Teenagers as our Teachers

I was so much older then.  I’m younger than that now.   —Bob Dylan  

The books, articles, and blogs dedicated to surviving and explaining the terrorizing teen years are endless.  So when Dr. Daniel J. Siegel in his new book Brainstorm described the four qualities that make up the “normal” adolescent experience as: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration, I quickly wanted to add it to my pile of “adolescence is awful” literature. Then he did something unexpected and outlined not just the negative impact of adolescence but also the positive. His highlighting of the upside of being a teen challenges the mainstream view of teenagers as simple moody nightmares and points to their ability to teach us how to create a more fulfilling life.

Adolescence is the years between childhood and adulthood. Experts vary on age ranges from 10-years-old to 24-years-old. While an exact age range is not consistent, the radical changes in the adolescent’s Prefrontal Cortex are. The Prefrontal Cortex is the part of the brain that controls reasoning and impulses, which is why we see adolescents as moody, irritable, restless, impulsive, risky, unpredictable, and dramatic. While these symptoms appear mostly problematic, put the negative aside for a moment, and answer these questions: In the past year have you stayed up all night laughing with a friend? When is the last time you tried something new? Are you living your life with a sense of adventure? Do you feel excited to be alive? Are you still capable of being inspired and surprised by the beauty in your everyday routine? If you answered, “no” to most or all of these then you need to grow down. 

Dr. Seigel wrote, “When adults lose the four distinguishing features of adolescence, when they stop cultivating the power of novelty seeking, social engagement, emotional intensity, and creative exploration, life can become boring, isolating, dull, and routinized.” Does this sound familiar? Adult’s lives are often serious and full of responsibilities. However we still need to take time to embrace new adventures, laugh loudly with friends, pursue new hobbies, and allow ourselves to feel intense emotions. If my work with adolescents has taught me anything, it is that I want to live my life with their energy, creativity, intensity, and ability to turn an average errand into an adventure. My fellow adults, the next time you go to the grocery store I encourage you to roll down your windows, turn up the radio, stick your arm out into the wind, and for a small moment embrace the teenager that still exists in you.  

Sarah Taby, MS, LPC was a therapist at Franco Psychological Associates who specialized in working with adolescents.