with youthworker journal focusing an issue recently on adolescent brain development, tim baker (the editor) asked if i would write a feature article on the implications. he said he had a few articles focusing on theory and research, but wanted something of a “so what?” and i realized, in all my writing on this topic, i’d written very little in response to that pragmatic question. so i agreed, and this was the result:
Neuron, Shmeuron or,
Why Should We Care About Adolescent Brain Development?
We are living in amazing times. The fact is, we’ve learned more about teenagers in the last 10 years than in the previous decades combined. We’ve been exposed to challenging and solid research about youth ministry and adolescent faith. Even if it hasn’t all been good news, this research is shaping our thinking and practice in long-overdue ways.
The knowledge we have about teenage brains is similar. There are new findings almost every month, it seems. It’s fascinating stuff that constantly reminds me of God’s creativity and intentionality. And—this is important—I find over and over again that my knowledge about what’s going on in teenage brains informs everything I do in youth ministry.
But there’s a problem that needs to be undressed: Most of what you’ve read or heard about teenage brain development is wrong. Or, at least, most of it has been skewed to infer conclusions that the research is just not saying.
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 were significantly underdeveloped, specifically focusing on the frontal lobes. Those areas are often referred to as the brain’s CEO or Executive Office, since 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 like The Primal Teen, and dozens of magazine articles and news reports starting reporting news about teenage brains. But they usually did so with a spin that the actual researchers might not have been saying: that teenage brains are inferior. Or broken. Or incapable.
I’m preaching to the choir here: you know in your gut that 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 have always been this way, and we’re just now discovering it. In other words, the widespread pop understanding of this stuff 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 like adults? It’s a chicken-versus-egg question. And, it’s an age-old nature-versus-nurture 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 that the nature assumption that teenage brains have always been this way results in the worst kind of profiling, deciding that a certain grouping 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 (for example: the average smaller brain size of women was used as a basis for the presumption that women were inferior to men and less intelligent; but we now know this is simply not the case). He contends that we’re already seeing findings of teenage-brain development resulting in more isolation of teenagers from the adult world, more limitations on their freedoms and more infantilization (treating them like 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.
And I’m embracing the idea embedded in a question that 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 all of 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 that 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 both to being countercultural and to doing ministry in the real world that teenagers are living in.