Understanding Teenage Brains
In what ways might teenagers uniquely reflect the Imago Dei, the doctrine that asserts humans are made in the image of God? Understanding the uniqueness of adolescent development (which really means understanding teenage brains) is critical to effective youth ministry. In this seminar, we’ll look at how teenagers’ brains work and what that means for your youth ministry.
How to maximize ministry:
Most important thing you can do is spend time with Jesus, ministry flows out of your authentic relationship with Jesus.
2nd understanding teenagers and specifically what is going on in their brain.
Adolescence is both a developmental reality and a cultural phenomenon.
Youth culture and external pressure of experience put onto teenagers that is molding and shaping them or just the physiologically side. It’s both. Nature and nurture. Creation stuff. What is God’s creation intention when he created the teenage brains? Basic transformation of the brain and part of God’s design. It’s good at its core.
Culture: why belonging is the lens teenagers view the world. Informs belonging. Where can I belong and that will tell me who I am. Not like when we were kids and asked were to I belong and that shapes and forms who I am. Now it’s the other way around. More and more isolated today. Isolated world from adults. Hard to move towards adulthood because we removed the onramps to adulthood.
The Context: Physical Change
Teenage changes are started in the brain. Hormones released that set off other changes.
2-4 years following the onset of puberty is 2nd largest in terms of the quantity of change in the terms of a human but most significant because awareness of the changes they are going through. Disorienting, confusing, wonderful and terrifying.
One word to describe teenagers: Change
In change: Anxiety and fear. Excitement. If you have agency or choice then you are more excited. This is the everyday experience of teenagers. They see it in the mirror. Kind-of cool and terrifying at the same time. They think they are developing wrong and that is normal. Some short blip while others it sticks with them for years or a lifetime. Too tall, too thin, too whatever. If Christian kids, imprecations for God and belief system. Imply at a subconscious level, God has messed up with me. They are asking, “Does God care? Does He even know?” Normalization language into conversations. Seems weird and crazy, but its good and everything will work out.
Illustration of “leg hairs must grow best in the dark.” Wearing jeans all summer long to make leg hairs grow in.
The trauma of the girls hitting puberty before boys. Cultural reality. Age has dropped for the onset of puberty.
1900’s was 14.5 years old for girls.
70’s was 13 years old.
The name of the numeral is not a good measurement of if they are a teenager or not. #Thirteen
Now the average age now is 10 years old. 2-year bell curve. 80% from 8-12.
The short answer to why: Food. 75i(sh)% is the food bad camp with preservatives and modified foods.
25 diversification of food. Globalization and not just our backyard gardens.
The US has the lowest of any country in the world.
Most research is on girls because of the first period.
Another big reason is that girls talk and boys don’t…and the boys lie.
Boys are on average 18 months behind the girls. Not just when the sex-bits are changing but the brains changing.
Girls are cognitively more advanced than boys in this age.
Dropped and extended. Was 18 months long. Now ages 10 to 30-year-old adolescents.
Early ad 10-14. Late teenage or middle adolescence 15-20. Late adolescence of emerging adult 20-30.
When do you take full responsibility for yourself? 20 year spread where we as a culture take full responsibility.
Stanley Hall described it as a time of storm and stress, rebellion, and moody. Built on a faulty assumption that has been debunked.
A developmental capacity and developmental permission.
Who am I?
What do my choices mater?
Where do I belong?
God’s puberty gift: Cognitive Change
Get the gift of the ability to think abstractly. The world is revolutionized.
Dormant muscle (brain capacity), never used before and the capacity grows into usefulness.
Illustration: Inability to move thumb after major surgery.
Abstract thinking is basically thinking about thinking.
Speculation – wrestling with what if and why questions. Journey to Christlikeness. No longer black and white.
3rd Person Perspective – considering what other people think of me or what other people think of someone else or even an idea. Preteen and child perceive their own perspective and put that into another person.
Put a 7-year-old in front of a mirror and describe self, will say what she has heard.
16 year old is mostly speculation about what she thinks other people think about her.
Literal leap of faith vs. figurative. Make it concrete so that you can bring them to the abstract.
I think I want to become a Christian but I’m afraid to jump off the tower. The girl thought it was literal.
“MarkO wanted me to share about how I lead a lot of people to Christ but that’s not what really happened…God lead a lot of people to Himself through me.”
An incredible clash of abstract thinking.
Wild emotional rollercoaster ride. They want to hang out with you and think you’re great and then they hate you.
Preteens and children have a small primary pallet of colors of emotions. Teenagers have a giant pallet of colors that they don’t understand. It takes years of practice before they really understand Color Theory (understanding and interpreting emotions) They often paint why to bright and bold (girls) everything extreme bright and bold or they mix in all the colors too much (guys) and get beige. Cray to observe but imagine what it’s like to experience it. You feel the emotions that are huge but you don’t even know what those emotions are. We are called to normalize this experience.
Hit a button where the teenager explodes in emotion, think, “She’s showing me her brain.” John 10:10 Jesus promises us to give us life to the full. Because we are made in the image of God we have been given emotions to have the full and rich emotions of life. You had little kid emotions but are growing into adult emotions so that you can have the best life. It’s taking time to get used to emotions. Once you get used to them you will experience this full life.
Teenage friendship has abstract thinking. Children and preteen friendship are based on proximity.
What are you thinking about me right now? Who has power and who doesn’t?
Teenagers build a friendship by affinity. Like or value the same things. Teenagers are developing a new way of forming friendships and relationships as well as an upheaval of losing friends because it doesn’t fit the new qualifications for friendship but also have not figure out the new thing. Social death risk when hanging out with old friends.
Girls tend to form friendship groups of 2 or 3 girls. Can’t sustain 4 or more. They will break into 2 and 2 or vote someone off the island. Girls have extremely high value on vulnerability and intimacy and this can’t be sustained in a large group. Get included in or voted off because of this.
Girls are friends because we talk about stuff together
Boys not about vulnerability. 16-year-old boys use about 5k words a day. Girls 20k words a day.
Boys extremes of an affinity group, together because of the things we like to do together or the other extreme of just being alone. They haven’t figured out the process so they are alone and lonely.
Boys are friends because we do stuff together (or did one thing together once.)
Host opportunities for boys to do things together.
What we talk about in youth group is very abstract.
Childlike faith is praised, childish faith is not.
Faith needs to grow and change in the teenage years.
The backpack of faith with tinker toys. Systematic theology of beliefs. God answers prayer but it can’t be a selfish prayer and I really have to mean it. But then he finds out his grandpa has cancer. If I have the faith of a mustard seed then I can move a mountain so he prays that cancer mountain. But then his grandpa dies and his belief system is challenged. The scaffolding erodes. Questions and doubts are good and we can walk alongside teenagers.
Think Thomas and Jesus. Jesus doesn’t let him off the hook. He helps him process the doubt. Not a shaming but an encouragement. We processed this and now you can set it aside. Your doubts are a gift to you. Normal. Essential to faith development. Let’s find something better to replace your doubt.
Some New Findings
Preface: Do we see teenagers as a problem to be solved or a wonder to behold?
90% of adults in our world see teenagers as a problem to be solved. Broken and problematic.
We spend time telling them what they are supposed to be like and they are good at falling into the norms. We can change this and give them a new norm.
15 years ago, the medical community had a misunderstanding. Thought brain was developed by 6 or 7. MRI taught us that it’s not finished developing until the mid-20’s.
Physical maturing = Age 16
Knowledge maturity = Age 18-20
Wisdom maturity = Age 25
Two primary areas that are underdeveloped in teenagers
The Pre-Frontal Cortex – Logical and Rational part of the brain.
“the frontal lobe” 4 lobes x 2. What separates us from animals. CEO or executive office. Hire order thinking.
The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for decision making, wisdom, propitiation, impulse control, planning, empathy, organization, focus.
Wonder to behold. Teenagers are not incapable of these, they just struggle. How can we help them with this? How might the struggle actually be a benefit? What might God have intended it this?
This must be a good thing.
We are risk adverse but teenagers are really good at trying new things in order to figure out how things work. This is a strength.
Responsible for emotional understanding and interpretation (among other things)
Showing emotions on someone’s face. Generalization. We would get 8-9 right and girls would get 5 right and boys would get 2 right.
Emotional interpretations. We need to help students with this.
Be a surrogate temporal lobe. What emotion do you see on his face? I think what is happening is this, explain.
Neuron Proliferation and Winnowing
Prior to puberty, the brain grows additional million’s of neurons. Weird spike before and after puberty. Electronic Superhighway.
Dismantling of neurons. Use it or lose it principle. Those used will stay in play and those that don’t are dismantled and repurposed.
The brain is hardwired for the rest of its life. Think accents and the age 14. Childhood accent is hardwired and stays that way forever.
How are you stewarding the hardwiring of the brains of your teenagers and their faith? What are you doing with this opportunity?
How are we hardwiring their brains?
Stuff them full of the right information or do we want to hardwire their brains on how to pursue God, process doubts, experience God.
Amygdala. The lizard brain. Responsible for fear (and anger)
Highly developed amygdala. If you allow that part of the brain to be overly developed then you can’t logically process what you have fear about.
Haunted house, you know logically it’s a person in a costume but in that moment the amygdala is going crazy.
Fear-based faith. Understand God as wrathful and judgmental. Lean to legalism.
The Anterior Cingulate rests between the prefrontal cortex. Buffer zone.
Fulcrum between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
Understand God as compassionate and loving. See the needs of others.
Have a thriving faith and understands a caring and loving God.
Newest Brain Research
#1 way to grow the Anterior Cingulate is through prayer and medication.
8-10 minutes a day 6 days a week. Measure the Anterior Cingulate activity. At 2 month mark noticed a 50% increase in the strength and ability of the Anterior Cingulate. This is how prayer changes us. Prayer changes the brain. It grows the Anterior Cingulate and allows you to understand God as compassionate and personal as well as seeing the needs around you. The second way to grow the Anterior Cingulate, a distance second, is through faith-based singing. A consistent and regular practice of prayer and medication. Actually sing it out loud and you will rewire your brain to the way it is supposed to be. Maybe our number 1 priority is to help teenagers develop a practice of prayer, medication, and singing. We’ve got to be Anterior Cingulate superheroes!
Book for further study: How God Changes Your Brain
What Research Is Telling Us About Flouring In Ministry
Millions of dollars have been spent researching how ministers flourish, but do you know what the findings are and how to implement them in your life? We’ll look at cutting-edge research from Notre Dame’s Flourishing in Ministry project along with recent research from Barna and practices recommended by Full Strength Network to help you thrive.
Brotherhood Mutual: Not directly doing ministry but aligned with kingdom values. Not reduce youth Ministry claims, just want to help. Insurance goes up, what could be used for ministry is going to insurance. Churches suffer deeply and often divide or split. Harm to the neighborhood and reputation of Jesus. Brotherhood mutual turning 100 and want to give something back to the church. Want to create an organization that can help ministers and their families thrive. In August, they launched Full Strength Network: Strengthening pastors and their families.
Findings from my conversations with pastors.
Tweeted out a survey about being burned out and 36 hours later 200 responses.
Would you be willing to have a 1-hour phone call about responses? 70 share experiences.
10 interviews. 60 others sent them a link to share the story. Some responded.
Barna on the state of pastors.
On the whole, people are doing well and experiencing health. Questions to see risk and see many are at risk. Positive net effect but a sense of fragility.
And those who were not doing well were really not doing well.
Also found the aging of pastors. Median age was 44 and in 2016 the number was 54. We don’t have younger pastors coming into the pipeline.
The financial collapse in 2008, they couldn’t retire because of a strength of finances, and they are holding onto their place longer.
Youth ministry pool will be pulled.
In Christian Colleges the numbers are low because it’s not an attractive field of work.
Surprised by Pride
Seen it happen to others but didn’t believe it could happen to them.
They believed initially it would pass and they didn’t realize how far in they were.
After repeated appeals, they would believe that they needed to listen.
Relationships help us identify and see when we enter into these moments.
The number of friendships outside of the church congregation.
Don’t know where to turn to in their greatest moment of need.
Most didn’t even feel they could talk with their spouse about it.
The Power of Human Contact
What transformed their lives or brought them into awareness was the relationship with a person.
They couldn’t read anymore. They could watch TV and be present at sporting events but when it came to actually reading they lost that ability.
Am I aware of the fact that I might be in need? Am I able to sit down and read?
Am I feeling more alone then I’ve ever felt before?
Hedonic Well-Being – Daily happiness.
Daily Affect (affect=modes+emotions)
Losada Ratio (5 times more positive experiences than negative experiences. Observing couples and predicting longterm)
Succeed vs. Failing. Have more daily wins than losses. You can create more wins in your daily happiness. Cooking dinner.
Eudaimonic Well_Being – Thriving.
Sense of meaning and purpose
Ability to invest one’s resources to attain cherished goals.
Clean knowledge of one’s knowledge, skills, abilities (Strengthfinder and assessments to discover who you are)
Living authentically, being able to live in accordance with one’s true self
MCORE – https://motivationalcore.com 27 motivational themes. Why we do what we do. There 6 themes that showed up in the top of all but two of the youth pastors surveyed. Are we training correctly to begin with? Experience the Ideal. 36% had this in their top 3. Motivate to make concrete something that is an idea of value inside of you. Might be an idea for an event or the ideal in Jesus Christ. Clear knowledge helps you thrive. Bring the skills you need and build the team to thrive.
You can change yourself: Add skills to add to reach the goals. Do I need to add skills?
Adapt the environment: Use knowledge, skills, and abilities the reach goals. Do I need to change?
Select new environment: Go where you can accomplish the goals. Do I need to move?
The line between positive and negative sacrifice
The sacrifice of Jesus is one of the reasons we have gotten into ministry. We entered into a vocation of self-sacrifice.
Thinking you are a superhero. What will these students do if I’m not there or if I don’t respond to them?
Be mindful and check in with yourself to see if you have crossed the line.
We can only sacrifice to the amount that we are connected to the vine. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.
Articulating Your Narrative
Write down your experiences.
We have many ways to know and remember things. Story unites what we cautiously and unconsciously know. This brings healing to our brains. Confess your sins is telling the story and in the process, it brings healing to your brain. Biologically and spiritually.
Take a minute to breathe.
Pastors who practice spatial disciples had less risk matrix for burnout.
Pastors who regularly practiced meditation or contemplation–almost every day–had lower levels of burnout, reported experiencing less stress, and had higher levels of both daily happiness and thriving. – Matt Bloom
Help You Monitor Your Wellbeing
Connect to Strengthening Resources
Receive Confidential Assistance when they need it
Build Narrative Presence: Taking the time to write down a story. Share it with a community or one person. Interact with a story.
Read Flourishing in Ministry – Emerging Research Insights on the Well-Being of Pastors
Sign up for this community to Champion your Growth and Wellbeing
You, Parents and Your Post High School Students
These days, it takes longer for young people to “adult.” This phenomenon is raising new questions for ministry leaders and parents as they reimagine parenting for emerging adults. These parents are seeking advice, resources, and support as they forge new relationships with their children. In this seminar, we’ll highlight key topics pertaining to emerging adults and offer helpful insights for parents. We’ll address the questions parents are asking: Is taking a gap year a good idea? A Christian college or secular college? Is college a hostile place for Christian students? What do I do when they come back home? If you’re a leader seeking resources for your students’ parents or a parent of an emerging adult, this seminar is for you.
The path to get to adulthood is much further than it used to be.
If my kids are at home longer, what does that mean for me?
If it takes more education and longer, how do I coach them through that?
If they are getting married later, how do I parent them?
Questions: ‘Would you reply “yes” or “no.”
Have we always had emerging adults?
Emerging adults and millennial are synonymous.
Emerging adulthood is a problem in society.
Emerging adults feel like adults when they get a job or become a parent.
30 is the new 20.
A college is a good place for Christian, emerging adults.
Emerging adults are leaving the church.
The judgments we make on young people are usually based on assumptions and expectations that we have on them.
If you’re not making a judgment, someone you are working for, an elder, a parent, or someone does have these judgments.
There is an ambiguity around how we are supposed to support an emerging adult.
What do we mean by emerging adulthood? ESA
“Begins with biology and ends with culture.” Santrock 1990.
This is changing though.
Biology: Young people are entering into puberty younger and younger.
Culture: Is changing. Most adults do not see younger people becoming adults until their late 20’s. 18 vote but not drink until 21.
No longer a transition of 5 years, but 20 years. This is no longer transitional but two decades of life.
Your role as a pastor in a young persons’ life is powerful. You are relationship force they need during this time.
Early, Mid, Late, Extended Adolescence.
Arnett, 2000 18-29.
Growing up looks different
More and more expectations are being placed on young people. Generations ago with a high school diploma, you can get a job and a pension.
More education, more responsibility, more involvement, more competition in global jobs.
Less and less support is being offered. Not always for the benefit of them but for the benefit of themselves. Support so that schools have a higher graduation rate, not necessarily for the students. Is it possible that we love bigger youth ministries because it is powering the business of the church?
The Gap is Social Capital: Used to be in the positive, but around 1970 we entered into a social capital deficit. Hire expectations with less support.
Ripple effect with a higher rate of unemployment. Higher school doubt.
Acknowledge that the deck is stacked against the emerging adults
Five main features of EA’s.
Identity explorations, instability, self-focused, feeling in-between, faced with unparalleled possibilities.
Instability: The difference between a fire drill and a lock-down drill.
Self-focused vs. selfish. If my world is unstable and my development is unstable, where is my attention going to be? On myself so that I don’t blow it.
Feeling in-between: Not college ministry…do they go in singles ministry? They are in-between in areas.
Love: What relationships look like.
Work: What is their vocation
Belief: What is the belief system I have and how do I hold that?
“Adulthood” for EAs
Taking responsibility for yourself
Making indecent decisions
Becoming financially independent
Same icon but with a different interpretation. So staying home with parents because they want to become financially independent.
Cues of past generations are different for the adults today.
A Tension – Our expectations need to change
“It takes time to grow up today” Jeffrey Jensen Arnett
“Emerging adults must use this period wisely.” Meg Jay
What and how they know:
The starting point. Trying to tell their colleagues the examples and illustrations they use need to connect with this generation.
Beloit College Mindset List 2021
Watch TV everywhere except TV
The first generation educated by video
Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland FL 60M library with no books there.
How do they learn?
Paradox of Privacy
Can hide everything from parents online
Aware of massive mining of data. NSA? Facebook?
Who do they trust?
Diversity and Commonality
A generation that has grown up with ethnic and gender diversity as bot normal and desirable
With the emphasis on diversity…what do they see as having in common?
What does a community church mean to an emerging adult?
How do they connect?
This generation for who police polarity has always been normal.
These students were born six years after the Cold War and during the super ascent of Cable TV narrowcasting.
How do they dialogue?
How do we seek to understand each other?
This generation will enter college during a time when concern about sexual assault is at an all-time rise.
Rising female empowerment, opportunity, and role models.
How do they perceive roles and relationship?
How do I treat my neighbor?
“When I was your age…”
(never say this phrase ever again) We say this to try to connect but the moment we say that they are thinking it was a different world.
This shuts down the sensitivity that we need to say to emerging adults. We need to seek to understand.
What they Feel:
Smith 2009. Lost in Transition
Emerging Adult Psyche
Optimistic and lonely
Disconnected on their own
Anxious and worries
Pause for a moment and ask if any of this is going on. A perpetual feeling of always being behind.
Emerging Adult Hurtles:
Poor moral reasoning
Damaging sexual experiences
Mass consumer materials
Civic, communal, and political disconnection.
Activism is more on the twitter feed than actually doing something. Not joining massive movements but local grassroots organizations. How many causes come across your social media feed on a given day?
“Tell Me More…”
A place for conversation. A place away from technology. A place away from distractions.
Pause long enough to engage.
How did you navigate that? What do you think you are going to do next?
How do they relate to one another:
Emerging adults’ relationships with parents changes
A lot of parenting books are strategies of how to get your kid to do something without any skin in the game for the adults.
Learner: 14-18 Adolescent stage. How to take responsibility. How to do things on their own.
Explorer: 18-24 Education stage. Choose their own adventure.
Focuser: 24-30 Decisions stage. Discovering what is most important to them and where they want to go.
Relationally, who are we to become as our kids move through these phases?
Learner: Saw parents as Teachers. Give agency to help them grow and learn.
Explorer: Move from being a teacher to being a Guide. Come alongside. Moral support. Times we take the lead, times we walk alongside.
Focuser: Parents become the Resource. Exercise patience and keep our mouths shut for when they come to us.
What is your role in this situation? What should you be doing as a parent?
For you. This is not a static statement, it’s dynamic. It’s moving and repositioning around the emerging adult.
Parenting those leaving high school
College or no college? Future success and future debt. Does the training go to a job that exists in the future?
Christian College or Public College? It depends. A college is an option but not the only option. Online options, community college options, no college options.
Preparation (not gap) year? Maybe. Preparation year or find yourself year. Focus year. Most people are up for it but parents are rarely.
We put undue pressure on ourselves that colleges push.
Give each other grace and young people grace.
Key to preparation year: It needs to have a goal and process. What’s the end result?
Help the students envision why this college or why this place.
Think long and hard about the debt young people are collecting and the pressure this will add to their life.
College is a good investment if you use it in the right way.
Taking out debt without finishing a degree is hurting. On top of that, when they marry they add on even more debt.
Parenting and Pastering those ages 18-23
Communicate good news to those, where they are at.
Year 1: Daily Life Management
Year 2-3: Existential questions (work, love, belief)
Year 4: What’s next…
Emerging Adults and Faith
Faith -> faith-ing – a verb life quality. We Faith. Dynamic, changing, and looks different tomorrow. Doubt is a friend of faith, rather than an enemy of faith. Embracing faith for their own. When or if they walk away, it’s not the end, it’s a gut-wrenching step in their story.
Intellectual question can lead to relational fallout
Meaning making, not rebellion
Ask: “What do you believe that you don’t think I believe?”
New questions need new resources.
Doubts: We shut them down, not so that they feel better but so that I feel better.
We communicate, why did you leave us.
The anxiety we feel is about our own faith.
We must address our own faith journeys, not fix theirs.
Their journeys will not be ours (and our journey will not be theirs)
“Parenting is an improvisational and courageous act.” Steve Argue
Article: Connecting with college students over break: they’re bringing home more than their laundry.
Emerging Adults + Churches and Parents’ Voices
The million dollar question – What are you doing with EA’s?
EA’s who stay and go
Formation forward and backward
Defining the relationship (yes, DTR) – Who are you and who am I?
Once defined, we know how to move forward. KidMin, defined very well. YouthMin, decently clear. Post HS has no definition. So what do we do? Create another program because it makes me feel good although the relationship hasn’t changed. This is formation backward not formation forwards. We are so worried about our young people being in the church that we pressure the church because we don’t know what to do. Short-term fixes to a long-term problem. We see you as a contributing member, you have a voice and a talent that is worth investing in, your ideas are often better than ours, we will fund you and hold you accountable because we believe in you and your perspective. Who is going to believe in them? They have the ideas. We have the capital. As a church, we need to recognize the fact that sometimes they leave the church as an act of faithfulness. Not that our church is bad or drifting off to nothingness but that sometimes we have other needs and can’t meet theirs. Maybe we send them to the people or organization that can help them where they are at. If the goal is to keep them in our seats we missed the point. Give them tools to go to their next step. It’s not that they are leaving the church for the wrong reasons or that if we keep them that we are right. We might be doing them a disservice if we keep them when we should send them.
If you ask an emerging adult what they want they will describe youth group.
When we give them what they want, we are not giving them what they need.
We are putting off the inevitable which is inviting them to be become fully invested members of our faith community.