“We cannot control our teenagers’ faith choices. The only area over which we have control is our own commitment to God.”
Our body, mind, and spirit are intricately and inextricably connected. We cannot separate what’s happening in our brain from what occurs in our emotions and soul. God created us to be integrated beings. The connections between faith, God-honoring psychology, and biology are astounding!
In an earlier chapter, we discussed the role of mirror neurons, how they interact with the environment around us and influence our mental and emotional states. Here’s an example: when you see someone smile, that expression is reflected physiologically in your brain. In a manner of speaking, part of your brain smiles in response to another person’s joy.
According to Dr. Newberg, mirror neurons can play an important role in the communication of faith. If someone speaks about God in loving and confident ways, “those traits are similarly now reflected in the brains of all that are listening.”5 Dr. Newberg also points to hope and enthusiasm as essential components of faith that become mirrored by those around us. If you want your teenager to be excited about faith, model joy in and eagerness for relationship with God, the practices of faith, and fellowship with other Christians.
If all your teen hears are your complaints about church, believers who have disappointed or betrayed you, or that you’re too busy to pray or read the Bible, don’t be surprised if he or she mirrors this back to you. The same goes for expressing negative perspectives about God, which Dr. Newberg found activates the emotional amygdala and causes the stress hormone cortisol to be released in the brain and bloodstream. In excessive amounts, cortisol blocks or breaks down neural connections in the brain. What the people around your teen communicate and believe about God plays a role in making or breaking certain neural pathways.
Mirror neurons, of course, cannot tell us the whole story. They may help us understand the importance of modeling, but most of us know parents with committed and joyful lives of faith whose teenagers have gone off the rails. So many factors converge in a teen’s life, each strengthening or undermining faith. Parental modeling, strong friendships with other believers, and positive understanding of God are essential components, but each individual—including your teen—must respond to God on his or her own.
Ironically, if we could guarantee that our adolescents would live faithful lives by watching our own righteous living, we’d be in a worse predicament. Why? Because all of us fail in front of our children, multiple times every day. We cannot control our teenagers’ faith choices. The only area over which we have control is our own commitment to God.
That’s why it’s absolutely crucial that parents know what they believe and why they believe it. Your teen’s adolescent years provide an amazing opportunity for both of you to grow in faith. If you commit to engaging with the questions and doubts your teen brings up, everyone will benefit. The teenage years can be a win-win faith situation if greeted with a “roll up your sleeves and get into the grit” anticipation rather than “what if” and “if only” anxiety.
As you get ready to dig in, here are some specifics to remember:
1. Break the 88/95 cycle.
According to research conducted with eleven thousand teenagers, only “12 percent of youth have a regular dialogue with their mom on faith or life issues. In other words, just one out of eight kids talks with their mom about faith. It’s far lower for dads. One out of twenty kids, or 5 percent, has regular faith or life conversations with their dad.”
In addition, “approximately 9 percent of teenagers engage in regular reading of the Bible and devotions with their families. So not even one out of ten teenagers looks at Scripture with their parents. When it comes to matters of faith, mum’s usually the word at home.” You can break this cycle. Determine that you will be part of the percentage of parents who regularly talk with their teenagers about life and faith. In order to do this well …
2. Have more frequent, shorter conversations about faith.
Some teenagers may be ready for protracted ponderings on theology, but most are not; their brains simply don’t have the wiring for it. Instead, adolescents are brilliantly positioned—neurologically, emotionally, and spiritually—to engage in ongoing dialogue about faith. Regularly asking questions and making comments about God, the Bible, church, fellowship, and prayer normalizes these things for a teenager and keeps them “on the radar.”
Highly sensitive to what’s right in front of them, teenagers benefit from continual reminding (though not nagging) that God makes a difference in daily life. Of course, if you live as if a relationship with God is a Sunday thing and Monday through Saturday all bets are off, your teen will mirror this.
3. Ask thoughtful questions.
Sticky Faith authors Dr. Kara Powell and Dr. Chap Clark brilliantly advise, “never explain something to your kid if you can ask a question instead.” Jesus himself was a master question asker, consistently drawing others into dialogue, wrestling with issues of life and faith by asking questions.
In his power and by his grace, we can do this with our teenagers, but it means we’ve got to get beyond “What did you learn at church today?” or “How was youth group?” More often than not, you’ll get unsatisfying answers to stock questions like these. Instead, share with your teen something you learned at church and ask his or her thoughts on it. Sometimes you’ll get an “I don’t know” or a disgruntled moan, but other times you’ll start a dialogue that neither you nor your teen will forget. In order to have that opportunity, you’ve got to try and try again.
4. Open the door for questions and doubts.
Your teen has questions and doubts. It’s not a matter of if as much as which ones and how much they impact his or her daily life. Adolescent doubts usually focus on God’s existence, the purpose of life, why there’s so much suffering in the world, and whether they can be forgiven for bad things they’ve done.
Teens also question their personal value, whether they could recognize God’s voice if he did speak to them, whether people who seem really good will go to hell, and if certain sins are actually that bad. Many adults wrestle with these issues; imagine trying to process them with a brain that’s being progressively remodeled.
We should have great respect and compassion for our teens! You’ve had doubts and questions before; try to remember what that was like and be honest with your teen. Talking about your own struggles gives teenagers the freedom to share their questions with you.
You don’t have to have perfect answers to everything. Indeed, according to Drs. Powell and Clark, “The greatest gift you can give your children is to let them see you struggle and wrestle with how to live a lifetime of trust in God.” Show your teens that you choose faith and pursue truth.
5. Help your teenager think biblically.
Be careful that Bible stories and verses memorized don’t remain disconnected factoids. Thinking biblically involves a distinct and integrated worldview based on a growing understanding of the whole truth of Scripture.
The life of faith concerns more than knowing about God; it must include living wisely in light of God’s truth. Your teen can’t stay inside God’s boundaries if he or she doesn’t know what they are. Without a “no matter what” heart commitment to doing God’s will, however, knowing commands won’t lead to life transformation.
6. Encourage a 1 Timothy 4:7 life.
Researchers discovered long ago that repeated physical activities such as juggling and piano playing rewire the brain. More recent studies confirm that cognitive repetition—specifically memorization and meditation—also stimulate myelination, an essential facet of brain remodeling.11
Remember, myelin insulates neural wiring so that your teen’s brain can work in a more efficient and integrated manner. When the Bible commands us to train or discipline ourselves for godliness (see 1 Tim. 4:7), it reveals a truth God wrote into our very cells. As we practice spiritual disciplines, our brains are myelinated—better connected and more effective. Amazing, isn’t it? Prayer, Bible study, and memorization really do matter.
Motivate and reward your teen (remember how reward-sensitive adolescents are!) for practicing the disciplines of faith. Eventually—because, as Isaiah 55 promises, God’s Word never comes back void—being close to God will become its own reward.
Your Teenager Is Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent
By Jeramy Clark and Jerusha Clark (Baker Books, 2016)
Taken from Your Teenager Is Not Crazy by Jeramy Clark and Jerusha Clark. Copyright © 2016 by Jeramy Clark and Jerusha Clark. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. www.bakerpublishinggroup.com
Dr. Jeramy Clark serves as the pastor of discipleship at Emmanuel Faith Community Church near San Diego, California. He and Jerusha Clark have co-authored four books, three of which hit the CBA bestseller’s list. The Clarks teach individually and together at churches, retreats, schools and conferences.