This is Your Brain on Adolescence

The old push back. Someone gives you a nudge and you nudge right back.

I enjoy a good intellectual push back.  An intellectual push back helps us gain insight by looking at a situation from a new perspective.  It also allows for a more robust dialogue and hopefully a more faithful engagement with the world.  So I welcomed Mark Oestreicher’s (Marko) recent article This is Your Brain On Adolescence: A Push Back on Accepted Views of Underdeveloped Brains in the latest issue of Immerse Journal.

I suggest that you read Marko’s article in order to get the nuance of his push back. I won’t try to interpret it here because it won’t do justice to the article.
 
Extended Adolescence is Real but Doesn’t Have to Be

Extended adolescence or emerging adulthood is a description of what is some believe to be a distinct developmental stage for people in their twenties.  Some practicioners in psychology are attempting to describe the unique tasks that are emerging among the current generation of twenty-somethings who are delaying marriage, career choices, and other choices associated with adulthood.

A few years ago I relocated to Kansas City from rural Ohio.  For some who are in more metropolitan areas they will read that and think not much of a change.  But there are significant cultural differences between a blue collar rural township (not big enough to be a town) and a metropolitan area.  The transition was full of surprises not the least being the realization that extended adolescence was a real phenomenon.

In the community that I came from most youth that I knew where working part-time before the age of 16 or just after. If they didn’t work for
wages they had to work on the family farm.  So when I encountered extended adolescence or emerging adulthood for the first time I was pissed.  There was a group of twenty-somethings who had grown up in the church that I attend in Kansas City.  They seemed more interested in playing video games then being adults. They seemed happy to just coast through life on their parents dime and when I asked them about their calling to serve the Lord they responded with blank stares like the pre-teens in my previous faith community.


Now I’ve grown in the few years that I’ve been a part of their life. I’ve seen a couple of them make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Some are taking their calling as Christ followers as central to their identity and they have accomplished the developmental tasks of adolescence.

My experience makes me believe that extended adolescence doesn’t have to be real.  Despite what those writing on emerging adulthood as a new developmental stage might say I believe that this cultural norm isn’t and doesn’t have to always be as it is.

And one of the big issues for me regarding emerging adulthood is the impending social changes that will ensue if it is accepted as a norm. If the historical development of adolescence is any indication of what will happen with extended adolescence then I don’t want any part of it.  Colleges will have to start offering 10 year undergraduate degrees to allow 20 year olds time to explore their interests more.  The government will have to provide more money to the corporate world for the transitional period of emerging adults to adapt to corporate life.  New laws will have to be created to take into special consideration the unique needs of a 28 year old as distinguished from a 33 year old.  These imaginative social changes reflect much of the educational, corporate and legal changes that emerged after the acceptance of adolescence as normative. Again, I don’t think this is healthy for a society nor developing persons.

The Way Forward

Whether you agree with Marko’s push back or not, he proposes a way forward that I believe is a type of via media that all youth workers can find some agreement.  Marko suggests that we live in the tension between the reality of the cultural norm of extended adolescence and the hope that it doesn’t always have to be normative.  Marko explains that to live in these two tensions requires that youth workers both practice being with youth who experience
extended adolescence as normative and practice guiding youth into adulthood.

Here are a list of things Marko is doing to live in the tensions of the norm of extended adolescence and being countercultural.

  1. Learn about emerging adulthood and the challenges facing teenage development
  2. Allow space in the church for teens to interrupt programs and to have a lack of impulse control.
  3. Create opportunities for teens to make decisions and allow space for those decisions to be both good and bad.
  4. Move away from treating teens like children (infantilization) and treat them like teenagers who are moving toward adulthood.
  5. Promote and create opportunities for meaningful relationships between teenagers and adults.

A Conversation Partner on the Way Forward

I just finished reading the book Consuming Youth before I read Marko’s article.  They would wholeheartedly agree with Marko’s push back that extended adolescences doesn’t have to exist. They would hold that emerging adulthood is a cultural phenomenon and not a distinct psychological and physiological developmental stage.

They suggest that one way the church can respond is by being a community that focuses on vocation for youth and young adults much like Marko’s
suggested countercultural actions.  They suggest the church promote three destinations for youth’s participation in Christian community.

  1. Youth Independence:
    commitment to youth independence and the right to theological vocation,
    joyful service, and good accommodation within our faith community.
  2. Youth Influence: genuine opportunity for youth influence and participation in the community at large.
  3. Youth Resource: youth commitment, creativity, and critical thinking are viewed as resources[1]

An Exercise For Youth Workers

I suggest taking these tensions and possible ways forward to parents, families, teenagers and young adults in our communities.  Let’s get those implicated in this conversation to respond and allow them to create the change in our faith communities and local communities.  You can pass around the article for a read but here is another suggestion…

  • Send a link out to a  TED talk to all involved in the youth ministry within your local church[2]http://www.ted.com/talks/kiran_bir_sethi_teaches_kids_to_take_charge.html
  • Invite them to have a conversation about their view and your faith community’s view of teenagers and young adults.
  • Present Marko’s tensions and three destinations for youth presented above as suggestions on a way forward.
  • Challenge them to brainstorm ways that your faith community can guide teens and young adults into adulthood with faith.
  • Allow all of them to implement the change in your local church.

Conclusion

Join Marko and giving a little push back to the cultural norm of extended adolescence.  God has given us all we need through Christ active in the community of believers. The church can be an alternative culture that allows, encourages, and guides youth to transition into adulthood in the faith.  Let’s embrace our calling and promote a way forward for teens and young adults.


[1] John Berard, James Penner, and Rick Bartlett, Consuming Youth: Leading Teens Through Consumer Culture (Zondervan, 2010), 71.
[2] Ibid., 73.

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Paul Sheneman
Paul Sheneman is an author, speaker and youth pastor. He serves with the Macedonia Methodist Church in Ohio. He drinks way too much coffee for his own good. His main interest is exploring Christian formation. You can follow most of his ramblings on his blog at www.discipleshipremix.com or on Twitter @PaulSheneman.

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