Parents, ministers and other caregivers who love teenagers can sometimes wonder if Johnny or Janie have a brain in their heads. Reasonable and cautious one day, teens can act in unreasonable, risky and dangerous ways the next. Youths seemingly cannot wrap their brains around the consequences of driving 60 miles per hour through a school zone, having premarital sex or ingesting drugs and alcohol.
Recent brain research helps us understand these tendencies in young people. Long believed to have completed its development in childhood, the human brain actually develops well into adulthood. Adolescence signals an extended period for the brain’s rewiring. We might even say that, based on research, it is normal for adolescents to act impulsively, misjudge cues and emotions, act in dangerous or risky ways and ignore potential consequences.
The frontal cortices (behind the forehead) develop late, not achieving maturity until the third decade of life. This part of the brain controls reasoning, consequential thinking and decision-making. In the adult brain, the frontal lobes help us think before we act. If it seems like our teenagers aren’t thinking about consequences, they aren’t.
Additionally, the brain’s sensitivity to dopamine, a neural hormone, spikes during adolescence. Dopamine stimulates the brain’s reward center. That’s why teens can often seem to be on the lookout for the next exciting and stimulating experience. Driving fast can be exhilarating, until it’s not; so the teens look for the next experience to alleviate their boredom.
Oxytocin is another neural hormone that figures in the adolescent brain’s activity. Oxytocin stimulates the connection between social ties and reward. Peer relationships can be highly rewarding; peer pressure can up the ante on risky behavior.
On the positive side, the impulsiveness of the teen brain is often expressed in creative and passionate ways. When teenagers’ passion and creativity are honored, good things can happen. For example, a Presbyterian youth group initiated the passionate, creative “Souper Bowl of Caring” ministry to help those who are hungry (souperbowl.org/page_navs/57/History).
Researchers say that, for the brain to reach maturity, it must pass through the adolescent phase of development. Teenagers who take risks are more likely to risk leaving home for mission trips, joining the military, going to college, pursuing a life’s goal, or even talking to strangers. All of these activities broaden the adolescents’ world. They are essential tasks for the development of coordinated thought, action and reflection.
The implications of the research confirm developmental theories that describe adolescence as a liminal (“threshold”) period. Erik Erickson and Margaret Mead proposed this liminal “time between the times” as a psychosocial moratorium. If parents and community have established a sense of belonging and trust in the child, adolescence can be a keen time for identity development. To begin to realize full potential, teenagers require greater freedom.
Building on the conformity to parental and caregiver expectations during childhood, adolescents require less conformity and more time and space for innovation. Freedom to practice different ways of living and believing help teens establish their identities in adulthood, just as trying on different clothes and social groups aids them in “trying on” different identities. Putting off lifelong decisions until later in life makes sense, according to the research. It also makes sense for youths to practice making short-term commitments, like planning service projects or volunteering in the local homeless shelter. These kinds of experiences give the teenager practice making decisions and following through on commitments made. It also potentially activates the pleasure and reward centers in the brain and stimulates the teens’ involvement.
For parents, life with a teenager can sometimes seem like a balancing act between extremes. Sometimes, parental instincts tend toward restricting the teenager’s behavior and reducing the risks. Other times, the parent is tempted to give in to the teen’s impulses, granting the child more freedom than they can handle safely. Somewhere in the balance, parents best guide their teenage children with a gentle but firm hand. They negotiate staying connected to their teenage children while allowing them independence within established boundaries.
Through this long awkward period, teenagers need someone to walk with them and guide them. Parents provide the boundaries within which youths exercise their freedom. They provide a safe zone for their kids to take healthy risks.
Brain research does not give young people a pass on making good decisions. However, an awareness of the different way the teenage brain functions can help caregivers anticipate and respond appropriately to the behavior of adolescents.
How do we interpret the research as Christians?
A chief tenet of the Christian faith is that the God of creation created humanity in the image of God and proclaimed us very good. This is a profound statement about who we are. If the research is correct that the brain’s adaptations during adolescence are normal and needful for maturation, then the Christian rightly responds with gratitude to God.
To belong to the church means to share in the church’s values. On the one hand, we have boundaries established by Scripture and church traditions; on the other hand, we have freedom to make decisions for ourselves, to push against boundaries and to test whether the church’s teachings be God’s will. Thus, within the community, there is room for us to move about. Within the boundaries of the church, there is freedom bounded by love and responsibility..
The presence of the teenage brain reminds us that Jesus calls us to freedom. Christ calls us to repent, to change our minds, to go another way. It is a call to claim a radical faith. To take the narrow road, the difficult path. To give up a secure job to join the mission field or teach in inner-city schools. To give up possessions that possess us. The faith Christ calls us to is a risky, dangerous faith that many believe has been dulled, tamed and institutionalized.
Teenagers and young adults, who seek an adventurous faith, offer the church the impetus to live faith into the future. How does the congregation, the majority of which lives a safe faith, embrace the young and its daring ideas?
Through baptism, the church embraces a theology of care and nurture for the baptized. We care for the baptized as members of a covenant established by God; we guide our young into a relationship with God.
While part of the care we extend is necessarily protective of the young, we miss the boat if our care fails to include activities that connect with teenagers’ desire for novelty, excitement, passion and an accepting community. The research suggests that the brain’s adaptations during adolescence are normal and necessary for the young person’s preparation to leave home. The church helps make that transition a healthy one by the ministries it offers for young people and their families.
The church’s relationship with the young is a delicate one: How do you stay connected while honoring teenagers’ need for freedom? How do you keep young people safe without squelching the excitement of adventure?
It is tempting to sequester the young — provide separate programs and separate staff persons who are charged with keeping the kids out of our hair and off the streets. However, given the research and the tenets of our faith, the church is at its best when it claims the giftedness of the young and draws on those gifts for its shared ministry.
Teenagers remind us to embrace our traditions without holding on to them too tightly. Adolescent questions that begin with “what if” and “why” can initiate significant discussions that will lead the church into God’s promised future. Teenagers also bring a fierce desire for community to the church. When we pay close attention to the ways teenagers live into community, we may learn how to be for each other in vital ways.
MARK HINDS serves as general editor for PC(USA) curriculum development with Congregational Ministries Publishing and lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife Peggy.