Gracing the cover of this month’s National Geographic magazine is “The New Science of the Teenage Brain,” a headline the result of years of research on teenage brain development. It attempts to answer the age-old question about teenage risky behavior, “What on Earth was he doing?”
As a person who works with and loves teenagers, what do you need to know from this article that will help you in your ministry?
Based on new research by the National Institute of Health, this article proposes some new takes on the teenage brain. Instead of saying teenagers do what they do because their brain is simply immature, it proposes that the teenage brain is actually wonderfully adaptive for making the transition between childhood and living on your own. The idea is based on evolutionary theory (called the adaptive-adolescent story) and suggests that even risky teen behavior is a natural part of development.
What I found most interesting is a new explanation on teenage risk-taking:
Teens take more risks not because they don’t understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently: In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do.
While conventional wisdom might say that when a teen does something risky, they are not thinking of potential consequences, the study suggests that teens simply view risk/reward differently than mature adults. In fact, studies showed that teens might even pay higher attention to potential risks. However, teens tend to place a higher value on potential or even perceived rewards to behavior than adults. In short, a mature adult may avoid a behavior (let’s say jumping off a cliff into the ocean) because of potential harm (let’s go with broken bones or death). A teen will also be aware of the potential harm, but puts more value on perceived rewards like peer recognition…as in, how cool will I look when I survive. Another idea is that youth thrill-seeking experiences can lead to positive traits – the love of adventure and new experiences helps teens to widen circles of friends and grow as a person.
The research, much like the adolescents themselves, is still in progress and well worth reading & sharing with your youth and adults. A few thoughts from this youthworker on how we can apply this research: I think it can only help to cast the teenage brain in a positive light. In youth ministry, we could feed into the natural tendency toward risk-taking and adventure by offering opportunities to try new things. We can also offer more ways to reward teens for their choices through recognition.
What do you think? Are there ways we can use this research to work better in youth ministry?
Erin Jackson is National Director – Community & Care for the Center of Youth Ministry Excellence and the YouthWorker Movement. She is a veteran & certified youthworker as well, and loving her current role as a volunteer Senior High Bible Study teacher. She lives in Arlington, Texas with her husband (of 14 years today!) Dennis and three kids. She can be found blogging at http://umyouthworker.com/