Smells like teen spirit

“There’s often a lot of noise and laughter when teens are gathered together. But if you want to stick with this age-group, you have to accept that sometimes they’ll be laughing at you.” In this post Rob Pluke and Tim Jarvis explore the challenges and necessity of  engaging with adolescents.

When Nirvana’s released ‘Smells like Teen Spirit” in 1991 it was not expected to do well. Due to its sound it was generally only played on mainstream radio at night and its nonsensical lyrics made it hard to understand. However as the song was picked up by campus radio stations it sparked a rush of sales. So popular the song became that Rolling Stone magazine went on to brand it as the ‘anthem for a generation’. “Teen Spirit” has been described as an, “exploration of meaning and meaninglessness”. At the time it somehow expressed where young people were at, it still does to a certain extent.


That spirit, captured by Cobain through the song, can bring a fantastic adolescent energy, which can be both wonderful and daunting. There’s often a lot of noise and laughter when teens are gathered together. But if you want to stick with this age-group, you have to accept that sometimes they’ll be laughing at you. Perhaps this’s why so many older folks choose to keep clear of teens. Trust and proximity are recalibrated, and a kind of wary truce is maintained.


For Daniel Siegel, this is sad, unnecessary, and a loss both ways. He says we actually need each other; that adults and teens can learn from, and actually inspire each other. In his book, Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain, Siegel unpacks some of the very real neurological shifts that take place during the adolescent phase. As you will see, each holds potential risks and rewards:

  • Sociability. Social life becomes incredibly important to most teens. Try to take away their cell-phone, and you create real anxiety. What’s happening, who said what, where are they now, and do I fit in? These things really matter to a teen. This emerging interest coincides with a certain withdrawal from adults. This emerging capacity is important but there are risks. The pressure of the pack can make for secretive, devious, and regrettable choices.
  • Novelty seeking. Increased dopamine activity means that teens are prone to becoming bored with ‘what is’ and instead prefer ‘what if?’ They like to test the limits and they want excitement. This is good, it gears them for a life of passion but it also makes teens prone to sensation seeking and risk taking.
  • Emotional intensity. The emotional life of a teenager is more intense than that of a child, and they don’t yet have the neurological infrastructure to cope with it. It’s a bit like having a Ferrari engine with bicycle brakes. In some ways this is bad, because it makes for all kinds of emotional blowouts. But all the same, emotions are important. They make us come alive.
  • Creative exploration. Teenagers tend to argue more than children. And they can make some annoyingly good points. Teenagers are able to think outside the box, come up with new insights and keen questions. Great (unless you just want to get through the lesson quickly), but this same emerging ability can leave teens prone to disillusionment, and a lack of direction, especially when there’s no adult patient enough to argue with.

As you can imagine, Siegel hopes adults will help teens stay on the right side of the above developments. But more than this, he hopes that adults will continue to develop these positive aspects in their own lives.

Adults can’t take teens places they themselves aren’t able or prepared to go.

Kurt Cobain said of his song, “We still feel as if we’re teenagers because we don’t follow the guidelines of what’s expected of us to be adults.” This telling statement reveals that if we want to help teens to make the most of this rich phase, we need to demonstrate a bit of what it looks like to be an adult with passion, curiosity, friendship, optimism, and creativity. We come decently close when we practice the following:

we need to transmit superordinate recognition of our teenagers inviolable worth and dignity and pour hope and faith into their hearts.”

  • Connection. This is the ability to look past sometimes sullen or defensive expressions, so that we can locate the tender soft spot of every young person. This is key to mentoring. Young people have to feel ‘seen’ or ‘known’ before they can hear our advice, encouragements, or admonishments.

    ‘…try to take away a cell phone from a teen and you create real anxiety.’
  • Goodness. Teens need to thrash things out with adults who are prepared to stand for what is good in the world. This is tough. Any adult who stands for what is right is going to be criticised. Most situations are morally dilemmatic so whatever you decide, some will think you’re wrong. Weirdly, this means that standing for right means tolerating a certain amount of guilt.
  • Recognition. Despite the fact they drive us nuts at times, we need to transmit superordinate recognition of our teenagers inviolable worth and dignity and pour hope and faith into their hearts. They’re going to need it for the road ahead. While you’re about it, keep hope alive in your own life.
  • Humility. In those moments when we can be humble, we’re able to see others better. Remember that teens are often struggling with identity issues. This can make them an insecure, and sensitive, so when they’re with us, let’s ensure there aren’t two egos jostling for position. We don’t need to be right.

Be an artist

Psychologist Eric Berne had the idea that healthy people know how to link their adult selves to their child selves. He said that when we do this, we’re able to live at our creative best. We’re able to be artists with our own lives, this doesn’t mean we all have to be Kurt Cobain, but we do want to be open to possibility, to ourselves, and to others.

Perhaps this is the gift that teens offer us. Sure, they can be a messy bunch, and teen spirit can pack a potent (sometimes unpleasant) smell. But standing as they do between adulthood and childhood, they remind us of the rude life that connects us all, and the fact that learning can work both ways.

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