have experienced trauma, is that the adolescent may crave novelty while also being terrified by it. This may cause adolescents to appear even more erratic and create dysregulation as they want to try new things but, at the same time, are scared to. In these moments, a parent can normalize their teens’ fears. It is okay and understandable that they feel this way and accepting their fears will go a long way in helping them to overcome them. Work to truly see your teen by recognizing their desires, naming their fears, and encouraging them to try anyway. That will guide you in knowing what novel experiences to lean into, which will help you to add to the list provided below.

Here are some specific and practical ways you can connect with your adolescent who is seeking novelty by providing them with the following ideas. You know your teen best, so come up with your own to add to the list.

  • Go out to a country road or empty parking garage and let your teen practice driving.
  • Let your teen pick a recipe, create the grocery list, and cook or bake a new food.
  • Consider letting them try a new hair color or hair style.
  • Redecorate their room in their own unique style.
  • Join with and allow your child to dream about ideas for the future, even if the idea and dream is not realistic.