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*Sparks: How Parents Can Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers* by Peter L. Benson
Sparks: How Parents Can Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers
by Peter L. Benson
Jossey Bass 256 pages October 2008 Hardcover    

Any book that promises to help parents of teenagers to achieve success with their children, and to help teens to help themselves, with parental guidance, to experience positive outcomes, is going to garner some readers. The author of this book is touted as “one of the world’s leading authorities on adolescence.” He is a PhD, a speaker, and a parent. He believes he has a method for making teenagers happier, and parents will be the ultimate judges of whether that method works.

The basic first step is to know your teen. Through various and rather standard instruments such as Myers-Briggs, you can begin to get a handle on how your child operates. Is he or she primarily a thinker or a feeler? An extravert or an introvert? Many parents fail to understand very important basics about their teens, such as that a teenager is not, as is often believed, just a young grown-up, capable of but refusing to make mature judgments.

In fact, teens are often oblivious to the consequences of their risky behavior, simply because they lack the maturity to see beyond the present moment. Whereas many if not most Americans believe that teen years are filled with “storm and turbulence,” the author states that “teenagers are often delightful people. They’re idealistic. They’re exuberant. They’re creative.” It’s the inability to tap into these positive aspects of adolescence that frustrates teens and parents alike. Often both teens and parents are swept up in the “bad rap” that teens have been cursed with through the media.

So, what is a “spark” and how does it relate to teenagers and their development? According to Benson, “the concept of sparks speaks powerfully…a spark is something inside your teenagers that gets him excited…a spark has the power to change the course of a teenager’s life forever.” Igniting the sparks is the task for parents who want to help their teenagers develop into happy people and eventually, successful adults.

But a spark is not just something that turns us on for a brief time, not just something that makes us feel good. It is a prime mover, something that comes from deep within. One way to motivate teens is to provide him or her with a “spark champion” – a role model who is there for the teen, who can push the teen to do more and be more.

Benson’s program is based on interviews with teens, which led to identifying some of the factors that really turn kids on in a positive way. It also identifies the kinds of adults who can be champions, gain trust, and motivate adolescents to give their best.

This book is filled with useful lists and self-questioning exercises for parents. There are resources such as books and videos for teens through all age ranges, non-fiction stories that inspire as well as entertain. And there are numerous case histories. As with any system, Sparks will work for those who embrace it wholeheartedly. It has many well-regarded proponents. If you are hoping for a miracle cure, Sparks is not an overnight magic bullet, but it can be a spirit guide to better outcomes for you and your rebellious, brooding teen.

My advice to parents of troubled teens: read the book and try Sparks. It could be the turnaround you’ve been longing for.

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