Open Paris: Early Day Session 1: Understanding Teenage Brains

Open Paris header-v3

Session 1 of the Open Paris Early Day was on Understanding Teenage Brains by Marko (Mark Oestreicher).  As usual, as the session is live blogged I apologise for any typos etc:


Fascinated by what’s been discovered in the last ten years, that’s changed our thinking, confirmed our thinking in other ways, and affects how we work with teenagers.  If we can get a better understanding it helps us stay more engaged with them, this isn’t just an academic study, but it plays out, and informs everything Marko does in youth work and allows him to be more effective.

Adolescence is a cultural phenomenon

Adolescence is a cultural phenomenon – actually quite recent, only around 100 years old – 1904 G. Stanley-Hall described adolescence which had existed before but he described, defined and popularised it.  A period of time between the innocence of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood.  He said it was a period of “storm and stress”.  That description is still used today.  Hall didn’t come to his description based on a study or a thorough observation; he came to it based on his faulty deduction.

He was a brilliant child psychologist, but on the side was an evolutionary theory of recapitulation – the idea that any individual organism, has by evolutionary necessity the same stages as anyone else in their lifetime.  We had pre-humans, now civilised man, and in-between there were savagers!  So we have to see those same stages in our cycle – therefore teenagers have to be savagers – and on timescale it was 18 months long – aged 14.5-16 years old!  Recapitulation as a theory has been completely debunked – no one believes in it anymore.  Our collective understanding of what it means to be a teenager is still influenced hugely by this – the moody, angst, teenager.

If we understand his research to be faulty then we can suggest that teenagers do not have to be moody and rebellious, yet the Western culture still puts this onto teenagers.  We can show them a new truth.

Also an issue of adolescence extending – we think of it as 13-19 years – with the beginning of puverty, which in 1904 it was 14.5 the average, by 1970s was 13 years old.  Dropping even more dramatically.  In the USA, mandatory education to 18 years old helped to create youth culture as in a homogenous culture.  The lower and upper end is now even further – in Caucasian and Asian females 10.5 years, African-American is 9.5 years.  Puberty uses the bell curve of 2 years to suggest girls reaching puberty between 8-12 years old.  No sign of this issue resolving as childhood obesity means children are gaining the childhood fat needed for puberty.

Upper end is changing so fast that Youth Ministry 3.0 figures are now out of date.  Adolescence experts say on average to 30 years old.  When you finish secondary school you were expected to become an adult, even if went ot university, it was linked ot lots of the legal ages, e.g. drinking, driving, being conscripted into the army.  By now adolescence is older, so have 21 years who fully functioning as adults and 35 year olds living in extended adolescence.  Check out 140 question test yes or no – developed by Robert Epstein, giving you a percentage score of adultness.  The capacity for teenagers to be adults is there, but the expectation from society is not there, they aren’t given responsibility.  Stuck in a holding period before allowed to take responsibility.

It’s so extended it now has three stages:

  • Young teen years (10-14)
  • Mid-adolescence / late teenage years (14-20)
  • Late-adolescence or now properly called emerging adult (20s)

Could be seen in three questions:

  • Who am I?
  • How do my choices matter?
  • To whom and where do I belong

100 years ago you had 18 months to figure it out, 20 years ago you’d be given 4-5 years, now you’re given 20 years.

In the USA the average age of marriage is 27.5 for females and something like 28.3 for males.  UK is slightly younger, European and especially Scandinavian people marry later.

3 reasons to onset of puberty:

  • Physiological response to social pressure to act older – but this has been discredited
  • Preservatives and modified food
  • Globalisation of food chain

The obsession with labeling generations is beginning to fade, even ten years ago, there seemed to be such an issue on this.  Gen Xs got fed up with their description, Millennialls want to be break free – outside of church this isn’t spoken about so much now.  Another issue is that no one has successfully defined the next generation.

The context: physical change

It all starts with change, the physical change is the obvious part – more obvious and less confusing for parents etc., height, body shape changing, developing sexually, growing hair they never knew they could, voices changing.  It’s exciting and terrifying.  The two to four years following the onset of puberty is the second most significant period of change, following the 0-2 years old period.  Their reactions varies from day to day to all these changes.  Every teenager in every culture thinks they are developing abnormally – for some that’s a short blip, for others that is a thing they hold onto for years and years – especially for some girls into women.  We have an important ministry to normalise this experience, and even good, anchored in God’s creative intent for them.

Remember very distinctively aged 12-13 years old when leg hairs came in – thought it was very cool and manly – wanted more of it – leg hairs obviously grow best in the dark so covered legs all summer long in the sheer heat of Detroit – they did grow, thought it was all his own skills!

God’s puberty gift: cognitive change

This is the most revolutionary part, and can impact everything you do in youth ministry.  Picture if a 12 year old had a puberty party, God would show up with a puberty gift of cellophane wrapped abstract thinking muscle!  This new ability to think abstractly revolutionizes everything.

The brain rewires for processing info in different ways, abstract thinking is thinking about thinking.  Pre-teens are limited to concrete black and white ways of thinking.  Implications of this includes being self-aware of holding onto paradox, empathise rather than just sympathise, but speculation and third person perspective are the two biggies.

  • Speculation is thinking what if, and thinking about the ramifications.  This enables us to own our own faith.
  • Third person perspective – seeing yourself, someone else or an idea from someone else’s perspective.  Teenagers get ridiculously inflated ego in the way they assume they matter to everyone else.

The capacity opens up right away but the function is like a muscle and needs to be used and developed.  Young and mid-teens often use concrete examples rather than abstract thinking.  50% of adults often shift back into concrete thinking.

We often think our Christianese is concrete yet it is really abstract: “washed in the blood the lamb” literally is quite scary.

Emotional implications

Emotions are abstract, so is why teenagers are so emotionally volatile.  They’re not savages, but trying to work out how to use their abstract thinking ability.  Their emotional palette is a lot more developed – a thousand more colours – either paint with bold, garish colours, (often girls) or blend all colours to some form of beige (especially boys).  Normalise this experience, it is crucial for them, parents struggle with the wild emotions and their honesty, it can be annoying not to be able to predict.

Relational implications

Third person perspective starts to dramatically change who I spend time with, thinking how I perceive you think of me.  Toddlers use proximity for relationships, teenagers begin to use affinity – shared interests and passion – but that creates loss, upheaval in the transition.

Teenage girls, often for developmental reasons, sometimes cultural, form relationships of 2-3 girls which are super intense and demanding.  A high expectation of intimacy, vulnerability and loyalty – we’re friends because we talk and share what is going on in our lives.  Often an ebb and flow to this, and so the group splits as the expectation is so intense we can’t sustain it with so many people.  But as boys don’t have the same elevel they can share larger affinity groups, e.g. the guys who skateboard.  Boys either form big packs or are total loners – not knowing how to form a meaningful friendship  – a Christian ministry that we need to do.  Boys need us to do something together, the hiking together, the building together, the fighting together.  Talking is a really difficult place to start with guys.

Spiritual implications

All the stuff we talk about in church is abstract, we concrete it for children but make assumptions for teenagers, the capacity is there but they need help.  Every 9-10 year old has a well-developed systematic theology or world view.  They have the world in black and white ways – they may be wrong but they’ve got strong views.  Puberty erodes this, although this is now delayed due to extended adolescence.  When challenging circumstances they can either:

  • Reject faith
  • Acknowledge it doesn’t work but keep it, damaging the wider faith
  • Consciously alter what I believe about x to become more adult like

To have adult faith it is essential to go through a period of doubting.

Some new findings

Everyone had believed that the human brain was fully developed by age 6, it wasn’t until the acceptance of MRI that we had a huge moment.  The human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25 years old – prior to that there are parts of the human brain that don’t exist, they are not grown.  Physical maturity at approx. 16 years old; knowledge maturity at 18 years old; wisdom maturity at age 25 years old

Pre-frontal cortex (Frontal Lobe) – the brain’s executive centre, responsible for decision making, wisdom, prioritisation, impulse control, planning, empathy, organisation, focus.  There is a suggestion that teenagers have limitations, not an incapability.  Too often there is a massive rise in infantilisation, not including them in the world of adults, staying in an isolated homogenous world.  Instead Epstein etc., believes that they can be grown through use, let’s help them exercise decision making, impulse control etc.  Evolutionary this is important for them to be impulsive so as to allow them to experiment and explore, to rebel.

The temporal loves – responsible for emotional understanding and interpretation.  We need to help tweenagers to interpret their emotions – being a temporal love for them.

Neuron Proliferation and Winnowing

Aged 9-11 for girls, 10-12 for boys – millions of additional neurons are grown, millions more than will be there during adulthood.  At puberty millions of neurons are eliminated during the first two years following the onset of puberty.  J. Deed, a use it or lose it principle, the brain is hardwired for the brain processes, e.g. to play football.  This brings up a big question of stewardship – limited opportunity to shape the brains of those we want to see come to a lifetime of faith.  Do we want to hardwire them to memorise scripture or wrestle with tough questions?

Impulsive teenagers more prone to heavy drinking


An interesting article on research from the University of Liverpool that has shown that young people who show more impulsive tendencies are more prone to drinking heavily at an early age:

The research suggests that targeting personality traits, such as impulsivity, could potentially be a successful intervention in preventing adolescent drinking from developing into problems with alcohol in later life.

Studies in the UK show that approximately 24% of 12 year olds have reported at least one episode of alcohol consumption, rising to 77% of 15 year olds.

Previous research has suggested that impulsive behaviour is linked with adolescent drinking, but it is unclear whether young people who are impulsive tend to drink more, or whether drinking whilst the brain is still developing is particularly harmful and can lead to the progression of impulsive behaviours.

The team used computer tests that measured inhibitory control, the ability to delay gratification, and risk-taking. More than 280 young people who were aged 12 or 13 at the beginning of the study took part in the study. The participants repeated the computer tests every six months over the two years of the study.

Results showed that those participants who were more impulsive in the tests went on to drink more heavily or have problems with alcohol at a later time. The study did not, however, show that alcohol consumption led to increased impulsive behaviour on the computer tests. This suggests that there is a link between impulsivity and adolescent drinking, but that alcohol may not necessarily lead to increased impulsive behaviour in the short-term.

Professor Matt Field, from the University’s Institute of Psychology Health and Society, explains: “Young people in the UK are starting to drink alcohol at a younger age than in the past, and much of this reflects broad social trends. There are, however, significant differences in the age at which teenagers start to experiment with alcohol and the age at which they start drinking regularly.”

“It is important to identify the psychological characteristics of adolescents who are likely to go on to drink heavily, because this can help us target alcohol prevention more effectively. In addition, we need to identify the consequences of heavy drinking during adolescence for health in general, and brain development in particular.”

“Our results show that more impulsive individuals are more likely to start drinking heavily in the future compared to less impulsive individuals. The next steps are to take these results and apply them to prevention interventions that are tailored to individual characteristics, such as impulsivity.”

“We also need to conduct studies where we follow-up young people for longer than the two years that we did in the present study. This will help us to understand whether heavy drinking over a longer period during adolescence has an impact on impulsive behaviour.”