In my last blog I referenced Dr. Daniel Siegel’s analogy of teens being like waterfalls. I would like to make sure you are aware that Dr. Siegel identifies the second dozen years as being the years of adolescence. That means ages 12-24. That’s a long time! This means, the tenets of this post applies to tweens, teens, and young adults alike.
Well, in this blog I’m talking a little more about the good work he has put into studying the adolescent mind. Dr. Siegel has come up with an acronym to describe the qualities in a teen brain that need to be ignited in order for them to thrive and become the self-actualizing adults who go for the gold.
Well, that’s what I want for my teen – and from what I gather by talking to friends and clients, those are all the same qualities they hope for their teens when they fly from the nest. What I discuss below comes from the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel (I don’t want to take credit for his hard work!). I attended the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference and took copious notes. When I was going back through my notes I felt very moved that more people need to learn about this! So here is the way my brain wraps around his research:
- Emotional Spark
- Social Engagement
- Creative Exploration
Emotional Spark – The brain is learning how to arrange emotions. The fight-or-flight part of their brain is on high alert. They are someday going to have to defend themselves and their own children from the world. They are subconsciously trying to understand which emotions are more useful for survival, and because of this, all their emotions are on high alert. They passionately feel everything (and it’s not the myth of raging hormones that is to blame). If we dismiss these feelings the teen will not learn the lesson we’re trying to teach.
We think we’re teaching them which things are worth reacting to, but that’s not what their brains are processing. Their brains are learning that this emotion isn’t useful – or it’s useful for a different reaction than is appropriate, depending on the reaction they get from you. “Oh, I get attention when I yell or cry about anything.” or “I’m deeply feeling hurt, and it doesn’t matter that what hurt me is small, nobody is caring about the fact that I am hurting. I’m unworthy.”
The trick: acknowledge and name the emotion. “Wow, you’re really sad right now.” “I can see you’re super frustrated.” You don’t need to tell them why they shouldn’t feel that way, just let them own it for a little while. You don’t have to cater to it, you can tell them that you would like them to be angry in their bedroom until they can carry a conversation without yelling – it’s okay they’re angry, it’s not okay to yell.
Social Engagement – Tweens & Teens NEED peer relationships. These are connections they will have as adults. These are relationships that will teach them what is acceptable, safe, dangerous, and allow them the ability to work through boundaries while their brains are remodeling. When your teen was a child you taught him to share and to play fair. Now that they are in adolescence they are getting a taste of the “real world” where people don’t always play fair. These are the years where the teen is learning out he relates to these new levels of grey where life isn’t good or bad, black or white.
The trick: if your teen has friends who you think are questionable, but whom your teen is bonded with – have them over to your house. Yes, you’ll spend a little more in groceries (teens and their hollow legs!), but you will be able to see the good qualities in these kids that your teen sees. You’ll be able to monitor what they are doing, and BONUS: you are indirectly still spending a little time with your teen during the waning years they’re still at home.
Novelty – Most people have heard of dopamine and serotonin, but if you haven’t then you’ll be good to know these are the hormones that make you feel good. These are your reward hormones. When you exercise, make love, get good news, or go on a roller coaster you get that thrilling feeling of the dopamine surge (sidenote: illicit drugs raise your dopamine and serotonin levels, and that’s why they feel good and are so addicting). Well, according to Dr. Siegel’s research, the baseline of these hormones drop during adolescence. Do you have a moody tween?
So a child and an adult are running along on a certain amount of dopamine. All day you just have this level of positivity that’s always there. But during the tween & teen years your dopamine/positivity drug is limited. Suddenly you’re sullen, sulky, and kind of bummed out for no reason (sound like any formerly happy teenager you know?).
Another thing happens: The bursts of dopamine are HUGE. So you and I as adults are running at a higher level, and when something good happens we get this little shoot of excitement and joy. The teen brain wants to reach that same level and since it is starting out at a lower level than we started from, it has to shoot a geyser to get up there! That might look a little like mood swings, right? What are some things we know release dopamine? Getting hurt (why cutting is so common among teens as a form of coping), the risk of injury (skydiving, rollercoasters, driving fast), falling in love (swooooon)… can you think of any more?
The trick: Be patient and understanding when they are feeling moody – they don’t know why the construction worker remodeling their brain blew their dopamine, but it happened and it’s beyond their control. Teach them responsible and reasonable ways to get that rush so they don’t get hurt trying to seek it out for themselves. Engage them in exciting and fun activities, and role model (or find a good role model) responsibility.
Creative Exploration: Do you do all the things the same way that your parents and grandparents did them? Have you found some neat alternatives to make your life easier? Now, are you comfortable in your life? At least, comfortable in how you do most of the things you do?
Well, that is because when you were a tween, teen, and young adult you were seeking out better ways, new ways, more interesting ways, and exciting ways to do things! It was fun to one-up or “best” one of the adults – it was a game, thrilling! Look what I can do better than you!
This is how humanity has grown. Each generation wants to do something more than their parents did. Our teens don’t need to do everything our way all the time, as long as they do it (and try to do a good job).
The trick: Use this to your advantage! Your teen is SO INTELLIGENT! Hey, they’ve just pruned away a ton of useless info, there’s room for learning and growth! You can give them traditional creative outlets and you can also let them explore problem solving for something useful to you. Don’t just placate a teen to keep them occupied – they’ll see right through that, that’s what we did when they were little guys. Give them something that is happening around the house that you are stumped about, work on it together, give them room to take the lead on the project, listen to their ideas and let them try them (even if you don’t think it’ll really work). As long as they aren’t going to hurt someone or themselves they are quick thinkers and creative problem solvers.
Having a tween, teen or young adult can be challenging mostly because they are changing and as parents we’re used to them being the person they have always been, doing what they have always done, and obeying us as their “Chief Officer in Command”. They still need hierarchy, but think of it as you’re a manager who is getting a promotion and you’re training your teen to be your replacement.
You can do it!
***and remember, if you want to learn more about E.S.S.E.N.C.E. you can look up Dr. Daniel Siegel. He has authored books, articles, and just general amazingness. He is one man on fire for our youth!
Written by Jessica Wilkerson, M.A.
You can find this, and other articles by Jessica Wilkerson at www.jessicawilkerson.com/blog
If you would like to schedule an appointment with Jessica, you can contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (530) 921-5122.
Jessica works for Chico Creek Counseling as a Marriage & Family Therapist Registered Intern #IMF69783 under the supervision of Joe R. Taylor, LMFT #MFT46406.