The Emotional Spark of Your Adolescent’s ESSENCE

Daniel Siegel suggests the ESSENCE of adolescence involves an Emotional Spark (the ES in ESSENCE—for an overview of the ESSENCE read The ESSENCE of Adolescence). Teens experience intense emotions sparked by changes occurring in their bodies and their lives. For instance, teens experience changes in their family role and responsibilities. They also begin to face the daunting task of determining the role they will play in the world outside their home. Hormones surge through their bodies resulting in physical changes as well. All these changes can result in self-conscious awareness, stress, and volatile emotions. In addition, teens’ brains are changing. The brain’s reward chemical (dopamine) has a lower baseline in teens. This contributes to your teen’s complaint of boredom. On the other hand, when teens reach a threshold of interest that releases the reward chemical, it releases at a higher rate and provides a greater reward. As a result, teens gravitate toward behaviors that will release dopamine and provide an exhilarating thrill. Unfortunately, some of these behaviors may involve risk. Add to this a teen’s tendency to see only the reward and not the potential risk, not the context or the setting or the values, and you can see how this adds to teen vulnerability. You can also imagine how this creates an emotional spark, an intensity of emotion in teens. They can swing from happy to angry, miserable to ecstatic, boredom to energetic interaction in the blink of an eye. They seek out thrilling adventures and exhilarating activities in life. That, perhaps, is one of the benefits of a teen’s emotional spark. It fills them with energy when they find an activity of interest. It can create a zest for life and drive for the ideal world. It empowers teens to find meaning for their life. In fact, many adults would benefit from creating an emotional spark in their own lives, to find that zest and excitement for the adventure of life.

Since that emotional spark also carries potential risk, teens need their parents to help guide and direct their emotional spark in a positive direction. They need parents to create an environment in which their emotional spark brings about productive results. Parents can help channel a teen’s emotional spark in a creative beneficial direction by:

  1. Silhouette of hiking man jumping over the mountains at sunsetHonor your teen’s emotions by accepting their emotions, especially if you don’t understand them. Become curious about your teen’s emotions. Strive to understand the emotion and the priorities hiding beneath the surface of the emotion. Help your teen label their emotions and clarify the values undergirding those emotions. By doing this, you teach your teen that emotions provide information to consider when choosing an action, but the emotion itself does not drive the action.
  2. Honor your teen’s interests. Observe carefully to learn what sparks your teens’ interests, fuels their excitement, and drives their passion. Guide them to positive outlets for their passions. Introduce them to people and clubs with similar interests. Engage them and their friends in exciting adventures of their choosing.
  3. Develop a rite of passage for your teen. This does not mean forcing them into a 30-day survival test or some other extreme adventure. A rite of passage could be as simple as getting a driver’s license. I took my girls on an overnight back pack trip. My wife took them on a trip to NYC. The important thing is to discover what sparks their interest and find a way to use that interest to mark their move toward maturity. Nothing extreme; just something challenging and memorable that can become a celebration of taking one more step toward maturity.

Practice these three actions to honor your teen’s emotional spark and guide that spark in a productive way.

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