Today on Snark, Crackle, Pop we are going back to school to learn some science, specifically some significant adolescent neuroscience. Normally, I avoid trying to distill deeply scientific research on teens into less than 1000 words on this blog, partially because I don’t know how much science background you have as readers and also because I don’t always trust my own scientific prowess. However, I am making an exception for this study. It’s just too amazingly helpful and fascinating to pass up.
So, class, let’s get started.
Researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands recently did a study using 238 adolescents ages 12 to 16 years (120 females, 118 males). This study looked at teens’ approach tendency, whether or not they are inclined to approach or avoid a particular stimulus. Your approach tendency towards seeing a negative stimulus like a large spider, for example, is probably to avoid it. On the flip side, if you see a positive stimulus, like a bottle of water, you may feel thirsty and approach it.
These approach tendencies are far more important in teenage brains because of the development speed of different parts of the brain. The portion of the brain that creates emotional and motivational connections develops very quickly in the teen years. These portions are creating positive connections between any behaviors or activities that are seen as fun, exciting or that fill an emotional need, no matter what the behavior or activity is. On the flip side, the portion of their brain that helps give impulse control, regulates decision making and considers consequences doesn’t develop nearly as quickly, not fully developing until 25 years old. This is why when you ask a teen boy who has decided to skateboard off the roof for the third time, “What were you thinking?” his honest answer will be, “I wasn’t.” In short, his brain registers the connection of “This is fun!” but not the connections for “This will hurt.”
When a student drinks alcohol, cues are established in their brains either to avoid or approach the alcohol. If the alcohol is associated with a negative experience, then the teen’s brain creates an avoidance cue, while if it is associated with an experience perceived as fun and exciting the brain will create an approach cue. Because the motivational part of the brain is moving so quickly, even a few incidents of teenage drinking can establish a positive approach cue to alcohol. This makes them more likely to drink again. These associations are strong enough that just seeing a stimulus like a beer bottle will be able to cue the desire to drink.
Here is where it gets even more interesting. The researchers found a powerful tool to curb the approach tendency in teens. If parents have strict rules about drinking, those rules have a strong protective effect against an approach tendency. Strict parental rules cause teens to stop, reflect on drinking behaviors, and drink less or not at all. This is especially true for boys. Essentially, their results show strict rules work on behalf of the part of the teen brain that has not yet developed, making good judgment, and artificially creates the processes necessary to work through to make good decisions. Conversely, permissive parents tend to make the approach tendencies stronger, and help positive connections to alcohol grow.
It does not take a lot for us to consider how this study may be extrapolated out beyond alcohol. Teen’s brains are in the process of developing lifelong patterns. This research shows us that we cannot underestimate the power of parents in helping develop healthy, Godly patterns of thinking. Yet, many parents are unaware of just how important rules and discussion of why we have rules is for their teens. Talking about how their brains work is just as important as talking about how their bodies change in puberty. Parents equipped with this information can make deliberate strategies for how to help their teen navigate this important time of development.
The God who knit us together and designed our powerful, intricate brains knew all of this, of course. This is part of why He told us, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” He provided parents to give the kinds of controls and rules that are exactly what their children need to live safe, healthy, and Godly lives. In God’s divine providence, he has given us exactly what we need, parents to compensate for and train up critical parts of the teenage brain into adulthood.
So, class, here is your assignment. Share this with parents. Encourage them to stand fast in their rules, even when it is hard. Their rules provide more protection to their teens than they might ever know. Let it reinforce your commitment to the rules and adult guidance you put in place for ministry. Remind yourself and others that God has placed these precious teens in our care, and that care means understanding how their minds develop. Let it inform how you seek to grow these teens up in Him.