Are Teens Crazy? Insights from Neuroscience say “No”
A few years ago I was invited to speak at Emmanuel Faith Community Church. Along with meeting their apologetics crew, I met Jeramy Clark, pastor of Discipleship Ministries. And I quickly learned that he and his wife Jerusha are quite the prolific authors on many of the same issues I deeply care about!
So when they emailed me and asked if I would endorse their most recent book, Your Teenager is Not Crazy, I jumped at the chance. The book has the rare balance of offering genuine scholarly insights about neuroscience, but also providing practical steps in working with students. If you are a parent, youth worker, or teacher, I highly recommend this book to you.
The Clarks were kind enough to answer a few of my questions. Enjoy the interview, and I hope you will think about getting their excellent book.
SEAN MCDOWELL: What motivated you to write a book on why understanding neuroscience can help parents?
JERUSHA & JERAMY CLARK: Our journey with neuroscience is a Romans 8:28 story. God turned what was hard and horrible—Jerusha’s battle with postpartum depression—into something good. After the doctors who treated Jerusha told us her brain would never be the same, we wanted to learn everything we could about neuroscience. We were floored by how understanding the brain helped us both live better and know God in new ways. Years later, when our daughters hit their tweens, we thought understanding their brains might help, too. That turned out to be the understatement of our lives! The research totally transformed our parenting and our faith, and we wanted to share it with others.
MCDOWELL: What surprised you most in your research?
J & J CLARK: We were astounded to learn that a teen’s brain is similar to a massive remodeling project. At the beginning of adolescence, God designed the brain to begin pruning away neurons that aren’t being used (kind of like the “demo” stage of a remodel). Those that stick around are strengthened and specialized (similar to the “redesign” and “rebuild” stages of a project). Scientists describe this as the ultimate use it or lose it scenario. What teens do, what they are exposed to, and what they choose ultimately determines the shape and substance of their brain. That’s truly radical! The good news? Because the seemingly crazy and often frustrating things teens do actually follow discernible neurological patterns, we don’t have to throw our hands up in defeat when parenting adolescents. God enables us to thrive while our teens are under construction. We just have to keep our hard hats handy!
MCDOWELL: How does neuroscience intersect with the Christian worldview?
J & J CLARK: Every neurological development we studied had a spiritual parallel. That’s why each chapter of Your Teenager is Not Crazy has a Bio 101, Psych 101, and Faith 101 section. We never had to force a faith application; God wrote His truth into our neurons. In fact, every new thing we learned about neuroscience was confirmed by Scripture long ago. Take Philippians 4:6-7, for instance. Many Christians know these verses, which exhort us to present our concerns to God with thanksgiving in our hearts. This, He promises, is the path to authentic peace. What many Christians don’t know is that—physiologically—the brain pathways for anxiety and gratitude are mutually exclusive. You literally cannot be worried and thankful at the same moment! God told us to pray with thanksgiving because He wrote the truth into our bodies that, when we do, anxiety fades. This is so important for parents, who often fall into “What are we going to do?” worries. Taking a moment to be grateful—for peanut butter or surfing or the color orange—makes room in your brain for the peace you need. God created your marvelous mind to work this way. Exchange worry for gratitude today and teach your teens to as well; you won’t be disappointed!
MCDOWELL: Can you give us one practical example of how neuroscience helps parents?
J & J CLARK: Neuroscientific research proves that teens have a difficult time discerning facial expressions. In fact, they misinterpret adult expressions a shocking 50% of the time! Armed with this information, we can deliberately choose to communicate in more effective ways. Instead of responding to your teen’s angry outburst, “Why are you looking at me like that?” with your own defensive frustration, take a deep breath and explain what you’re actually feeling. You may be surprised what your teen assumed you thought and felt. If you’re interested, you can find a lot more information about communicating with teens in the book.
MCDOWELL: What is the most common misunderstanding about teens that neuroscience can help dispel?
J & J CLARK: Too many parents mistakenly believe their teens are past help. Research and scripture contradict this! In fact, God teaches us this incredible truth through neuroscience: it’s never too late to change. Teen brains are, as scientists describe it, “highly neuroplastic.” That means they can be molded and shaped in incredible ways. If you’re afraid that you missed out on opportunities during early childhood, if you’re concerned that your adolescent is headed down the wrong path, you can lay those fears down. God designed the teenage brain to be malleable, and you can start—today—to maximize the potential of your adolescent’s marvelous brain. We wrote Your Teenager Is Not Crazy because we needed it, and we pray it might be a help to you, too!
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.