Adolescence is its own animal of a time period in the life of a person compared with childhood, emerging adulthood, adulthood and late adulthood. The complexity of adolescence is astounding! Cognitive, emotional, psychological, physical and sexual identity development is all going on in a matter of seven to six years (ages 11-18), which will then slow down through the late teens to early twenties. All of this development happens at varying rates for girls and boys. Researchers, schools and youth workers typically define adolescence as the ages between 12 and 18 or the middle and high school years. The tween and teen years are the time period to try out new skills and make mistakes because teens are still in the protective care of the home. If their home is connected to a church, then there is also a connection to a faith family.

I find the adolescent brain the most intriguing aspect of development during this time period. And, frankly the biological changes are easy to find information about with the data not likely to change any time soon. If cognitive development is the most intriguing, then sexuality has to be the most fun and messy aspect of adolescence to write and speak about; however, that will have to wait until another time. Besides, the Bible has plenty to say on that area in our lives. There is not as much to be found concerning the human mind or the impulsiveness of teenagers. In the last 15 to 20 years the information available to us about the human brain has increased dramatically.

Parents get excited when their teen makes a series of smart, mature choices or statements. Seeing their children positively growing towards adulthood through their words and actions is a good indicator of how their teen is developing. This could include doing chores, checking in when they are away from the home, or having a spiritual revelation from a Bible study or mission trip experience that they choose to share with their parents.

The adult-like maturity of teens lulls parents into a false sense of belief that their child is ready to make adult decisions all the time and has finally made it. What this it is, only the parent knows.

Out of nowhere it seems, the teen then makes an incredibly immature decision or action–something as simple as getting into a petty argument with a sibling or parent, a car accident from driving carelessly or hosting people at their home when parents are out of town. This is actually normal youth development! And so are higher amounts of parent-adolescent conflict during early adolescence compared to late adolescence…or the constant questioning of authority figures, even when youth agree or hold the same point of view. However, just because youth make one poor choice for every seven good choices, to pitch a number out there, does not mean parents or youth workers need to suddenly revoke privileges or lower their unspoken but clearly received expectations.

There are a couple of noteworthy brain development features that make adolescence unique. The early adolescent brain is undergoing a huge influx of change that the brain has not experienced since the teen was an infant.

The concrete cognitive skills they possessed as children are now expanded to include abstract thinking, which is probably why those late elementary school children loose interest in children’s messages. This is why the rite of confirmation and identity topics are a prime time for youth. Youth can make astute observations of the world around them, and if you are of the millennial generation as I am, then you also know that this generation of youth is more than capable of handling hot-button issues from politics to social issues due to having technology at their fingertips and in their pockets. They want to be a part of adult conversations. As mentioned earlier, the same adolescent brain will still make an absurd decision that reminds adults that these teens are still teens. Every basic adolescent psychology course goes over the fact that the pre-frontal cortex, where high level decision making happens, does not become fully developed in many people until late teens to early twenties, especially for boys and young men.

The brain during adolescence goes through a pruning process that is dependent on their environment. Predominately transpiring in the teenage years, the pruning process is a fine-tuning of skills, thinking and knowledge. The synapses that are used regularly will be kept while the seldom used ones will be lost; this goes for sports skills, academics, music and art; and unfortunately, habits such as being a couch potato can be kept due to the pruning process. The term ‘use it or lose it’ comes to mind. Now armed with this knowledge, it is parents’ and youth workers’ responsibility to engage youth physically and mentally with the Bible studies and talks we plan and the activities we lead. Are you incorporating a variety of talents into your youth ministry or do you lean heavily on a certain type of activity?

For the longest time everyone across multiple professions thought adult and teen brains were the same. They certainly are not. Teen brain culpability frequently makes its appearance in the justice system as the question of whether or not to try some teens as adults for certain crimes. Out of this research topic, several points are pertinent to youth workers. Youth who partake in risky behavior often are unable to recognize their actions as such, which is why it is a good idea to start off questioning a youth after a bad decision or action with “what was the purpose or intention of what you were doing?” or “how do you think others felt about what you were doing?” rather than, “What in the world were you thinking?!?” One social policy report produced by the Society for Research in Child Development found that youth who were 16-17 years old performed similarly to young adults in their situational test with anti-social behavior, while those between the ages of 11 and 15 were attributed with several big differences from the young adults that were the comparison in the study to test juveniles’ trial competence as adults. Most of the youth in our churches will most likely not be in the situation of committing a crime that may have them considered to be tried as an adult. However, it does mean we can expect our upper classmen high school youth to take on leadership roles as their brains are similar to a young adult’s. Do aspects of the ministry you oversee or your church create opportunities for older youth to mentor or direct?

One last aspect of teen brain development to highlight is that the teenage brain differs from adults’ in their inability to identify emotions or facial cues the same way adults can. Meaning youth may not understand an adult talking to them, which I am sure could explain a couple of experiences you or their parents have had. They are unable to consistently and correctly guess the emotion a person may be feeling that they are talking with (for instance, mixing up scared and angry). This relays the importance of explaining how we feel in addition to using nonverbal communication with youth.

Of course there is ample more to learn about adolescent cognitive development, but these examples are a nice refresher if you have been out of academia for a time or simply need to know what is making your youth tick.

Interested to learn more?

Check out Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s TED Talk: The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain, which this article used along with the following sources.


  • Arnett, J. J. (2013). Adolescence and emerging adulthood: A cultural perspective (5th Ed.). (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall).
  • PBS Frontline: Inside the Teenage Brain (2002)
  • Steinberg, Grisso, Woolard, Cauffman, Scott, Graham, Lexcen, Reppucci, & Schwartz (2003). Juveniles’ Competence to Stand Trial as Adults. Society for Research in Child Development. Social Policy Report.