I have been perusing a plethora of articles being written lately about adolescent development, specifically about how the brain of a teen is formed. We know more about teenagers and the way they think (I know, you’re asking if they think at all) than we ever have. Thanks to vast improvements in technology that allow scientists to scan the brain, we can actually see what is happening inside the mind of an adolescent.
This is exciting because we can now make correlations between adolescent development and their spiritual formation. Why is this important? Because too many times we tend to respond to and interact with teens as if they were just little adults, small versions of ourselves.
One of the things that we have learned is that the teen brain is almost fully formed physically. But though the size of the brain is similar to adults, the hard wiring of the synapses actively continues into the mid-twenties. If you’ve ever wondered of your teenage child, “What was she thinking?” or “Where is his mind?” the recent literature reveals that you’ve been closer to the truth than you were probably aware. Teens’ brains are in expansive stages of development.
Here are some great resources with brief summaries of each article.
“Teenage brains." National Geographic. October 2011.
We used to understand adolescent behavior through the very common storm-and-stress framework, thinking that teens’ irrational actions were due largely to the stress that they faced. Scientists today are showing us that while this is partly true, the development of the brain has much more to do with unpredictable behavior. Seen from an adaptive view, we find that teens are highly proficient at adapting to new experiences and social situations, and in fact, require these kinds of opportunities. The downside to adaptability is that they aren’t adept at logical thinking, especially in social contexts.
One lesson for youth ministry: students must be provided with opportunities to take risk, give significant creative input and engage socially with one another.
“Why teens are wired for risk.” CNN Health. October 19, 2011.
Teens are hungry for and seek out social rewards, and they are willing to take huge risks to get them. Because of this, they aren’t always aware of the danger at hand when taking risks. They are prone toward experimentation in this stage of life, which might lead them to harmful practices of substance abuse, promiscuity, reckless behavior, etc. To change behavior, adults need to reinforce good behaviors and trusting relationships.
One lesson for youth ministry: students need risk, and the youth group is a great place to experience this through new, creative and healthy experiences such as social encounters, service projects and mission trips.
“IQ can change in teenage years.” BBC Science & Environment News. October 19, 2011
A general assumption has always been that the capacity for intelligence will stay the same throughout life—if you’re born smart you will stay smart (though that is no guarantee that you’ll do smart things). But recent brain research indicates that in adolescence intelligence can go either up or down. In other words, someone who can’t do math in junior high might do very well with the subject in college.
One lesson for youth ministry: don’t judge a book by its cover; those squirrelly freshmen have the potential to turn into significant and thoughtful leaders.
“Experiencing teen drama overload? Blame biology.” NPR Health News. August 16, 2010.
It’s not just raging hormones that cause irrational behavior. The developing teen brain actually favors this irrationality. In a sense, teens are wired for emotional experiences, not for thinking. This is why teens are so emotional; they’re just doing what teens are wired to do. Adults need to learn that adolescents don’t view the world the same as they do.
One lesson for youth ministry: when your students get angry (or feel overwhelmed by any other emotion), don’t respond with anger or shock; come alongside the teen, support him or her, and wait for a “cooling off” phase, then use the emotion to learn about life (and definitely do not manipulate teens with emotion).
In his book Like Dew Your Youth, Eugene Peterson says that adolescence is a gift from God. While most people, especially parents, think of this stage of life as a time merely to be endured, Peterson understands it as a beautiful opportunity for growth. And the growth doesn’t just happen in the teen; it happens in all of us as we interact with and learn from one another.
Rather than seeing the students in our youth groups and families as problems, let’s recognize what science is confirming: teens are wonderful human beings with a propensity toward resilient adaptation, a love of new experiences, and vessels of a marvelous range of emotions. Though incredibly complex, adolescents are a delight to work with and the church is a great place for them to work out the development of their new brains.