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. yesterday, in part 1, i laid out a summary and basis for pragmatic response. today, the list of how i’m responding:
Neuron, Shmeuron or,
Why Should We Care About Adolescent Brain Development?
How I’m Responding
• Read about teenage brains!
I wasn’t kidding when I said that my growing understanding of neurology shapes everything I do in youth ministry. What I teach and 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 to 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 Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains. 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’m sure passionate about my hypothesis that we can help teenagers grow in their ability to make good decisions. Speculative questions are “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, that is; but they haven’t used it much and tend to be lousy with it. So when we “take them to the shores of speculation,” we help them test out the waters they’ll return to on their own. And since SO MUCH of spiritual growth in the teen and young adult years requires speculation, I’m 100% 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, like me, don’t buy into the increasingly popular notion that teenagers are incapable, and should therefore be protected and treated like children, then we need to every teenager’s competency champion.
• Allow for failure
Their frontal lobes are underdeveloped; and they do struggle with decision-making. Don’t respond, in the way our culture (and educational approaches and legal systems) is by removing 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, than 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 us risk-averse adults have long ceased learning. And what if teenagers’ passion could be invited 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. Those 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 than 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 became that of simultaneously redirecting the focus back to Ben’s sharing while gently pointing out to Mitch the emotion that Ben was feeling. In that moment, I was helping Mitch see the emotion and learn to spot it in a way that he could help his friend.
• Be patient
Patience with teenagers is a pre-requisite for a good youth worker, and always has been. But 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, will always 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 one; and please don’t think I’m suggesting young adults are inferior youth workers. I love having young adults as equal members of the youth ministry team I’m a part of. Just like teenagers, they bring a level of passion that’s a wonder to behold. But…remember that their brains are still developing, and they will occasionally 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 couldn’t bring; and hopefully, I bring things he couldn’t (or struggles to) bring.
All of 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. But 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.