What We Thought We Knew About Teen Brains

Brad M. Griffin | May 18, 2011

The past few years have brought a fair amount of hype about kids and their brains. As with anything else, its hard to tell whats noteworthy for ministry or parenting, not to mention whats actually research-proven.

Developmental psychologist David Moshman lays a few common myths on the line in this helpful article released online yesterday (thanks to the YS Update for pointing it out). The article is brief, but here are some helpful points that jumped out at me as a youth worker:

1. Adolescent brains are distinctly different from childrens brains, but not from adults. The trajectory of brain development beyond childhood is highly variable in direction and extent. In other words, we cant lump all 14-yr-old boys into one cesspool of brain function based on our assumptions about their inability to make decisions or understand abstractions. Especially by blaming everything on their brains.

2. Speaking of 14-yr-olds, this paragraph deserves reprinting:

Adolescents are specifically accused of egocentrism, impulsivity, risk taking, peer conformity and inadequate future orientation. They are guilty as charged, of course, but adults of all ages fall short in all the same ways. Individual differences beyond age 12 to 14 are not strongly related to age. Many 14-year-olds function beyond the level of many 40-year-olds.

3. Finally, Moshman makes a case akin to our friend Steve Argue who suggests that the marginalization of adolescents is a justice issue. Moshman asserts that comparing brain function and size has long been a means of oppressing various groups, including women and racial minorities. He concludes, The case against teen brains is no stronger. In other words, perhaps were co-opting the dynamic process of teen brain development as a marginalizing factor, furthering their abandonment in a culture that already sidelines the adolescent voice and contribution.

Moshmans position (similar to this suggestion last year that teen and adult risk-taking isnt all that different) is fascinating in light of all the talk of neurological pruning and delayed prefrontal cortex development that may last into the late 20s.

It makes me wonder what well be saying five or ten years from now about what we thought we knew about teen brains in 2011. And if well wonder why we thought we could explain kids by their brain development. Perhaps we all need a little more practical humility as we assess research (or conduct it) about kids.

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.

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