Today we’re excited to share The Teenage Brain, a talk given by Steve Schneeberger of the Youth Ministry Institute. It was given at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College.
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[Steve]: What are you thinking?! If you’re either parent of a middle schooler or worked with a middle school student, you’ve probably uttered those words.
What are you thinking?! And you know what is the answer right? They’re not thinking anything! They’re just not. So that’s the nature of the brain, and middle school students, and actually, students in general.
They’re not thinking anything! They’re just not. So that’s the nature of the brain, and middle school students, and actually, students in general.
The brain is the source of all of our thoughts. It is also the source of our emotions. Over the last 20 years, brain research has uncovered a lot of fascinating results and we’re going to skim the surface of those results. So hopefully your interest will be picked.
Well here it is, the brain; 3 pounds,140 mm wide, 167 mm long. It has two hemispheres and 5 distinct sections, that control our emotional being and our physical being, but what about our spiritual being? How’s the brain included in that? So there’s been a lot of research done in terms of how our spirituality affects the brain. In fact, when you go to the brain research, you could find that parts of the brain affect speech, parts of the brain affect certain emotions, but there’s not anything in the brain that affects our spirituality, it’s actually the entire brain itself.
So how does the brain come into play when developing the spiritual lives of young people? And what part of the brain are they accessing making spirituality real? Let’s consider the brain when developing spirit. We know some critical things about brain development. The brain isn’t fully developed until age 25 approximately. How many of you are not 25 yet? So, I’m so sorry, your brains just aren’t fully developed yet! So you’re going to have to hang with this and we’ll talk a little bit more about what that means for you, but it’s good, you’ll get there, right?
I had a guy, Josh Hopkins, in my youth group. He was in confirmation at age 12, he was talking about brain research and how the brain’s not fully developed until age 25. Then he graduated, become a volunteer in our ministry and on his 25 birthday he comes up to me and says, “Steve! My brain is fully developed today!” Dude really, you remembered that for the last 12 years?! So it’ll happen.
The prefrontal cortex is the place that’s developed at age 25 and that’s where rational thought takes place, and where you develop reasoning. So you’re in the midst of that, developing the prefrontal cortex and the ability to rationally think and consider things.
Therefore, young people make decisions out of the amygdala while the prefrontal cortex is still developing. The amygdala is responsible for emotions and impulse decisions. If you put it all together, when a young person does something unexpected without thinking based on their emotions, there is a neuroscientific reason for it. They are using the amygdala as God intended them to use. If God intended this to be the case, then how can we use this fact to their advantage in developing their spiritual being.
…when a young person does something unexpected without thinking based on their emotions, there is a neuroscientific reason for it.
Well, I know what the problem is, it’s YOU! And it’s ME! We’re all part of the problem, what happens if you’re over 25 you’ve developed your prefrontal cortex. So as you begin to consider your own spiritual life, you’ve asked all the important questions about what it means to have faith in God. You’ve kind of worked through your faith. So your faith is who you are, you’ve thought through it, all of those things have been considered. Therefore, you’re more likely to be teaching a God and a Jesus out of your own thought processes. In a sense, you have worked out of your faith, at your age you’ve considered all the hard questions, so it makes sense right? You just need to take teenagers to the same set of options that you went through, ask them the same questions, give them the same scenarios, and then they’ll develop a faith, similar to the one you have right?
Wrong! It doesn’t work that way, their brains think differently than that, literally. You’re using this part of the brain they are using this part of the brain. You will have constantly remind yourself of that fact in their development. And as they mature using more and more of their prefrontal cortex, expressing their faith progression in the way that you’ve learned it. Then they will do exactly what would all teenagers do with your youth group, they will graduate from High School and leave you. And you’ll have to work with other people in your youth group who have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes, helping them develop a rational thought process, with their faith. So it continues to go on as a cycle, so what do you do? How do you help those people with and underdeveloped prefrontal cortex? That’s the question.
One way is to recognize that their feelings are important. Listen for their feelings and affirm them when they share them with you. Never, never discount their feelings just because you don’t understand what they are talking about or just because you have haven’t experienced what they’re telling you about.
When they are telling you that they’re in the middle of a crisis, don’t discount their crisis, their crisis is real even if it is not real for you. They have an emotional feeling connected with that crisis, and it’s your job not to discount it but to find out more about how they’re feeling about that crisis. Their feelings drive their decisions, and they perceive everyone else makes decisions about them, based on their feelings.
When they are telling you that they’re in the middle of a crisis, don’t discount their crisis, their crisis is real even if it is not real for you.
Do you follow me on that? Because what happens when a young person comes to you and says, I did really bad on this test or I’m getting a bad grade in my class. How do they characterize the teacher? (They give you that grade, it’s their fault, and they don’t like ‘em) Yeah! They don’t like them, I hear that all the time, that teacher doesn’t like me, they gave me a bad grade. So it’s really about that teacher’s feeling about them, that’s how they’re interpreting it.
Now the teacher might not like ‘em, I don’t really know, but their interpretation is a feeling level interpretation of the situation going on. So exercise your empathy, attempt to understand their experience, recall your experiences as a young person, growing up. I’m not saying, say the line when ‘I was your age’ cause it just makes you sound old when you say that. But in your head, think ‘When I was their age, how did I feel?’ And then begin to empathize with them and get at the feeling that they have.
We had a boy named Michael who was in our youth group and when he was in college, at FSU, as a matter of fact, his girlfriend broke up with him, and he made a decision to sleep outside her apartment door all night. He was not using his prefrontal cortex to make that decision. There was no reason or rational thought that would say that was a very good idea at all, but it was an incredibly emotional decision because he was feeling lost, he was hurt, and so that’s what he did.
When he did that a lot of his friends were really critical, adults especially were very critical of him doing that, because it then put her in an unsafe situation which was probably scary for her. As a male, even though it has a lot older than him, I can go back and remember what if felt like to experience that loss as a college student and all I can think of was that could have been me. I totally understand why he made that decision in the speed of the way he was feeling. Now does that make the decision right? No, it doesn’t, but the feelings are the critical part here.
In your lessons, when you’re giving a lesson to students are you asking them what they think about a particular thing or you’re asking them how do they feel about something? Feeling is the important piece, that we need to be asking our students, not necessary what they think about something. Now that doesn’t mean that young people aren’t intelligent, and haven’t thought out particular things regarding their faith and their belief systems, they have, but they’re feelings are the entry point by which you can get to what they think.
So I’ve given you a lot to talk about right now, so I want you to turn in your groups and talk about how do you use feelings to connect with your young people either in conservation or by empathizing or by structuring your lessons. So talk a little bit how you’re doing that or how you might do that if you’re not. Alright?
[Steve]: Alright, good conversation.
Another way to engage their development is to activate the amygdala. The amygdala is on high alert in crisis or danger. So simply simulate crisis or danger by taking a calculated risk. You probably do this already, but you may not have connected the risk that you’re taking with spiritual development. So these may sound familiar; white water rafting, rock climbing, roller coasters, surfing, those are all examples of risk taking with safety involved, a standard per say.
According to author Michelle Icard in her book “Middle School Makeover”, these risks and others such as public speaking or playing in a band, are risky behaviors helping to activate the amygdala in a way that helps a young person develop. Therefore, when you invite young people to demonstrate their God giving gifts, in a way that honors God, they’re are making spiritual connections. Even if they don’t give in-depth lesson or they tend to sing to high when they sing in a band, they’re still actually making a spiritual connection and experiencing spiritual growth. Initiative games like a ropes course are great ways to build teamwork amongst of group of people with active amygdalas. It allows young people in the midst of imagine crisis and complicated solutions to work together.
A few years ago we were in Blairsville with a middle school group, and I had this great idea that we will do this high adventure kind of experience. So we sent ‘em off into the woods with this group that we worked with, and they were gone for three days, no showers, they had to like go to the bathroom in the woods, it was great! From my point of view, it was a lot of fun and actually, it was a great memory builder for them also. But it was difficult, it was hard, it was risky, they had never done that before. We were setting up tents with just two tarps and string and that’s all we had at night. So these are middle schoolers, like being daring out in the wilderness and I will never forget as we were hiking one day, Robin Allen was in tears, like ‘I can’t move anymore Steve! This is too hard!’
It was an opportunity to me to teach that God’s with us and God can help us overcome even difficult things. So drawing those spiritual connections was really important and for her later on in life, she would refer back to that camp of how difficult it was and how it was hard, but how much she enjoyed it too.
I’ll remember Steven on the rock wall, Steven was about 280 lbs and he would get, like about 10 foot up and then he would fall. Now he was belayed in so he didn’t fall and hurt himself, because it was a safe risk taking right? I learned a lot of colorful language that I don’t know that Steven knew on that day, but again it was an opportunity to teach this idea of taking risk and moving forward in spiritual growth.
So what are some of the things that you’ve done. Tying these activities to scripture is a helpful way to allow kids to experience spiritual growth and also activate their amygdala, so if you can get together in your groups, and talk about what have you done with your youth groups or what could you do as a way to activate the amygdala through risk taking. Go.
[Steve]: So let’s hear how you’ve used risk taking to stimulate the brain, let’s share some bigger ideas so everybody can hear. I heard zip lining over alligators, at Gatorland right? You can do that at some place too?
[Man in crowd]: Yeah, we have alligator farm here too. That just came to mind when you said high ropes course, and I thought let’s add little…
[Steve]: Were you able to tie that in with any kind of spiritual growth lesson?
[Man in crowd]: We haven’t done it, but it made me think like we’re going to, it’s gonna happen.
[Steve]: Make sure those harnesses are connected. What else? Nothing? C’mon. You guys we’re talking when you are talking about lunch and how yummy it was. Yeah, go ahead.
[Woman in crowd]: Our group talked about these mountain moments that you get from the risk taking. They’re usually at the camps, and get the Jesus high and you climb the mountain and you can see everything below you, you can see the beauty, but you can’t stand the mountain because nothing grows up there, so you have to come back the mountain into the forest where you can’t see anything but you can grow. But I think in terms of risk taking in camp, and Jesus in growing relationships in Christ, it’s like we have these experiences but what do we do with them after? So it’s not keeping them in that state of mind but I’ve seen these how to I keep going now.
[Woman in crowd]: I think the idea of that came from, I had like and immediate reaction to this, like I don’t really like this idea, like taking these risks to give these emotional experiences that aren’t lasting. I just don’t know why it’s being used…I don’t know how I feel about it.
So you talked about that these can be good and like having these risk-taking moments, allowing them to experience Jesus through these things can be really good, but it’s the idea that sometimes we need to maybe work less to create these moments and work more to help them see these moments in just everyday life and living. So they are not expecting these emotional highs when in reality like that’s not the case every day.
[Steve]: How old are you? 20. Wow! Pretty matured and you right except that’s an adult view of teenagers and how they utilize their brain. And yes if you do the risk-taking without the connection to their spiritual growth, without talking about the mountain top and nothing grows up here and you need to get down from the mountain, then yeah you’ve lost the teaching moment. Often times in youth ministry, we’ll do these really cool things with kids and then we won’t translate it for them, in terms of their spiritual development.
That’s the critical piece that we miss. It’s not that we shouldn’t do them because they need to be able to understand what God looks like down in the valley all the time, it’s that we have to translate it up here on the mountain top, before we come down to the valley, then it has more probability of lasting.
Well, we’ve all experienced it right? That last day of camp or a mission trip, kind of what you’re talking about really, you planned this epic worship service or you’re going to be part of this epic worship service and you know what’s going to happen. I mean people are going to get all emotional and there’s going to be some tears out there and some of you probably resonate with that and can’t wait to get to that last day like, ‘this is going to be so awesome, people are going to give their life to Jesus and it’s going to be great!’
I hated that, I dreaded that in fact, because I kinda felt like, kinda like how you were saying, that I was manipulating kids to make a decision about their faith in Christ and that just didn’t feel right for me. But research says that kids learn through emotional connections, that those emotional pieces are what’s embedded in their memory as being spiritually significant for them and so it’s really important that we provide those kinds of experiences for them. So the question would be how do we really do that in a way that feels good to those of us who don’t like those end of the week, emotional moments?
We have a girl named Grace in our youth group and she is known for crying on the last night. So everybody gets ready for Grace to cry. Grace bawls for like hours and that’s kind of the thing that she does. And she actually prepares for it, like ‘I’m going to cry tonight’ I mean that’s what she does, so then it becomes more about her crying then it is about the spiritual experience. So how do we get kids away from that idea of cry night, to experiencing the spiritual significance of that moment?
So most of us can recall a pivotal moment in our lives. You know I can still… when I think of my wife at the back of the sanctuary on the day that I got married, I remember how I felt that moment. That was like really, really incredible. When I think about when my children were born, especially my daughter who was our first born and that moment. I can see everything if I think about it in my head, I can see everything that was is the room and the emotions that I felt that day. So that was spiritually stamped in my brain. And likewise, all of the spiritual moments, the spiritual highs that I have had, the significant moments in my spiritual development had an emotional tag with it, that’s stamped in my brain.
So we can’t ignore those and there are tears that come with those moments for me also, but there is a difference between manipulation and letting the Holy Spirit enter into the space of the spiritual moment. It has to do with intent. Is the intent to get youth to cry or is the intent to create moments of reflection, worship, and community? Faith is an intensely personal decision that is covered in emotion, you can’t avoid it.
So every year we have, in our youth group, an all youth retreat, that’s what we call it. At the beginning of the school year, and we get everybody to go. So middle schoolers, high schoolers – here’s usually 80 to 100 plus on this retreat and it’s a way for us to kind of begin the year right, to do a little the planning for the year and also have some spiritual moments, that kind of just sets our compass the right direction. A number of weeks before the all youth retreat, several years ago probably 6 or 7 years ago, the best friend of one of our students, Cory, died of a genetic condition. His brother has died 6 months earlier, his twin brother, of the same condition. So these were two guys that Cory has lost within the period of 6 months and Cory was pretty wrecked by it, it was tough.
Cory was on our planning team, he was a senior that year and I went up to him about a week before and said, Cory, and we have talked about Mike’s death and kinda how he had been processing that and so I didn’t pull this out of the blue, it was after a lot of discussion but I asked Cory if he would like to share that experience on the trip. It fit with our theme. I don’t really remember what the theme was but for some reason, it fit, and I didn’t know if he would be willing or not and he said flat out, No I can’t do that, and I said that’s fine you don’t have to do that. I just didn’t know if you’re ready or that would be good for you to do, so don’t worry about it.
Any how, we go on the retreat, Cory’s there, Saturday night of the weekend retreat, after dinner or before dinner, Cory comes up to me and goes ‘Steve I want to talk about Mike tonight’ ‘Are you sure? Let’s talk about that a little bit’ and he said ‘Well I just think I’m ready to kind of talk about him and what he meant to me and I think it would be helpful. And I said ‘Well just know that you’re not pressured into this’ he goes ‘No, I get it, I’m not’.
So needless to say Cory shared that night, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. I don’t even remember the content about what he shared but all I remember it was just gut level honest about his own grief and how God had walked with him, and his friend Mike, and Mike’s brother through this whole process that this disease that they had for, really a lifetime. And it was a moment for Cory, it was a moment for the whole youth group, and it was a moment for me.
Last week Cory was at this conference that we hosted in Orlando, he is now a volunteer in the youth ministry in Tampa, graduated from college, he’s like 23-24 years old now. And it was in the middle of the conference, I think it was like right after or right before worship started on Friday night last week, and he came up to me and goes ‘Steve do you remember when I talked about Mike at the retreat?’ ‘I’m like yeah!’ and I put my hand on his shoulder and I go ‘don’t talk anymore I don’t think I can do it.’
And even in that moment and even in this moment, that brings an emotional reaction for me, it’s an emotional stamp in my own spiritual development and Cory said ‘that was a pivotal moment in my life’ his loss and the ability to talk about it in front of the faith community that I was connected with, made a huge difference in my life. I kinda knew it did at the time, but with him telling me 6 years later that it still made a difference, was pretty incredible.
So those spiritual stamps that are stamped with emotions are really really important to young people, they’re important to you. So how do we continue to give that experience to young people without feeling like we’re manipulating the deal? What is our intent?
So spend a little bit talking about that subject with the folks in your group and talk about things maybe you’ve experienced, things that you have done well and maybe things that maybe you should have done a little bit differently.
Teenagers are intense feelers, wanting to take risk, looking for some emotional markers to mark their spiritual life.
To close out, we know that, teenagers are a mess. Their bodies are changing and growing, they are discovering who they want to be, the chemical reaction caused by their hormones is volatile, they aren’t thinking most of the time, but they are intense feelers, wanting to take risk, looking for some emotional markers to mark their spiritual life. You can provide them with the handles by using the uniqueness of their brain to help develop their spirit. Thanks for your time.
About the Author: Steve Schneeberger
Steve Schneeberger is the Executive Director of the Youth Ministry Institute. Beginning in 1985, Steve began a vocation as a youth minister serving churches in Kansas and Florida. He is a 1981 graduate of Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, Kansas, has a business degree from Baker University (1985) and a law degree from the University of Kansas (1988). He is married to Carol, an elementary school teacher and former counselor. They have three children.