Tag Archives: adolescent development

teenage brains wired for awesome stuff

brainstormreading Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, by Daniel J. Siegel. it’s been on my ‘to read’ stack for more than six months.

it reminds me of the wonderful quote that dean blevins tossed out during our panel on teenage brains at the nywc last fall:

do we view teenagers as a problem to be solved, or a wonder to behold?

view this quote from the book through a “wonder to behold” lens:

Brain changes during the early teen years set up four qualities of our minds during adolescence: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration.

yeah, i think i’ll have to blog about this more. but this is worth a mini-post by itself.

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 2

if you’re a youth worker reading this, please feel free to copy and paste (or email) this in a parent email or newsletter (though a credit line would be appreciated)…

see part 1: doubts

transitionThe young teen years summed up in one word: transition

Nikki is 11 years old, and in 6th grade. But she looks more like a 16 year-old. And I’ve had more than one mom comment to me that they would pay big money to have fingernails as nice as Nikki’s. But Nikki still loves to play with Barbie dolls. In fact, it’s not uncommon for her to bring a couple with her on youth group trips. The other kids tease her about it – but she’s naive enough to think they think it’s fun that Barbie is in tow. It’s not that Nikki is neither a child nor a teenager: she’s bits of both.

Then there’s a group of guys I used to call the “Punk Pokemons” (this was several years ago when Pokemon was big). Their group was five 8th grade guys – all taller than me – who were trying very hard to be tough. They wore baggy pants and spiked their hair. And they never smiled. Never. They were 100% committed to looking disinterested. But on a regular basis, they would gather in the back corner of our junior high room at church to trade Pokemon cards (those goofy little trading cards that were popular with kids at the time). It was hilarious to see the snarling wannabe tough guys saying things like, “I”ll give you two Pikachus for one Mewtwo.”

Nikki and the Punk Pokemons are in transition. Not quite adults, but not kids anymore either.

If you ask me to define the young teen years in one word, I’d have to use the word “transition.” Everything about the world of a young teen is somewhere in-between where they’ve been and where they’re headed.

The signs of “work in progress” show up in every area of a young teen’s life, including her faith. She’s finding that her “childish” faith system isn’t working anymore, faith-bit by faith-bit. She begins the search – sometimes consciously and proactively, sometimes not – for a richer, more complex adult faith system. And much of this is accomplished through experimentation.

Here’s what I mean: your young teen might show less interest in church, but more interest in spiritual things. By spiritual things, I don’t necessarily mean youth group retreats and the church children’s choir. For a young teen, the dimensions of the spiritual life are just opening up, and they’re noticing depth and spirituality in music, in movies, in TV shows, in conversations with friends, even listening in on adult conversation.

But they’re in transition! They’ll continue to have pieces of childish faith and elements of an adult faith at the same time. Just as you would never try to rush the physical growth of your child (by pumping them full of hormones or steroids), it’s a bad move to attempt to rush this spiritual transition also. But you can help them: by listening, discussing, staying open and not threatened. Watch for these signs of transition in faith, and ask open-ended, non-threatening questions to help them develop their faith-thinking.

Share more openly about your own spiritual journey: your longings and doubts, your hopes and a-ha moments, places where you’ve seen God active in your life in the past week.

And most of all: be aware that this transition means they won’t stay this way for long; so cherish this time!

Mark Oestreicher is a partner in The Youth Cartel, a veteran youth worker, and a parent of a 20 year-old daughter and 16 year-old son. He speaks frequently to parents, and is the author or co-author of six books for parents, including A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Guys, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Girls, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains, A Parents Guide to Understanding Social Media, A Parents Guide to Understanding Sex & Dating, and Understanding Your Young Teen. With his own “apprentice adults,” he co-authored a book for teenagers: 99 Thoughts on Raising Your Parents.

new brain research about young teens and identity formation

my friend (and YMCP participant) gavin richardson sent me a link to a report on a fascinating new brain study (read the summary of findings here).

brain scanthe researchers did MRI brain scans of a group of 10 year olds (pre-pubescent), and again, on the same kids, when they were 13. while the scans were taking place, the researchers asked them a series of questions: some were particularly focused on self-perception and identity issues (and, even more particularly, on identity issues connected to social interaction), while other questions merely focused on knowledge.

they found no significant difference in brain function on the knowledge questions. BUT, they found a significant difference in brain activity (focused in part of the pre-frontal cortex) with the self-perception and identity questions.

my thoughts:

1. i find this to be a wonderful scientific confirmation of the reality that after puberty, young teens begin the trek into the new world of abstract thinking; and a big part of abstract thinking is the new possibility of third-person perspective. in other words, young teens, unlike their pre-teen counterparts, have the ability (if not practice) to view themselves, and other people and objects and issues, from another’s perspective. this new third-person thinking is rocket fuel to the adolescent task of identity formation. without self-perception and some sense of how others view me, it’s difficult to form an active identity.

2. the part of the brain that was really firing–the part where the difference showed up–was the pre-frontal cortex. this is a big deal. on one hand, it makes complete sense that it was that part of the brain, since it’s that part of the brain that’s responsible for higher-order thought (and third-person perspective, including self-perception, is complex stuff). but here’s what’s significant about that: the pre-frontal cortex (or frontal lobes) is also the part of the brain that we’ve heard so much about in adolescents over the last 10 years. MRIs have shown us that the frontal lobes of teenagers are significantly underdeveloped, something we didn’t know until MRIs helped us look at live, healthy teenage brains in action. the reality of underdeveloped frontal lobes (responsible for all sorts of important things, like wisdom, prioritization, impulse control, decision making, and other critical thinking skills) has become, wrongly in my opinion, cause for assuming that teenagers are not capable of these thought processes. this study confirms for me: sure, teenagers (and particularly young teens) are limited in their decision-making, prioritization, impulse control and so on; BUT they are NOT incapable.

parents and youth workers: let’s get those pre-frontal cortexes firing. i’m convinced that, other than the mysterious transforming work of God, frontal lobe development is about the most critical aspect of both faith formation and the move to adulthood.

stewarding the identity formation of young teens

my most recent middle school ministry column for youthworker journal is online now. the issue was about identity, so it wrote a bit about that:

Put a 9-year-old girl in front of a mirror and ask her to describe herself. Her description most likely will be limited to two categories: physical characteristics she sees (“I have black hair and green eyes. I’m a little bit short.”) and specific characteristics other people have observed about her (“I have a bubbly personality, and I’m really talkative!”).

Place a 16-year-old girl in the same position, and you’ll get a very different response. In addition to the 9-year-old’s concrete responses (what can be seen and what others have observed) are her perceptions—who she perceives herself to be and who she perceives herself to be in other peoples’ eyes.

This shift is directly tied to cognitive development and the new ability to think in third person—to form an opinion or viewpoint of one’s self from a third-person perspective; and all the more abstract, to consider what others must think of me, who others think I am.

That third-person thinking ability (a massive developmental gift from God, a reflection of our Imago Dei, and one of the most significant factors in faith development) is, at its core, the means of identity formation.

Some might say young teens aren’t capable of abstract thinking. Hogwash, I say. It’s true: Young teens hardly focus on abstract thinking the majority of the time, but their ability to switch abstract thinking on and off makes middle school ministry exhilarating and challenging.

Moving from Concrete to Abstract Reasoning

Think of it this way: A seventh grade guy, in a shining moment of abstract reasoning, briefly entertains the notion that he’s not only who people have told him he is. He momentarily considers (probably in a very unarticulated manner) that he’s not only what he does, that there’s more to him and that he can play a role in choosing who he’s becoming.

Then the abstract thinking wires separate and he’s back to thinking concretely. With any luck, his previous abstract idea (“I can become a guy who’s seen as a leader!”) travels with him to the land of black-and-white and turns, for a time, into a concrete thought (“I’m becoming a leader!”).

I saw this one Sunday while chatting with an eighth grade girl from the worship team of our middle school ministry. She had just told me she reads a chapter of the Bible every night. I asked her why. Her response, “Because I’m a worship leader, and I need the Bible to help me with that.”

In some ways, her reasoning was extremely concrete: I am this, so I need to do that. An 18-year-old would have nuanced that response a bit more, but this girl’s response also was drawing from her experience of sparking the hot wires of abstract thinking. At some point, she perceived herself as a budding worship leader, not only because she was playing a role on the worship team, but because it was an aspect of her identity.

That’s why, my middle school ministry friends, I think of our role so often in terms of stewardship.

We Are Our Students Stewards

When I was a young adult, I spent the weekends of one year crewing on a racing sailboat. My job was to fly the spinnaker, that large and colorful sail in front of the boat. The spinnaker is only used when the wind is coming from behind the boat, making the other sails much less useful. The other sails push a sailboat; the spinnaker pulls a sailboat.

The trick of flying a spinnaker is that it doesn’t have a fixed edge as other sails, which are connected to things such as masts. Instead, when flying a spinnaker, I stood on the side of the boat with one line in each hand. I only watched the sail, because I constantly had to make minor adjustments to keep it as full as possible.

That’s a great picture of middle school ministry, particularly as we consider identity formation and early adolescent development. Just as I was the steward of the spinnaker, you and I get to play a role in stewarding those earliest months and years of young teens perceiving themselves.

As our young students unfurl their sails, let’s help them understand they are lovingly created children of God so this abstract concept will become a foundation of their identities.

A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains

i had a new book release last week, and i’m pretty stoked about it. it’s the third in a series of five pocket-sized books for parents. i co-authored the first two books in the series (A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Girls was co-authored with brooklyn lindsey, and A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Guys was co-authored with brock morgan). adam mclane and i co-authored the fourth book in the series: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Social Media, and we signed off on the interior a week ago (it should release about december 1). the final book, co-authored with joel mayward, is A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Sex & Dating. our deadline for hat manuscript is in a few weeks, and we’re almost done.

but this one — A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains — i wrote all by my little self. i’ve been so fascinated by the implications of brain development on faith development for years. but with new findings about teenage brains in the last decade, there’s SO MUCH that’s worth learning about.

this book is great for parents of teenagers, to be sure (that’s the core audience). but i really think youth workers of any sort would greatly benefit from reading it. it’s super inexpensive, and very quick to read (it’s only about 12,000 words or so). you can get it on The Youth Cartel store (or wherever you buy books!). you can even download a sample on The Youth Cartel store.

here’s the back cover copy:

It’s often tough to understand why teenagers do what they do. One moment they’re calm and rational, but the next they’re agitated and emotional. One day they’re making incredibly wise choices, but the next they’re making disastrous mistakes. Yesterday they earned your trust, but today it seems they’ve lost it once again.

Why such inconsistency? Credit their brains.

A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains is filled with helpful, practical insights from veteran youth worker Mark Oestreicher.

Without an understanding of teenage brain development, we might miss life’s teachable moments or shut down our child’s curiosity with easy answers that don’t satisfy the search for truth happening below the surface.

That’s why Marko has written this book: to guide you through the world of the teenage brain, to help you understand and appreciate the amazing transformations it undergoes in adolescence to prepare children for adulthood and its many responsibilities.

stop making assumptions and inferences about teenagers based on their brains

i’ve posted about teenage brains more than once. there’s been an good amount of research on teenage brains in the past decade, thanks to the MRI. there’s also been an explosion of more popular articles that infer teenagers are the way they are because of their brains, and we shouldn’t expect them to… (make good decisions, exhibit wisdom, control impulses, set priorities, act responsibly, or any other of a long list of adult-like behaviors).

this has really started to tick me off.

but two articles in the last few months (neither is new) have pushed back a bit:

this article in the huffington post, called “the teenager brain: debunking the 5 biggest myths“.

and, a fascinating article that many of you have probably already seen, published in national geographic, suggesting an alternative (evolutionary) possibility of why teenage brains are weak in certain controls and functions.

the article mentions some of the unhelpful conclusions being drawn by others:

They act that way because their brains aren’t done! You can see it right there in the scans!

This view, as titles from the explosion of scientific papers and popular articles about the “teen brain” put it, presents adolescents as “works in progress” whose “immature brains” lead some to question whether they are in a state “akin to mental retardation.”

but it goes on to suggest an alternate view:

B. J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College who has spent nearly a decade applying brain and genetic studies to our understanding of adolescence, puts it, “We’re so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It’s exactly what you’d need to do the things you have to do then.”

here’s what rubs me (and i’m borrowing this from dr. robert epstein): there’s a not-so-subtle discrimination against teenagers, MASSIVELY feeding extended adolescence, in this age-old discriminatory equation —

presence of a particular physical characteristic
alongside, the presence of a real or assumed set of behavioral realities (or biases)
means, the first results in the second

let me remind of a few places we’ve seen this before:

  1. women’s brains are smaller, on average, then men’s. for centuries we were sure that women did not have the intelligence for business, voting, public office, and a variety of other intelligent functions. the smaller size of women’s brains were PROOF!
  2. jews and people of african decent were said to have certain character traits (or lack certain character traits) due to physiology (surely, you’ve all seen the nazi drawings of a typical jewish face and head, with an explanation as to how it explains the stereotype).

i think we’re seeing the same equation play out in terms of teenagers today.

the assumption is (and it’s a BIG leap in logic): teenage brains prove what we’ve always assumed, that teenagers are incapable of wisdom, good decisions, and responsibility. the obvious (!) next step is: we should treat teenagers like children (infantilization) and remove all responsibility, keeping them “safe.”


youth workers, don’t tollerate this faulty logic. don’t tollerate this discrimination. let’s be counter-cultural on this stuff — let’s INCREASE responsibility and opportunities for wisdom and choices and prioritization and impulse control.

instead of discriminating against teenagers, let’s give them opportunities to be the apprentice adults they have the full capacity to be.

why churches should care about extended adolescence

i wrote a short piece on extended adolescence for churchleaders.com recently, on why churches should care about extended adolescence. here’s a snippet, from the middle of the piece:

Churches are realizing two things: teenagers leave after youth group, and there are no young adults in our church. Sure, there might be a lame and weird little young adult group of some sort; but in many churches, you know your average high school graduate wouldn’t be caught dead going to that group.

In response, churches around North America are creating young adult youth groups. Really, that’s what they are (of course, they wouldn’t call them that). And this, my youth worker friends, is only perpetuating and extending some of the very problems we’re discovering about how we’ve approached youth group for the past 40 years or so. Isolation isn’t the church; homogeneity doesn’t have much of a scent of the Kingdom of God. And creating these pockets of isolation only further removes the onramps to adulthood that teenagers (and now “emerging adults”) so desperately need.

Here’s why I care about this: just like I don’t want my 13 year old son to have the same faith he had when he was 8, I hope he isn’t stuck with his current faith when he’s 26. And, I feel the same for every teenager in my church. To be honest, I feel the same about every teenager in your church.

go here to read the whole thing.

join us in atlanta on november 21 for the extended adolescence symposium, where we’ll wrestle with these important issues with the help of three of america’s leading experts on the subject.

extended adolescence on the immerse journal blog

i wrote a bit recently about why youth workers should care about extended adolescence for the immerse journal blog. here’s a bit from the middle of the piece:

Do you realize that adolescence in America is now considered almost 20 years long? The onset of puberty has dropped; but the bigger change is on the upper end. Adolescent researchers now consider adolescence to extend all the way through the 20s for most.

There’s a complex set of reasons for this, and they’re not all bad (I’m sure you can think about it and come up with several of those reasons). But here’s the tricky part for me, as someone who’s passionately called to youth ministry: my calling is not about keeping teenagers in adolescence! My calling (and I assume yours) is about raising up young adult disciple of Jesus who understand and own their faith. Really, my calling (and yours) is about raising up adult disciples, if we take the long view. I have no interest in investing my life into the idea of keeping teenagers where they are. Discipleship is about going somewhere!

How should this new reality impact our work with teenagers (let alone 20-somethings)?

What does this mean for the spiritual lives and faith formation of teenagers?

If creating a new ‘youth group’ for young adults, prolonging their isolation from the adults in the church isn’t in answer, but those students have no interest in going to cold and dry adult worship service, what options do we have?

How can we do ministry in the real world teenagers live in, but still be counter-cultural, providing onramps to adulthood?

click here for the rest of the article

and, join us as we wrestle with questions like this at the extended adolescence symposium in atlanta, on november 21.

what’s your theology of development?

i wrote a web article for the immerse journal blog back in july. then i forgot about it. so it was a nice surprise to see it show up there today! and, the funny timing is: i wrote this before we’d decided to do the extended adolescence symposium. it’s proof i’ve been stewing on this for a while!

here’s a selection from the article:

I was on the phone with a well-known author the other day, talking about extended adolescence. He was asking me questions—in a healthy, skeptical way—about my slowly evolving contention that while we need to acknowledge cultural realities and do ministry in their context, the juggernaut of extended adolescence is something we can and should undermine, at least in our own homes and churches.

After almost 30 minutes of conversation, we arrived at a key crossroads. He made a statement I find to be indicative of the majority opinion of American adults: “It seems to me that the problem you’re referring to comes down to the self-centeredness of young adults today. They’re extremely selfish and have no interest in taking responsibility or becoming adults.”

I paused and took a breath. Then I responded (trying to use “yes, and” language rather than “you’re wrong” language), “Yes, I can totally see why you would say that. Today’s young adults do tend to have a level of narcissism that wasn’t as dominantly present 20 years ago. But that begs the question of why. I suggest they’re narcissistic because they’ve spent their entire lives in families and classrooms and churches and marketing messages that consistently tell them, that everything is all about them. To blame young adults for being narcissistic is like blaming an attack dog for biting. We have isolated teenagers, and now young adults, and then told them their culture is better than ours. Why would they ever want to grow out of that stage of life? How could they?”

click through to read the rest. there’s some good stuff in the comments section, btw.

click here to check out the info on the extended adolescence symposium.

push-back on adolescent brain development and extended adolescence

sometime last year, the managing editor of immerse journal emailed and asked if i would write a feature article on adolescent brain development and the plethora of new findings that have poured out in the last ten to fifteen years. i agreed, and found out it was slated for may of 2011. so i didn’t think about it for another half year. finally, i wrote the piece (which is now online): this is your brain on adolescence. but by the time i got around to writing it, i didn’t feel i could merely write a summary of adolescent brain development. i felt an obligation to push back — because i’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with the assumptions and conclusions coming out (both at a professional and popular level), referencing teenage and young adult brains.

here’s a snippet from the article:

I have a problem with the assumption that has quickly become accepted truth about teenage brains: that teenage brains are underdeveloped in a couple of critical areas and that teenagers are, therefore, biologically inferior and less than capable. So it might be helpful to step back a few years and fill you in on the nexus and my journey of trying to understand scientific findings about teenage brain development and the implications for youth ministry.

here’s another bit, after i provide an overview of “findings” from the last decade:

…we are quickly moving to calcify extended adolescence and remove more and more of the on ramps to the adult world that teenagers and young adults need.

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.

one of the things i like about immerse journal is that the often provide a follow-up piece, reflecting on an article, but written by a different author. i was pleased last week to see paul sheneman’s response to my article: “going deeper with mark oestreicher’s: this is your brain on adolescence“. paul does a nice job of summarizing some of what i wrote and providing some additional thoughts. a nice “sidebar”, in a sense.

anyhow, i’m glad the article and “going deeper” bit are both online now, so i can point to them. happy reading. and let me know what you think…