A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take in a webinar presented by a guy named Mark Oestreicher. Mark has been involved in youth ministry in different roles for decades. He currently is founder of The Youth Cartel, specializing in encouraging and challenging adults who minister to youth through holistic professional coaching, strategic consulting, transformational events, and inventive resource development that advance youth ministry. He still meets weekly with a small group of Jr High boys in his home every week.
I’m not even going to try to touch on everything that was talked about. There was a TON of info communicated in the 45 minutes, and so I’m going to write on what hit me the most, hopefully it’ll be beneficial to you also.
This webinar talked about the cognitive changes that are taking place during the teenage years. Yes, there are physical changes that happen, and yes they are important to understand, but there is little talk of the changes that take place mentally during these years. You are going to see my basic notes from the session, hopefully a organized and explained enough to make sense. I’m not siting sources, I trust his sources are good. So here we go…
The cognitive change that happens during the teen years leads to some other changes that are easy to spot. 1) Emotional Change – includes abstract thinking and understanding information. 2)Relational Change – they start seeing themselves in the 3rd person perspective, being friends with others because they have similar interests, not because they are geographically close (as is during the childhood years primarily). 3)Spiritual Change – Changing from the black and white understanding of faith. Beliefs are questioned and challenged now. They usually respond one of three ways: 1-This doesn’t work and I reject it. 2-This doesn’t work but I have nothing else so I will stay (legalistic believers). 3-This is real and I want to grow in it.
It is our job (parents/youth ministries/involved adults/etc) to help them wrestle through these questions. Doubt is ok, and possibly essential to development. They have to wrestle through the faith of their childhood, and we need to help with this.
The implications of abstract thinking are that they begin to see the world or people from a different point of view and they begin to speculate, asking ‘what if’ and ‘why’ questions. They are not good at it, and they tend to go back and forth between abstract and concrete thinking.
12-ish years ago the medical/scientific community began really learning about the teen brain. They believed it was unethical to study them until the invention of machines such as MRI’s. Since then, they have learned some things.
Teen Brains are not done growing. Before these advances, it was believed that brains were full grown by age 6. Now, they know that brains are not fully developed till 25ish.
There are some important parts of the brain that are not done growing or even there during the teen years.
- Frontal Lobes (behind the forehead) – This is the brain’s CEO – handles decision making, wisdom, priorities, impulse, control, planning, empathy, organization, focus, etc. This does not mean they are not capable of these things, its just limited. This is why it is easy for this age to test, push and risk.
- Temporal Lobes (in frond of the ears) – handles emotional understanding and interpretation. Guys are naturally behind in this area anyway. Teens don’t always know, because of this, what is appropriate in certain situations. We need to act as emotional tour guides, helping navigate these situations.
-Neuron Proliferation and Winnowing – A couple years before puberty, neuron pathways are created and growing. During the next fourish years many of these are then cut away. What determines which are kept is how students use their brains, and these habits and tendencies effect them for the rest of their lives. If they are big gammers in the adolescent years, they will most likely be for many years following. This brings up a question of stewardship: How do we spend the time we have with the kids? We need to help them wrestle with what a follower of Christ looks like, just just giving us the right answers.
My takeaway – We need to be very intentional about how we spend our limited time with teens. We only have a few hours at best with them per week, and so we need to make the most of it with them. They are in a hugely changing season of their lives, we have the opportunity to challenge them to think truth out and seek out what a Christ follower really is. Parents have such a greater influence because of the greater amount of time they have with their kids.