What is a youth? Impetuous fire. What is a maid? Ice and desire. Of course these lines are from the great bard, and his classic youthful tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. As I continue to educate myself about the adolescent brain, I see the awareness Shakespeare and other great artists had concerning certain deep truths about human development. Watching youthful emotions flood and often catch fire on the big screen, in the pages of books and poetry, and in the lyrics of songs and lines of plays, is a favorite pastime for many of us adults, even if we don’t admit it.
Why are we attracted to the impetuous fire of youth when we are at a safe distance from it, but then freaked out, and often angered by it when it comes in the form of our child or student? This blog will look at what the author of Brainstorm, Daniel J. Siegel calls emotional spark or Increased Emotional Intensity, and what we can do to harness it, instead of being pushed away by it.
Siegel illuminates us to the fact that increased emotional intensity “gives us an enhanced vitality to life.” He explains the important place that this stage of adolescence held for our past primitive communities, and sheds light on the difficulties modern folks have with it now. “Intense emotion may rule the day, leading to impulsivity, moodiness, and extreme, sometimes unhelpful, reactivity.” Sound familiar parents and teachers? How many times has a kid shown up to class with red tear soaked eyes; only wanting to talk about it with his or her peers, and even begging me not to tell the counselor? Kids are experiencing this flood of emotions because it is actually preparing them to leave the pack, to separate from the tribe, and to bond with others who are between childhood and adulthood for a greater chance of survival when they are away from the greater community.
Siegel continually wonders in the pages of his book if we as adults are put off by the stages of adolescents because we actually have a “deep longing for these very features they (we) may have lost. Not having an emotional spark can make a teen’s exuberance threatening.” You see, the “upside” to being like Romeo and Juliet is that a “Life lived with emotional intensity can be filled with energy and a sense of vital drive that give exuberance and zest for being alive on the planet.” Kids need support in navigating the flood of emotions they are experiencing, and adults need to reconnect with the vitality that comes with emotional spark.
Every morning my entire school starts off with a twenty-five minute social and emotional curriculum. We start in a circle, and especially if it’s Monday, we simply share out. If you’ve ever run a group you know the importance of not forcing an issue. If you can’t carve out the time for an official circle, maybe offer five minutes for three voices to share out a day. Install a “pass” option and be consistent. Make it safe by making sure everyone is quiet and listening. You may be surprised how interested kids actually are in other kids’ issues.
Siegel’s research reminds us of the power in “Honoring these important internal sensations that are more intense during adolescence but serve to create meaning and vitality throughout our lives.” It seems that by allowing the tears of youth to flow, the muscle of future adult vitality is exercised. If all is silent in your sharing, whether it is in a group, or one on one, you might want to start by revisiting the bard together. A video clip of Romeo and Juliet, or even a line or two on the whiteboard might be enough, if the emotional intensity behind the topic is properly honored. Looking at emotional spark together may work to bridge the gap between two vastly different, yet completely connected, worlds.
Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Nicholas Philliou, 7th grade humanities teacher in Durango, Colorado