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A Late Night Walk [with teenagers]

My neighborhood is laid out in a loop. The loop is less than a mile but more than half a mile. I like to walk it at night, no lights. 

  • Teens are Impulsive Within the first 30 seconds, my teens had taken off their shoes, left the safety of the lights, and sprinted toward the darkest part of the loop. They left me behind. They scurried into the darkness, screeching, laughing loudly, and feeling deeply. Teens seek out experiences that make them feel. While they are seeking good feelings, it is sometimes hard to figure out that bad decision may create good feelings. Good feelings could be a flip in the tummy, a big jolt of energy, uncontrollable laughing, tingles in your body. This is sensation seeking. Teens are looking for experiences that gives them a jolt. In school, I see teens leave class to “get a drink” knowing they make bump into their crush. The sensation, the jolt of energy, that runs through their bodies if they see their crush is really hard to compete against. Teens can control impulses and make good decisions (such as staying in class) but they also choose to experience something new, to work through the complexities they now see in their lives, and take risks that may not make sense to a more developed and measured brain. In a study at University of Pennsylvania, researchers asked a group of teens and a group of adults to not look at a flash of light. The adults did not look at the light. The teens wanted to know what it would feel like to look at the light and if that feeling would be a good one, a jolt, one that is fueled by dopamine.  Interestingly, it was the amount of dopamine in their brains that allows teens to resist the impulse to look at the light. If more dopamine is in the brain, this researcher asks, can they resist? If a teen has less dopamine in their brain they will need a bigger reward stimulation to make a more measured decision. This research team has started to dig into this question now.  What this means for us: Teens need to feel “good” sensations as they grow and develop into the complex beings they are and make decisions. The good feelings don't always come from good choices. Some teens need bigger rewards to influence behavior. When I see this at school, I talk to teens about the “feeling that jolt”. I ask, "Where do they feel it in their body? What is happening that gives you that feeling? Is the feeling coming from something safe?"

  • Competition Once the teens expired their impulsivity, they moved to competition. Who could run faster? Who could carry someone farther? It didn’t last long but it did remind me that very important ways of being can come from competition. These ways of being can unearth a need a teen may not know how to ask for. When I talk about ways of being, I am thinking about how teens present through their behavior. Overly competitive teens might be showing us their need and what that means. Competitive teens can struggle with interpersonal relationships, they can appear intense, aggressive, mean even. If a teen is competing to be the first in the lunch line and are pushing and shoving, they may be showing us that they are in need of food. They might worry that the food will be gone if they are at the end of the line. If they regularly get enough food, this is not a need. The behavior is showing us something very different than the unmet need. Here are a few more to consider:  What this means for us: Choose curiosity over judgment. Teens may present competitive, aggressive, or over the top. They are actually telling us something about what they need. I ask questions like: “Hey, I noticed you were super competitive just then. Tell me what you were thinking.” I ask questions until I feel like I can ask a big question like: “You want to be recognized for the hard work you are putting into your math homework, huh? We can do that without putting someone else down. I am proud of you for homework, help me be proud of your support of others. How can we do both?”

  • survival (need: getting enough), 

  • control (need: establishing dominance), 

  • inclusion (need: membership), 

  • opportunity (need: getting a chance), 

  • excellence (need: elevating performance), 

  • winning (need: beating the opposition), 

  • enjoyment (need: pleasure of play), 

  • advancement (need: getting ahead), 

  • motivation (need: inspiring effort),

  • arousal (need: stimulating excitement). 

  • Come back to safety I walked at a constant and quick speed around the loop. In between these stages, the teens transitioned by checking in with me. It was dark, they had experienced big feelings, and I was a place of safety. I reset their emotional systems. That is the role of the adults in teenager’s lives. Teens will match the emotion of those around them. Teens are seeking ways to regulate their emotions and they see how others are responding and then they respond in kind. Emotional regulation comes with brain development, awareness, and practice.  What this means for us: Practice our own emotional regulation. Take deep breaths, figure out how we want to respond to something before reacting without thought. Be a calm presence for teenagers, they are watching how we react to situations. 

I think a lot about my role as an educator, a parent, a trusted adult to the teens I know and love. I create normal. It is my job to help define what is normal. We can over do, underwhelm, we can make mistakes, but if we are consciously making “normal” happen, then we are doing a great job!

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From our All-School Assembly, February 28, 2024 Written by Nell Dailey “On this rainy day in February, I want to share a story with you. So sit back, put your phones away, and give me your attention.


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