IT’S LIKE TNT

What is the most volatile substance in the world today? TNT (Trinitrotoluene)? Plutonium? North Korea? A teenage girl? The answer is none of these. In fact the answer might surprise you.

brain

Think about it: a raging torrent of hormones and abstract thinking are bombarding a physiologically changing brain like a blitzkrieg. It’s no wonder that the teenage brain is unstable, unpredictable, and volatile.

One of the many reasons I enjoy working with students is that they are always changing. And the most significant change going on in their rapidly growing bodies are not zits, or arm pit hair, or voice changes, or even those pleasant odors that accompany teenage boys going through puberty. The most significant change a student experiences is the one we cannot see: the brain.

If you have ever taken an intro psych class or ad psych class or watched an episode of Criminal Minds then you’ve probably heard of these two guys: Piaget and Erikson.

Piaget is known for defining Concrete vs. Abstract Thinking. Piaget claims that at the onset of puberty students shift from understanding the world in a concrete reality to that of an abstract understanding. Essentially, students begin to think about thinking.

  • They start asking what if and why might that be questions.
  • They begin the process of speculation and utilizing a third person perspective.
  • They ask questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” And the question every adult who works with students dreads: “How can I trust that God is real or that the bible is accurate?” Essentially everything about faith is abstract.

Approaching the same issue from a different angle (See the use of abstract thinking there?). Erikson claims that students are in the life-span stage of Identity vs. Identity Confusion. Beginning around the onset of puberty and lasting until the early twenties students are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit. This is a journey that they must initiate and discover at their own pace. Otherwise they will not feel like they know who they are. The hard part for parenting is not forcing the identity we desire for them on them. You know this kid. In fact, she was probably in some of your college classes. This is the girl who wanted to be an art major or teacher but caved into the pressure to be a pre-med major to take over the family practice some ambiguous day in the future. All the while never liking medicine.

Take for example a former student of mine. One year he wore a Texas A&M t-shirt and hat with Wrangler jeans and ropers (boots). After summer break he comes back dressing like a trendy/goth kid wearing dark clothing, vests, fedora style hats, and a chain wallet. That look lasted a semester and after Christmas break he was dressing differently again. Do you see what he was doing? He was trying to figure out who he was and where he belonged.

This is why so many of my current students play four or more sports per year. They fancy themselves athletes, they’re just trying to figure out are they a football, soccer, or baseball player. What are they the best at?

As if this wasn’t enough we’ve found out exponentially more about the teenage brain in the last 10-12 years than we thought we knew for the last 100 years or more. Let’s take a look at some of the new findings.

Temporal Lobe
The temporal lobe serves as the center for emotional response and interpretation. The temporal lobe is underdeveloped in teens, and significantly underdeveloped in guys. This is why when a teenage couple that is dating get into a fight the girl turns into a sobbing puddle of emotions while the guy gets on Xbox live and plays Call of Duty like nothing happened. It’s not because the guy doesn’t care, in fact he probably does; his ability to interpret and express emotions is not fully developed yet.

Frontal Lobe
Do you want to know why your student frustrates you to no end and leaves you scratching your head? Do you want to know why they do such stupid stuff? Meet the reason for your frustration: the Frontal Lobe, more specifically the Prefrontal Cortex.
The Prefrontal Cortex is responsible for:

  • Decision making
  • Organization
  • Prioritization
  • Focusing
  • Planning
  • Impulse control

Do you feel like your student is deficient in these areas? This could explain several of the stupid things I did in college (ok, so stupid is an understatement).

In relation to this, CNN published an article in October 2012 entitled: Why The Teen Brain Is Drawn To Risk. They concluded:

  • If the risk is unknown teens are more likely to engage in risky behavior.
  • If the risk is known teens are less likely to engage in risky behavior.
  • Teens seem to love the unknown.
  • It’s the opposite of what adults do: if the risks are known teens engage in risk taking less than adults; but if they are unknown teens engage in risk taking more than adults.
  • The more vague the consequence the more likely teens are to engage in risk taking.

Oh, did I mention that we now know the brain is not fully formed at age 6 like previously thought; it actually isn’t fully developed until the age of 25. And yes, this includes the Frontal and Temporal Lobes.

Neural Pathways
Neural pathways are groupings of neurons (brain cells). Now, get this: research has shown that in the 2 years or so leading up to puberty the brain goes into warp speed producing millions of new neurons. Then, when puberty goes into full swing the brain starts to kill off neurons. Weird huh? Here’s why: the brain has a use it or lose process for neurons. The neurons from the parts of the brain that are stimulated or used are kept, while the neurons from the parts of the brain that are not used or stimulated are killed off. This tells us that during the teenage years the brain is crafted and molded for how it will function in adulthood.

I want to leave you with two questions to chew on from Inside the Teenage Brain by Mark Oestreicher:

  • How can I best steward the opportunity I have to permanently shape my teenagers’ brains?
  • And more specifically, how can I best steward the opportunity I have to shape their brains for a lifetime of robust faith?
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One thought on “IT’S LIKE TNT

  1. Pingback: The Hardest Week In Student Ministry | Geoff Whitten

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