[This is the second post in a blog series on topics covered on the Youth Work Summit 2012]

Lately, tons of articles and posts have been written about teenage brains. I’ve read quite a few of them, since it’s a topic that really interests me. So I was very interested to see if author Nicola Morgan could bring something new to the table in her Youthwork Summit talk on the typical messy bedrooms of teens and what that has to do with their brains. She shared two insights that I think all youth workers should know about, because they (should) hugely affect how we approach certain topics in youth ministry.

1. Teens have difficulty recognizing emotions

Teens have more difficulty in recognizing and interpreting emotions than adults. Let me quote directly from Nicola Morgan’s website:

“Researchers asked a group of adolescents and adults to look at a picture of a woman showing a particular emotion. Then they asked them all what the emotion was. All the adults got it right. About half of the teenagers got it wrong. But the most amazing thing was that when researchers scanned their brains while they were doing the test, the teenagers who got it wrong were using a completely different part of their brain. They were using the bit that deals with raw emotion, gut instinct, not logic. The adults were using the logical bit.”

This has big consequences. Teens will think someone is angry for instance, when they’re really not. It means that we as youth workers will have to be open and specific about our emotions. When we know teens are prone to label our emotions wrong, we need to identify them for them, especially when they’re strong emotions. It’s one of the reasons why so-called I-messages are effective and appropriate, because you identify and name the exact emotion you’re feeling. It will help teens identify and interpret emotions better, to grow in this area.

I think this is also something that you could bring up when discussing films or music, for instance in your youth mall group. What emotions have they identified in a certain film or specific scene and can they understand where these emotions came from? What emotions do they recognize in lyrics of songs? Take the incredible popularity of Adele for instance, whose songs are often about loss and pain. There’s a lot of emotion to talk about.

teenage brain

2. Teens go for instant gratification

This fact wasn’t new to me, but it was good to be reminded again. Teens attach far more weight to present pleasure than they do to possible consequences. They don’t care as much about the future as they do about the now. That of course has great impact on risky behavior.

The funny thing is that teens often do think about the risks, actually overstating them in fact. But despite that, they still attach more weight to instant pleasure (and to peer acceptance by the way). This means that a strategy in which we stress possible negative consequences of certain behavior often isn’t effective at all. If teens don’t care about the future, it’s no use waving it around as a deterrent. Research has shown that teaching teens good decision making skills is far more effective, as is help in refusal-strategies (because we all know that ‘just say no’ really doesn’t help).

This tendency to go for instant gratification also means that they will make smaller choices that reflect this. Nicola Morgan made this point by explaining why teenage bedrooms are often so messy. It’s because they want to instant gratification of doing something that gives them pleasure (like watching a movie or chatting with friends) instead of cleaning their rooms and have the satisfaction of a neat room later on (because they do actually appreciate a clean room!). Her advice: pick your battles and focus on the big ones.

I would have loved to hear more about Nicola Morgan’s insights into the teenage brain, so I’m thinking about buying her book Blame My Brain (which is actually written for teens, so it’s perhaps a great gift for your young people as well!). If you have read it, I’d love to hear your opinion!

Did you know about these two insights om teenage brains? How have you applied these in your youth ministry?