The E.S.S.E.N.C.E. of Adolescence

Daniel Siegel, PhD, talks about the E.S.S.E.N.C.E. of adolescence in his book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. He describes how the ESSENCE of the teenage mind presents wonderful opportunities and frightening risks for parent and teen. If Cute Teenage Girl with Serious Expressiona parent tries to stifle, muzzle, or oppose this ESSENCE, the teen may rebel, withdraw, or even experience depression. Instead, parents do well to engage their teen’s ESSENCE and creatively collaborate with their teen to help them harness, guide, and find healthy expression for it. What is the ESSENCE of adolescence? ESSENCE is an acronym that represents four aspects of the teenager’s changing brain. Let me explain.

  • E.S.—Emotional Spark. The reward circuits in a teenager’s brain are undergoing major remodeling. During adolescence, the reward circuits exhibit increased activity that result in teens feeling bored with everyday life while gravitating toward thrilling and exhilarating experiences. In addition, teens are experiencing epic changes in their bodies and relationships as well as their place in their families and their role in the larger world. Is it any wonder teen’s experience intense emotions in the midst of these changes? Moodiness, impulsiveness, and reactivity are not surprising when we realize the intensity of changes occurring on multiple levels in a teen’s life. On the positive side, these changes fill them with a zest for life and a drive to do something new and exciting in the world.
  • S.E.—Social Engagement. Teens exhibit an increased desire for peer relationships. Peers become a driving force in teenagers’ lives. Peer relationships provide mutual support in navigating the multiple changes teen experience in their life. In fact, research suggests positive peer relationships during the teen years are the best predictor of well-being, longevity, and happiness throughout life. Teens also need a strong supportive relationship with their parents. Supportive parents provide structure and encouragement, guidance and love to their teen during this time of transition and change.
  • N.—Novelty. Teens seek out and create novel experiences to satisfy the increased activity of the reward circuits in their brain. They need new and creative ways to engage their parents, stimulate their senses and emotions, spark their thinking, and engage their bodies. As parents, we can work to help them find ways to live passionately and adventurously while teaching them to think through consequences of actions and reducing risk of harm. One way to do this is to engage the teen’s creativity.
  • C. E.—Creative Exploration. Teens grow in their ability to think conceptually and reason abstractly as their brains become more integrated and mature. They reflect more on what they know and believe. As a result, they gain a new, and often ideal, perspective of how to impact the world around them. They ask questions and point out perceived injustices and discrepancies. They also seek out novel solutions for the problems they perceive in their world, their home, and even in their parents. This offers a wonderful opportunity to talk and connect with your teen as you share ideas and perspectives in a calm, non-judgmental discussion.

As you can imagine, each area of the adolescent E.S.S.E.N.C.E. presents challenges, risks, and opportunities. How can we, as parents, meet the challenge of the adolescent E.S.S.E.N.C.E.? How can we increase the opportunities of their E.S.S.E.N.C.E. while decreasing the risk? Those are excellent questions that I hope to explore over the next few weeks.

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