In our society, this stage of life has long been categorised. Attempting to understand teenagers is not a new phenomenon, but understanding what is going on in their brains – as well as in their ever-changing world – may well be. So what can we learn about their world, and how do we navigate the myriad of changes in order to help them (and us, as parents) survive, and even thrive, during the teenage years?
Regardless of the external circumstances or the behaviour being exhibited, one thing that is inevitable for teenagers is change. Itis happening in and around them, and it’s impossible for them to escape it. Everyone embraces and experiences change in their own unique way, but for some teenagers the extent of change can feel overwhelming.
The teenage years constitute one of the most significant periods of change, regardless of whether or not this change is welcomed. Scientists have discovered that striking changes take place during the teen years, with much of the research focusing on brain development. The National Institute for Mental Health released fascinating findings in 2011, highlighting how the teen-age brain is still under construction. More recently it summarised this in a helpful factsheet calledThe Teen Brain: Six things to know:
1.Your brain does not keep getting bigger as you get older.
2.But that doesn’t mean your brain is done maturing.
3.The teen brain is ready to learn and adapt.
4.Many mental disorders appear during adolescence.
5.The teen brain is resilient.
6.Teens need more sleep than children and adults.
Gaining insight into the physiological changes taking place during the teenage years can better place us to understand the behaviours and attitudes that often surface without taking them so personally. For my family it was helpful to learn about sleep patterns as my daughters approached their teenage years. Under-standing that melatonin levels rise and fall later in the day during the teenage years helped us make allowances for their needs rather than just assuming they were being lazy or irresponsible. We couldn’t change school start times but we could block out Saturday mornings for them to sleep in without us getting irritated with them for doing so. This is probably one of the best things we did (and continue to do) during their teenage years, and I’m convinced it has saved thousands of potential arguments that lack of sleep or understanding might have generated.
Different parts of the brain develop at different rates. Areas involved in the more basic functions develop first, for example ‘processing information for senses’ or ‘controlling movement’, whereas parts of the brain such as ‘planning ahead’ and ‘controlling impulses’ are among the last to mature. This helps us understand why risk-taking seems to supersede logic for some teenagers. Having this insight doesn’t always make it easy to accept some of the choices our teens make, and it doesn’t negate our desire to help them make good ones, but it does help us understand that they aren’t simply being rebellious or inconsiderate. To some extent their brains may be working against them. With this in mind, it makes the idea of remaining connected to our teenagers and a positive influence on them during these crucial years even more compelling.
The more we look at the research, the more we understand that the teenage years are a significant period in brain development, as further ‘pruning’ of synapses takes place during this stage. The brain has a higher plasticity during these years and is most able to make changes. Genes, childhood experience and the environment in which a young person reaches adolescence are all believed to shape behaviour. Additionally, research has modified our understanding of brain maturation, essentially extending the formative teenage years into the early 20s.
As well as the significant changes happening in the brain, it’s worth noting that the physical, intellectual, emotional and social (PIES) changes occurring at this stage are substantial.
Physically: Most noticeably, development of the sex organs is prevalent, along with the lengthening of limbs, changes in appearance, changes in hair growth and body odour.
Intellectually: Significant growth in understanding happens during the teenage years, with the intellectual power of an adolescent brain matching that of an adult. In this generation of digital natives, technical understanding can quickly exceed that of many adults.
Emotionally: The ability to self-regulate emotional thermo-stats can be challenging, and the adolescent years can sometimes appear to be a repetition of the toddler years in terms of our teens’ ability to have extreme emotional reactions and their sensitivity to specific scenarios.
Socially: Puberty increases susceptibility to stress, and there can be an awkwardness in adapting to changing social circumstances. Peer influence increases, along with an increased awareness of social injustice, among other things. This is a season in which the practice of challenging authority and cultural norms can dominate. All of these changes result in a leaning toward acting on impulse, with an appetite for novelty and what may appear to be selfishness.
During the formative years in our children’s lives we get to influence their attitudes and behaviour, and sometimes even their friendships. For those of us who have a faith, this will influence what we teach our children and the way we bring them up. Then the teenage years arrive and we often feel ill-prepared. It can feel devastating if the changes in our children start to impact the way they behave and relate to us.
Often accompanying these changes is an increase in their questioning of what they have known to be truth. With current societal culture suggesting that truth is whatever we want it to be, our teenagers are likely to experience an internal war to some extent as they try to reason the faith they may have been taught with the culture to which they are now being exposed. During these teenage years of deepening knowledge and increasing independence, exposure to other world views is inevitable, and exploration of faith often comes with that.
This can trigger a series of questions and challenges from them, and because of the effects of brain development there may be a distinct lack of sophistication in the way these challenges are presented. Interestingly, our own emotive responses when our Christian faith is subjected to scrutiny can cause fallout. Questioning is an essential part of faith development and greater insight into the changes our teenagers are going through can help us respond calmly when behaviours and attitudes prove frustrating.
This is a sensitive season for many families to adapt to, not least in the exploration of spiritual identity, where exposure to intellectual, emotional and social changes can influence beliefs. Shifting from parenting children to parenting teens may feel daunting, but there are some simple things we can do to help us navigate our way through these years.
Growing our understanding
Regardless of how ‘in touch’ you are with current culture, it is important to recognise that a huge cultural shift currently exists. ‘Normal’ in this generation looks very different from the way it did even just a decade ago. As a society we have seen large shifts in the way we communicate. This generation of teenagers has grown up with smartphones and social media. Understanding what we don’t know about what it is like to be a teenager in this generation of digital natives is just as helpful as growing our understanding of all the changes they are going through.
In her research,Losing My Religion: millennials and faith loss, Dr Ruth Perrin helpfully summarises the quantitative and qualitative data, highlighting that 71 per cent of people who change their faith do so between the ages of 18 and 29. She says: “People don’t suddenly go from a profound commitment to Jesus to not believing at all. It takes weeks, months, even years. Over a period of time, their faith just becomes less and less convincing. Some-thing may trigger a decision to renounce belief but typically this is a final straw in an already long-term process.”
It isn’t usually a specific event that causes a loss of faith; more likely it is the questioning and observations that happen during the teenage years that shape and influence this decision. It is imperative, therefore, that we understand the cultural pressures our teenagers are facing and help create an environment that encourages them to ask questions and explore these issues.
Try to engage with their world and the cultural experiences they are encountering. There is plenty of available information about ‘Generation Z’ that explains how this generation views the world and each other. Find opportunities to understand things from their perspective and give them a platform from which to voice their opinions.
Finding opportunities to connect
When parenting teenagers, connection is more important than correction. This is a challenging concept to adopt as a parent, as there will be times when our teenagers seem to have superpowers when it comes to going against all that we have previously taught them. However, if we focus our attention on correcting them we may enter endless power struggles, and before long there can be a chasm between us that is hard to bridge.
Instead, it helps to find ways to connect with our teens, taking an interest in the things they find intriguing and generally looking for excuses to ‘waste time’ with them. Ask yourself some basic questions about your teenager. Who are their friends? What music do they like? How do they like to interact with people? Who do they admire? Challenge yourself to find out more about what makes them tick and find ways to connect with their world. Forget about what needs doing, and seize opportunities to connect with them as often as possible. With the change in sleep patterns, these opportunities often present themselves late at night.
The teenage years represent a season of discovery, and if ever there was a time of needing to be accepted this is it. The search for identity and the need to belong are prevalent through this season of change. Transitioning from childhood into adulthood is a significant challenge, with internal and external influences evoking exploration, insecurity, searching and possible chaos.
Identity issues are further compelled by the cultural emphasis of our time. Although our teenagers may not directly express it, they are desperate to belong to something worthwhile; to a place of safety where they feel accepted. Inadvertently, our teenagers crave the knowledge that boundaries exist. They will often seek to engage with theories, statements and questions in a search to find out where these boundaries lie. This may not present itself in a well-thought-through manner, and sometimes it appears as though the motivation is antagonism. However, if you can learn not to react to this surface behaviour, instead expressing understanding, finding connections and offering acceptance, your teenagers are more likely to allow you a say in their lives and choices.
Make it your mission to develop an environment in which any topic can be discussed. If they don’t feel accepted and safe to explore subjects with you they will explore them elsewhere. Create an environment that is the best place for radical, controversial and embarrassing topics to be discussed, and where opinions can be worked out rather than reacted to.
Finally, learn what the pressure points are – both yours and theirs, intentionally finding new ways of communicating that can support this awareness – but don’t be scared to share your opinion, your faith and the Bible with your teenagers. Adopt a perspective that is committed to calling out the good qualities in them, seeing their potential and offering a secure home environment for them to navigate their way through the teen-age years. After all, true acceptance is rooted in our identity in Christ. It is our Christian faith that gives us a radical basis for forgiveness and hope to be practised.
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