We are living in amazing times. The fact is we’ve learned more about teenagers in the past 10 years than in the previous decades combined. We’ve been exposed to challenging and solid research about youth ministry and adolescent faith; although it perhaps wasn’t all good news, this research is shaping our thinking and practice in long-overdue ways.
The knowledge we have about teenage brains is similar. It seems there are new findings almost every month—fascinating stuff that constantly reminds me of God’s creativity and intentionality, and—this is important—I find again and again that my knowledge about what’s going on in teenage brains informs everything I do in youth ministry.
Yet there’s a problem that needs to be undressed: Most of what you’ve read or heard about teenage brain development is wrong. At least, most of it has been skewed to infer conclusions the research does not support.
Teenagers Are Not Broken
A decade ago, early research into teenage brains revealed the previously unknown reality that brains aren’t fully developed well into the 20s. Researchers identified areas of the brain that significantly were underdeveloped, specifically focusing on the frontal lobes. Those areas are often referred to as the brain’s CEO or executive office because they’re the decision-making center (as well as the place for impulse control, prioritization, focus, wisdom and a bunch of other higher-order thought processes).
Slowly, books such as The Primal Teen and dozens of magazine articles and news reports started reporting news about teenage brains. However, they usually did so with a spin that the actual researchers might not have intended: that teenage brains are inferior, broken or incapable.
I’m preaching to the choir here. You know in your gut this isn’t true. The focus of research has shifted, by the way, to a question of capabilities and strengths; but at a popular level, the idea that teenagers are broken (and that science says so) continues to be pervasive.
There’s also been a subtle inference or assumption that teenage brains always have been this way and we’re just now discovering this nuance. In other words, the widespread pop understanding of teen brains is that it’s a nature issue, not a nurture issue.
Do teenagers act the way they do because of the limitations of their brains, or are teenage brains the way they are because our culture does not expect (or allow) them to use their brains in the same way as adults? It’s a chicken-and-egg question; and while research hasn’t or can’t answer it, popular reporting misleadingly assumes the position that paints teenagers in a brushstroke of incapability.
One author who pushed back, Dr. Robert Epstein, suggests the natural assumption that teenage brains always have been this way results in the worst kind of profiling, deciding that a certain group of people are inferior based on their physiology, rather than their competence. He draws parallels to the once normal but now abhorrent assumptions about Jews, people of African descent and women.
In all three cases, the physiology of a group of people was presumed to make them inherently inferior (e.g., the usually smaller brain size of women was used as a basis for the presumption that women were inferior to men and less intelligent, which we now know is not true). He contends we’re already seeing findings of teenage-brain development resulting in more isolation of teenagers from the adult world, more limitations to their freedoms and more infantilization (treating them as children).
My two cents: I’m interested in pushing back. While I have no interest in living with my head in the sand, I want to see teenagers live into their capabilities, and I want to see young adults move into adulthood. I’m embracing the idea embedded in a question Dr. Dean Blevins asked during a panel he and I shared recently: Are teenagers a problem to be fixed, or a wonder to behold? I’m siding with the latter, and—hear me on this—the weight of most adolescent brain research has shifted in this direction, also.
Living in the Tension Without Ignoring the Implications
So where does this leave us as youth workers who are trying to be responsive to the needs and lives of real teenagers? A few years ago, I heard Andy Stanley give a talk on leadership in which he proposed leaders need to know the difference between problems to be solved and tensions to be protected. I don’t know that the tension we’re addressing here needs to be nurtured, per se, but I do think we need to live in the tension. I want to be paradoxically committed to being countercultural and to doing ministry in the real world where teenagers live.
How I’m Responding
I hope you’ll join me in this handful of living-in-the-tension implications (some completely unresolved):
• Read About Teenage Brains!
I wasn’t kidding when I said my growing understanding of neurology shapes everything I do in youth ministry: what I teach, how I teach, how I interact with students, the sorts of questions I ask, what and how I communicate with parents, how I plan my youth ministry calendar, what’s most important and emphasized in our youth ministry.
What should you read? Read The Primal Teen (Strauch), because it gives a great perspective on what we were learning about teen brains 10 years ago. You could read my little book A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains, and please read the National Geographic article on teenage brains, as it’s a great glimpse at a turn toward a more positive look at teenage brains. On my stack right now are Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (Satel and Lilienfeld) and Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain (Siegel).
• Ask Speculative Questions
I’m not a scientist or a researcher, but I am passionate about my hypothesis that we can help teenagers grow in their ability to make good decisions. Speculative questions include What-if and Why questions. Even if we can’t increase frontal lobe growth, I know we can help teenagers step into the use of the abstract thinking they’ve had since the onset of puberty. They have the capability, but they haven’t used it much and tend to be lousy at accessing its potential. So when we take them to the shores of speculation, we help them test the waters they’ll return to on their own. Because so much of spiritual growth in the teen and young adult years requires speculation, I’m 100 percent convinced that helping teenagers develop the ability to speculate will help them build a sustainable faith.
• Become a Competency Facilitator
Epstein once suggested to me that good parenting (and, by extension, I’ve come to see this as a framing for great youth ministry) is about moving from control to facilitation, where facilitation means identifying and nurturing competencies. If you (similar to me) don’t buy into the increasingly popular notion that teenagers are incapable and therefore should be protected and treated as children, then we need to be every teenager’s competency champion.
• Allow for Failure
Their frontal lobes are underdeveloped, and teens struggle with decision-making. Don’t respond, in the way our culture (e.g., educational approaches, legal systems) does by removing opportunities for making decisions. Instead, create safe places for decision making, assuming a healthy percentage of failure and mistakes. Really, we all learn more from our bad decisions than from our good decisions, right?
• Make Way for Passion
If teenagers are a wonder to behold, then the kernel of awesomeness at the center of that wonder is their potential for passion. Maybe that’s why they’re not great at impulse control and measuring risk. Maybe they need to be limited (think: God’s creation intent) in those areas in order to learn about the world in ways that risk-averse adults long have ceased learning. What if teenagers’ passion could be viewed as a great gift to your church? (While she doesn’t directly tie this to brain research, this is the core proposal of Kenda Creasy Dean’s excellent youth ministry book Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church.)
• Act as a Surrogate Temporal Lobe
The frontal lobes aren’t the only underdeveloped parts of the teenage brain; the temporal lobes are, also. They are responsible for emotional understanding and interpretation. Ben was sharing in my small group about how he was nervous about going home that evening, because his brother was returning from drug rehab. He was visibly emotional while explaining this, but Mitch piped in with, “You should tell your brother drugs are stupid!” Rather than shaming Mitch, who wasn’t being mean or rude and was merely missing the emotional clues that would have been so obvious to an adult, my role required that I redirect the focus back to Ben’s sharing while gently pointing out to Mitch the emotion Ben was feeling. In that moment, I was helping Mitch see the emotion and learn to spot it so he could help his friend.
• Be Patient
Patience with teenagers is a pre-requisite for a good youth worker and always has been. With our growing understanding of teenage brain development, we have that much more reason to be patient. Great youth workers, those who will be used by God in the lives of real teenagers, always will be gracious and loving, ready to listen, full of encouragement and abounding in patience.
• Be Thoughtful About the Use of Young Adults as Youth Ministry Volunteers
This is a sensitive area; please don’t think I’m suggesting young adults are inferior youth workers. I love having young adults as equal members of our youth ministry team. Similar to teenagers, they bring a level of passion that’s a wonder to behold. However, remember their brains are still developing, and they occasionally will struggle with wisdom, prioritization, impulse control and decision-making. Our ministry effectively (I’d like to think) addresses this by pairing young adult leaders with more mature leaders for small group leadership. Aaron, my 20-year-old small group co-leader, brings things to the group that I can’t bring; I bring things he isn’t able to bring.
All these new discoveries about teenage brains are fascinating. I welcome anything that can help me know and understand better the teenagers I’m called to shepherd. I’m committed to doing ministry in the tension of reality and skepticism. Living in that tension keeps me on my toes, reminds me to be dependent on God, and drives me toward curiosity rather than blind assumption.
Mark Oestreicher (Marko) is a veteran youth worker and founding partner in The Youth Cartel, which provides resources, training and coaching for church youth workers. The author of dozens of books, including Youth Ministry 3.0, Marko is a sought-after speaker, writer and consultant. He lives in San Diego with his wife, Jeannie, and two teenagers, Liesl and Max. Marko blogs at WhyIsMarko.com.