I say teenager- you say hormones. There’s only one problem. While hormones do increase during adolescence, they are not the primary source of your teenager’s madness.
Changes in your teen’s behavior is actually a sign that their brain is undergoing a transformation. This brain change is significant biologically and behaviorally. The brain processes of myelination, the thickening of the corpus collusom, synaptic pruning, heightening of the amygdala, increase in dopamine are transforming your teen’s mind from the spongey brain of childhood that absorbs everything into an efficient machine that quickly and efficiently navigates the adult world.
Their brain changes are also significant spiritually. The mind is the soil of spiritual transformation. It is the place from which the fruit of accurately discerning God’s will arises. It is the one area of our being that God does not take full responsibility to put something new in us.
Let me explain, when we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that Christ is Lord God does the work of putting a new heart and spirit within us. The mind however is different. We are instructed to be transformed not by having our minds replaced but having our minds renewed. Christ’s blood gave us the mind of Christ, yet we are the ones who continually have to put it on. We are commanded to do the work of thinking on whatever is pure, noble, worthwhile, and worthy of praise.
Biologically your adolescents mind is primed for transformation behaviorally and spiritually. Yet, as with anything that is under a growth and transformation process there is plenty of room for things to go awry.
Let’s take a look at what’s going on in your teen’s brain, how it can affect their behavior for good or for bad, and the spiritual opportunity it presents:
Brain: When your child hits adolescence there is an increase in the activity of neural circuits utilizing dopamine- the feel-good chemical. When a teen does something exciting, their brains release more dopamine than an adult brain does.
Downside: The downside to this brain change is that teens sometimes begin to engage in risk-taking that overemphasizes the thrill and downplays potential danger. Your teenager can focus only on the positive of the behavior while failing to notice the downside.
Upside: The good news is what may be manifesting as risky behavior is actually a desire for something new, challenging, and rewarding. When this brain change is honed in a positive way, your teen can be empowered to live life with a sense of fascination rather than boredom.
Spiritual Opportunity: Your teen’s brain is telling them to do risky things. Why not channel the risk taking towards spiritual growth? Biblical Christian faith is anything but safe. Remember Abraham who left everything for a land he did not know? Take the time to get to know your teen’s desires and align it with a risk that serves the kingdom. For example they are longing to go to new place and meet people different from them- head to downtown Atlanta and serve the homeless. Your teen is dying to travel the world- great! Encourage them to raise money for the missions trip. In Christ we are free to have fun, take risks, and serve him in the most wildly creative/risky ways possible.
2. Not being able to get enough of friends.
Brain: During adolescence, your child’s brain is strengthening its neural connections. The sponge brain of childhood that absorbs everything is being transformed into a machine that organizes information efficiently. The fancy words for this are synaptic pruning where the brain is pruning away information they do not need. The other process is myelination where the brain is sealing the information they do use. The biological organization of the brain is reinforced relationally through friendships, discussions, and experiences.
Downside: Teens that become isolated and only surround themselves with other teens have increased risk behavior, total rejection of adults, and the ability to take life-endangering risks.
Upside: The drive for social connection can lead to a network of meaningful support in your teen’s life. When your teen is connected to both peers and adults, they will develop a rich and meaningful perspective of life.
Spiritual Opportunity: Christianity stands apart from the pop-spirituality of the day in that it is communal. Relationship with Christ is to love one another and to be connected to his body. Your teen’s craving for social relationships is an invitation for them to dive deep into community with other believers. Their insatiable need for relationship is an opportunity to open themselves up the perspective and wisdom of others around them.
3. Emotions running wild
Brain: The lower brain or limbic system of your adolescent the seat of their emotion is more activated than it ever will be. Highly intense emotions that bypass reasoning helps your teen to move out of your comfortable home into the world.
Downside: Your teen’s emotions end up ruling everyone in the household. Their moodiness, impulsivity, and reactivity keep them from homework, friendships, and family responsibilities.
Upside: When a teen’s emotional intensity is directed in a positive direction they can experience joy in their daily lives. They can revitalize the family with passion and energy. They move into the world with passion, not fear.
Spiritual Opportunity: Have you ever read through the Psalms? David was an emotional rollercoaster. He brought all of his emotions to the Lord without shame because he knew he was accepted and loved by the Father. Spiritually your teen has an opportunity to connect with God emotionally like never before. Encourage them to bring their sadness, fear, joy, and silliness before the Father. He delights and wants to be apart of it all. Encourage your teen to study the heart and emotions of God. They are a beautiful reminder of the freedom, joy, and emotional vibrancy God desires for us to walk in.
4. Coming up with new ideas
Brain: The front part of your teen’s brain or their prefrontal cortex is growing. This growth is shifting their thinking from concrete literal interpretations they had in childhood to complex meaning and ability to think about situations abstractly.
Downside: Your teen is pushing against your ideas and coming up with their own. This leads to frustration and inability to get them to do what you want them to do. The thing is when your teen does not find meaning and is unable to express their ideas it can lead to an identity crisis, vulnerability to peer pressure, and a lack of direction or purpose.
Upside: If your teen holds onto the ability to think in new ways (while still respecting you and other authority of course), it will prevent them from getting in ruts later on in their adult life. The ability to think about a situation from multiple sides makes for good problem solvers and people who push society forward.
Spiritual Opportunity: Your teen is now at a place where they can begin to think critically about scripture. Allow them to ask questions, do research, and think about what the word of God means for their daily life. Your teen’s new innovative ideas could lead to a powerful way of ministering Christ to the world. Allow them to dream big- the dreams and wild ideas of their adolescence may be the calling God is planting in their heart for adulthood.
If your teen is behaving in these ways, congratulations, they are normal! The downsides to these behaviors are scary for sure, and that’s why even with their growing independence and constantly shifting moods- your teen still needs you. Cultivate the upsides, recognize the spiritual opportunities, and look for part II What do I do with my teenager?
-written by Danielle O'Neil
Siegel, D.J. Brainstorm: The purpose and power of the teenage brain. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.