By: Rev. Ed Schneider
Having been a pastor and counselor for decades, I can’t begin to count how many wonderful parents have come to me with utter frustration and emotional disaster written all over their faces.
Their teenagers are driving them completely crazy.
Those once sweet, adorable, compliant and anxious-to-please children have turned into grouchy, cantankerous, scatter-brained, lazy people. “What in the world is going on with my kids?” “Do you know anywhere I can ship my kids to for the next two or three years?” These and other similar questions consistently come up in the course of conversations with just about every household in America. The question is, why?
Take a look at the picture attached to this article. This young man is 19. He has a full scholarship to college. He goes to church on a regular basis and outwardly does the right things most of the time. The truth is he can’t keep his mind focused on much except music and girls. Even though he intellectually knows better, he drives his car way too fast, hangs out with nefarious sorts and stays up way too late, often causing him to be late for class. He is at times disrespectful to strangers, and he takes sinful pride passing tests with an A while bragging about never doing any homework.
Just a few short years after this picture was taken his judgment about life outside of church was a constant source of frustration and confusion to family, friends and educators. People started to consider he might be in serious jeopardy of being an emotional train wreck waiting to happen.
Can you guess who he is? Me.
Just like other teenagers, I was trapped in a brain that was preprogrammed to drive at full speed while believing applying brakes to life was completely useless and counterproductive. I was, just like most other teenagers, a physical and emotional dichotomy. The normal teenager is at the height of their ability to react physically. At the same time, they are at the lowest point of their brain development in how to judge, understand and distinguish how life actions will cause a distinct reaction or consequence. Here’s why.
In the human brain, there is something called the corpus callosum, and it’s similar to a safe, well-lighted hallway between two very important offices in a very busy, very big company. One office on the right side of the hallway handles the receiving of information, and the left side of the hallway takes care of cognitive issues, or what to do with the information gathered. Basically, when a child is between 9 to 12 years old, the brain starts to prune back unused and underused electrical connectors within the brain. Over the next decade, it begins to “rewire” how the information is actually processed.
There are two important things to remember concerning the normal process of brain development between the ages of 11 to 22 for girls and 11 to 26 for boys. First, most teenagers at the age of 16 are at the height of their speed and accuracy of cognitive learning and physical reaction time. Yea! Second, most teenagers at the age of 16 are at their absolute lowest point in ability to manipulate ambiguity, moderate emotional responses and make decisions. Boo!
The maturation disparity between the two sides of the brain hallway causes many parents and loved ones to say, “How could you be so smart and do something so incredibly stupid?”
When your teenager starts to think they are smarter than you, well, technically, they are probably correct. They learn faster, memorize more and analyze basic factual information at higher speeds than the average adult. Yet, they will consistently drive you nuts at the decisions they make.
When they were younger,you could easily recognize the challenges they were having as they tried to learn how to put their clothes on by themselves. You understood and told them to “keep trying, and you’ll get it right.” When they were first learning how to ride a bike or were being introduced to algebra, you instinctively had patience and you told them, “Don’t give up.” You understood they needed to be encouraged and challenged at the same time. You found it understandable how it was necessary to forgive a spilled glass of milk or comfort a skinned knee when they were running down hill with the enthusiasm of a cartoon character.
Beloved, I will grant you that it was a lot easier when they were younger to know when they needed your help. However, make no mistake, your teenager needs your patient and purposeful help now more than ever. When they were small children, they knew they needed and wanted your help. Now, they are aware of their burgeoning intelligence and, for the most part, are unaware of the innate lack of judgment by which they are hindered.
Your teenager will fight, argue and dismiss your wisdom far too often, but don’t give up. They need your experience and your prayers. They need to know –– whether they will admit it or not –– not just what you think but why it’s important and how you came to the conclusion.
Our young people are worth the effort. They are worth fighting for because their lives are precious, and we are privileged to guide them –– even when they roll their eyes and huff at you. Keep smiling. It gets better.