How Teens Think – What I learned from Marko.

Let me begin by saying that all of this information was taking from Marko at the National Youth Workers Convention in Dallas. I knew what he was going to say was going to be epic so I took fantastic notes to share with you.

Adolescence is a cultural phenomenon. – This is a primary understanding shift. It’s a new cultural phenomenon. It’s less than 100 year old.

1904 – Invention of Adolescence – Stanley Hall identified this as the holding pattern between the innocence of childhood and the expectation of adulthood. It’s a period of rebelliousness. He said it began at 14.5 years old because this is the onset of puberty in girls. It ends when you begin to take responsibility for yourself – about 16 years old, on average.

Clearly there have been a few changes since then…

By the 1970s we settled into an adolescence grew because puberty dropped to 11-12 years and stretched through they graduated from high school.

What we know, boys are on average 18 months – 2 years behind girls. Brand new research shows that boys are starting puberty earlier also, sometimes 10-11. Girls begin on average 10.5 years old. 2 years in either direction is still considered normal.

Why is it dropping? – 1) Additives and preservatives in our food. 2) Globalization and a more diversified food chain. Probably a combination of the two, but it seems to be diet related.

There’s also an extension of adolescence on the other end! In the 1970s there was the expectation that when you graduated from high school you took care of yourself. In our American society, this is no longer the case. On average adolescence stretches until 30. The bell curve has flattened out and stretched to include many more years. We are seeing 21-22 year olds living as adults and 30-35 year olds definitely not.

New life stage – late adolescence renamed emerging adult.

It’s completely missing the point when we point the finger at young 20-somethings. We collectively created this. We removed cross-generationalism, responsibility, etc.  We have removed the on-ramps to adulthood. This is a primarily American cultural thing. Today’s teenagers are almost completely isolated from adults. Almost all teenagers. The adults in their world are paid to be in their world. The primary problem is that they are completely separate from adults.

The Context – The Physical Change

  • The majority have a change point (puberty) in their younger teen years. The two years following puberty is the 2nd most significant 2 years in their life because of intense change. (birth-2 is the 1st)
  • So much is changing between 11-16 – in every area of their life.
  • Physically it’s much more than sexual. It’s not all about hormones. (Well, it is, but it’s not all about sex hormones.) It brings on the change, but it’s not all about sex!
  • It’s horrible for the majority of them. You cannot find a teenager anywhere (at least an American teen) that does not think their body is abnormal. We need to normalize their experience!
  • Think of ways you can slip in normalization language into normal teaching. When you’re talking, teaching, etc. think of ways you can slip in, “I know many of you are experiencing changes in your body and I want you to know it’s totally normal, even when it feels like it’s not.” And then move on.

God’s puberty gift – The cognitive change

  • Social marks of passage – bar/bat mitzvah
  • In our society, being a teen IS the right of passage. Used to be, this was celebrated. They celebrated girl’s first period. It meant the future of the tribe would survive.
  • Threw his daughter a period party – massage, adult-ish haircut, gifts, and identified women she respected and asked them to write her a blessing or letter identifying how to be an awesome woman.
  • God’s gift to this party is the ability to think differently. How the brain understands the world. At puberty comes this major shift from only thinking in concrete ways to thinking in more abstract ways.
  • Everything we talk about in terms of faith are all abstract! A pre-cognitive thinker can have a sense of understanding of these.
  • When we’re working with pre-cognitive thinkers, we need to concretize all abstract things.
  • They have the capacity to think abstractly, but they don’t really know how to use it yet. It comes in flashes, but mostly they live in concreteland. They can’t control it – it’s completely foreign territory.
  • This is why it’s so critical that we ask questions all the time! What are you hearing me say? What are you processing?
  • This gives students the ability to speculate! What would it look like for me to… That’s speculation work. You need to constantly bring them to the shores of speculation. Open-ended questions that you allow then to move into.
  • Third-person thinking – stepping outside yourself and having a perception of yourself or others based on the outside. This makes a huge difference in how students belong. We need to offer meaningful belonging!!


Emotional implications

  • They are on an emotional rollercoaster. Emotional volatility! This is because emotions are abstract. Children are painting their world in primary colors and black and white. At puberty, God replaces it with hundreds or thousands of colors. They are unfamiliar with these colors and don’t know how to paint their emotions. They are extreme (girls) or they over blend and everything is beige. (boys)
  • Teenage girls use 20,000 words on average each day and teenage boys use 5,000 words per day.
  • They don’t know what emotions are – they are brand new! The issue is not controlling their emotions, but understanding them! You can’t control them until you understand.
  • John 10:10 – life to the fullest! In order to do that, God created emotions!

Relational Implications

  • 6 year olds aren’t that differentiated from each other so they can get along fairly well. 16 year olds cannot because they are very differentiated. They try to figure each other out. As kids grow up they develop friendships based on personality, not proximity. It’s more about reputation and social status. That change is very conflicting.
  • Guys form friendships by doing things – skateboarding, music, chess, etc.
  • Our ministries need to be active in helping teenaged boys create meaningful friendships. There are more “loners” now than ever before.
  • Girls create friendships in 2-3, but cannot handle groups of 4. The reason they cannot support more than 2-3 is because they are formed by intimacy, vulnerability, etc. You cannot have that with more than a few people. Friendships with girls are formed because of a vulnerable or intimate moment. SUPER intense but not necessarily long-term.
  • The cognitive change going on in their brains is having a change impact on their relationships. As adults, things are more of a slow ebb and flow. For teenagers, it’s sudden and very dramatic.

Spiritual implications

  • This is an incredibly fertile time in their life for spiritual truths to take place!
  • It’s like they got a system upgrade but their beliefs are still from their own operating system.
  • As children they know what they know – it’s concrete and they are fairly resolved with their beliefs. They have a resolve for even the most complex issues. Then puberty wipes it all out.

New Findings

  • The human brain isn’t done developing until the mid-20s.

Two primary areas that are underdeveloped in teenagers:

Pre-frontal cortex (frontal lobe)

  • Decision-making
  • Wisdom
  • Prioritization
  • Impulse control
  • Planning
  • Empathy
  • Organization
  • Focus

Be careful not to use these as an excuse but definitely be mindful that teenagers simply are not capable of these things because of their brain development.

Temporal lobes

  • Emotional interpretation and understanding (among other things)
  • Particularly under-develop in boys. Is this a developmental nature issue or a nurture issue (environmental/cultural)?
  • These kids have a limitation. They don’t know how to read emotion or body language, etc.
  • Neuron proliferation and winnowing
  • Millions grow and millions get cut back – not the same ones!
  • Use it or lose it principle! Those neurons that are used in the 4 years after the onset of puberty get to stay and those that aren’t, are done. The brain is then hard-wired for the rest of your life.

This means we have a HUGE opportunity in the hardwiring of their brains for lifelong faith development!

How do I want to hardwire their brains? Do I want them to memorize content? Is that the best use?

I want to hardwire their brains for speculation, thinking deeply, and asking tough questions. The time is now. If we don’t allow them to think deeply now, they will lose the capacity. If we don’t teach them how to be mature, think critically, and take responsibility for their actions, they might never.