Engaging the Developing Minds of Today’s Youth: Strategies to Deepen Family Connections and Nurture Healthy Development
I have spent much of my career working with adolescents in various clinical settings, and as a result, I’ll often remind my students that at some point in their career they should too. Adolescents are the informants of progress in action. They navigate a phase of neurological development where they move beyond being told what the world is as they begin creating what the world will soon be. As a therapist and researcher, it fascinates me how each new generation of adolescents demands its own identity—driving new cultural trends in their efforts to remind generations before them that they’re here to discover who they are. But for as much vitality as these emerging minds bring into our family and social systems, they also tend to create many challenges.
It’s one thing for me to enjoy the rich curiosity and rebellious qualities of an adolescent in weekly, one-hour doses, but as a family therapist I remain mindful of the strain such rapid cultural change and social appetite can pose on a family system. It is a unique dilemma of our time to realize our children are growing up in a social world so foreign to what was once ours. How do we keep up? How do we offer guidance as they navigate a social world that has already changed by the time we find the map? Of what wisdom do we have to offer the mind that has never known an iPhone-less world? These same dynamics that complicate connecting with adolescents in our personal lives run parallel to contemporary challenges of joining with adolescents in therapy. With that in mind, I’d like to offer strategies that have brought me success therapeutically for parents and adults looking to deepen connections with the adolescents in their personal lives.
To consider the chore of keeping up with the rapidly evolving trends that inform the adolescent’s social interest seems unattainable at worst and exhausting at best. I, for one, have little interest in the latest app or celebrity happenings. For me, it’s an unwise use of energy to remain overly concerned with the particular trends that entail the adolescent’s social world. I realized that the more we learn of how distant our social worlds have become, the more space we begin to feel between ourselves and them. Instead, I remain interested in how adolescents navigate the complexity of their social world. I remember that although each generation becomes increasingly unfamiliar from its predecessor, the ways in which their minds develop remain the same. I keep myself grounded in the themes of universal experience as opposed to getting lost in the particulars that make us different. I rely upon all we have come to know of human development.
So what is it that drives the teenage brain toward such daring and emotionally charged engagement with the world? Dan Siegel, a brilliant pioneer behind the interdisciplinary field of Interpersonal Neurobiology and living genius of our time, identifies four primary traits that encompass adolescent brain growth: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration (as discussed in Siegel’s best-selling book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain). Through these four traits we can establish common ground. Although we may never fully understand the devastation of a disrupted Snapchat Streak, we can probably recall the levels of social engagement and emotional intensity of our adolescent years. We can look to these shared universal experiences as the roadmap into the minds of adolescents. As we should be intentional to nurture and support the optimal development of each trait, the route toward deepened engagement with the adolescents in our lives may be best sought through the trait of creative exploration.
Of the many things I’ve learned from my accumulated years of being an adolescent and working with adolescents, it stands to be noted how often adults overlook the emerging trait of creative exploration and its close associates of curiosity and wonder when it comes to the adolescent’s pursuit to make sense of their world. Their minds are often filled with the larger existential questions that entail being human, yet are rarely afforded the opportunity, structure, and company of wisdom to fully consider the extent to which their curiosity grows. Some of the most impactful therapeutic encounters I’ve had the privilege to co-create with adolescent clients revolve around our shared discussion of their biggest curiosities—their thoughts on the universe, on humanity, on living, on dying, on freedom, happiness, love, and suffering. As I invite such dialogue and provide a framework to explore such questions, it is as if something within them awakens. Clients have often reflected to me that they weren’t aware of how terribly they yearned for these conversations until after they actualized. These are the encounters that have deepened my relationships with clients and generated a level of engagement that allowed for healing to take place. But it doesn’t take a doctoral degree and license to practice therapy in order to start these conversations—all it takes is a mutual curiosity, open heart, and positive regard for the other. So if you’re looking to find ways of connecting more deeply with the adolescent in your world in ways that undercut the cultural norms of their times that often impede experiences of togetherness, consider the following conversation starters:
- How do you think we came into existence?
- What is our purpose in this world?
- As humans, what makes us different?
- As humans, what makes us the same?
- How do you think people come to have such different cultural beliefs?
- What are your thoughts on death?
- What are your thoughts on life?
- Why do we suffer?
- How do we find happiness?
- What do you value?
- What are you passionate about?
- What brings people to intentionally harm others?
- How do we find happiness in such a troubled world?
If reading through these questions leave you with a sense of uncertainty as to your own responses, all the better! Bringing your own humility into the dialogue will only deepen the connection. The adolescent mind is implicitly searching for answers. Inviting an explicit conversation around these themes will awaken a part of them to you, and in doing so, nurture a primary developmental trait. So, I invite you to rekindle that adolescent part of yourself that remains curious, and to bravely embark into the wondrous developing minds of today’s youth. I imagine you’ll quickly find that you have just as much to learn from them as they do from you!
Lucas Volini, DMFT, LMFT
Dr. Volini is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist seeing clients at The Lorenz Clinic of Family Psychology in Victoria. On a full-time basis, Dr. Volini is the Clinical Director of the Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy Training Program at Saint Cloud State University.