Ever wondered why your teenagers do the things they do?
A Few years ago, I was standing outside with 100 students waiting to go to various adventures we provide at KIVU in Colorado. We line up our new vans to transport students to White Water Rafting, World Class Mountain Biking, Rock Climbing, and Hiking trips.
I was standing by one of our new vans, and I saw my friend Justin. At the time, he was a 15-year-old teen from Florida, and I could tell he was super excited to get to the river and have the time of his life.
“Hey Justin, How are you doing this morning?” I asked as I could smell the sweet scent of sun tan lotion from the group standing around him.
“I’m so excited, I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time!” He shared.
We talked for a bit about the dangers of White Water Rafting, How much fun he was going to have, and how he may end up falling out of the raft, “Are you ready for that?” I asked.
“Man, I can’t wait!”
And without any warning, he rared back his arm, formed a fist with his hand, and punched the sidewall of my brand new van leaving a sizable dent in the side panel.
I looked at him quizzically and asked, “Why in the world did you do that?”
“I dunno.” And he walked off.
Now, I could get mad at Justin, OR understanding what’s actually happening inside of Justin’s brain, I can extend some grace.
Teenagers are Changing
We can actually see 3D MRI imaging to trace where students make decisions. Neuroscience is a discipline that has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and NOW WE KNOW. Most all of a teenagers decisions come from the part of the brain responsible for Emotions. It’s the Fear Center. It’s the Excitement Center. It’s the place in our brains that gives us that sense of love, and that sense of hatred. It’s called – The Amygdala.
The Amygdala has unlocked much of what we know about those “hormonal” students, because it’s given us reasons for why students act the way they do, and what the process is for teenagers to actually make sense of the world around them.
The fact is, as students navigate this season called puberty, almost all of their decisions are flowing through the amygdala, and EVERYTHING is about how they feel.
They eat what they eat because they feel a certain way.
They act how they act because they feel a certain way.
They hang out with certain people because of how they feel about those people.
And sometimes they get angry or sad because of the feelings happening in the environment.
What we know now gives me a whole lot more grace for students like Justin, or even my own kids. When they lock themselves in their room to get away, they’re actually trying to discern how to respond to some emotional center pushing their buttons.
So how do we respond?
It’s important to understand this concept, because if you decide to introduce new fear into the situation like Justin, you’ll never be able to understand how to help students like him to understand the difference between good decisions and bad decisions. As the adult in the situation, we need to be careful not to allow our responses to students be filled with more emotion heightening the situation, but rather; help them see why punching the sidewall of a new van affects the people and operation around them.
I didn’t get mad at Justin. I was disappointed that I was going to have to repair a vehicle, but ultimately, I wanted to get him to a place to see how his actions have consequences. We sat and talked about the event for a while, ultimately resulting in him apologizing, and going on down the river to have a GREAT DAY!!
We still laugh about this now that he’s in college. And I’m still sending the invoice for the van repair. HA!! (not really.)
The Dangers of Faith and Amygdala
Some of the research I’ve read on faith and students is very eery to me. I’ve read, “If someone doesn’t come to faith before they’re 18 years old, the chances of them coming to faith later in life dramatically diminishes.”
I’ve always wondered why that is?
Another stunning statistic is, “80% of students who are raised in Christian homes actually reject their faith by the end of their first year in college.”
I’ve spent my whole professional life trying to figure out why this is.
Some will say, “It’s those evil professors at the Secular University with an agenda to convert students away from faith.” The problem with that is, I’ve not met those ‘evil professors.’ Traveling the country from sea to shining sea, I’ve been to hundreds of University campuses, and I’ve never found that guy.
Some will say, “We need to keep our kids away from influences that will lure them away from faith.” And to that point, I wonder what kind of God we are really serving here? If the concept of God is so easily replaced in the mind and the heart of our students, are we really confident we’re representing the GOD that we think we are? Or have we just given our students a vanilla image of God that’s easy to understand when they are kids, and then when life gets hard; that particular image of God doesn’t hold up?
I have a theory. (Surprised?)
I wonder if our student groups are sometimes so emphatically built on the programmatic, sometimes we do our students an injustice. In other words, sometimes youth leaders believe they’re actually doing something when they lower the lights in the room, fill it with smoke, play music that elicits emotion, and then put a charismatic speaker in the pulpit to cause a heart-felt message turn introspectively while poking directly at the amygdala in a students brain?
Of course any well healed human will respond to emotional places, we’re built that way. We have proof of the centers of the brain that highlight when we feel love, fear, guilt, shame, or any of the emotions that often accompany our modern youth work.
I don’t think anyone does it with an agenda of cruelty or manipulation. But I do wonder if we need to take into consideration the actual physiology of students as we create programs for our students. Maybe the statistics I referenced earlier have very little to do with evil professors or the age of spiritual understanding, and have more to do with the pragmatic approach we have taken to create the most happening youth event in town.
Remember, I’m a youth guy. So I’m VERY interested in making sure we live in an honest way to help students grow into the adult I believe they can be. I have no intention on looking back on my life and feeling as if I’ve guilted or shamed students into considering faith just because they respond from a physiological norm.
I can see where an argument like this breaks down, but I’m still learning.
What do you think? Have you had these emotional experiences that have led you to consider something you wouldn’t have normally thought of? What do you think about the role of emotions in the faith community today?