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Adolescent Brain Development and Faith Formation

Posted by jennicadavishockett // February 24th 2016 // Future of Faith, Guides and Tools // one comment

Mind = Blown

Editorial Comment: Impacting the mental health and development of our teenagers is an incredibly complex topic and this article by no means covers all bases. This article does not address mental health disorders and focuses on the development of a neurotypical adolescent. The author is eager to partner with others in learning more about this complex topic. –ed.

All you adults in youth ministry out there: ever wonder if your guidance is actually “sinking in” to your teens’ brains? Well, it literally is. New studies in adolescent brain development reveal the incredible plasticity of the teenage brain and persuasively point out that adolescence is a critical “use it or lose it” time in brain development.

Until recently it was commonly thought that the teenage brain was identical to an adult brain, just with fewer miles on it. Turns out, there is a completely different chemical and structural makeup to the teenage brain.

Hold on, we’re going to get science-y here for a second. The brain is made up of grey matter and white matter. Grey matter is made up of brain cells called neurons – this is like the information system in the brain. Your grey matter is pretty much fully developed by the age of 6 (that’s why they say early childhood development is so very important). White matter is the stuff that forms connections in the grey matter – it helps the brain make connections with all the information swimming around in the grey matter.

Here’s where it gets interesting. In an adolescent’s brain, only about 80% of the white matter is formed – the teen years are a period of rapid growth for white matter, or making connections. Not only that, the brain is this finite block of meat right? So while the rest of the white matter is forming, the brain is going through a “pruning” process, getting rid of the grey matter that it isn’t using or doesn’t think is important.

Add all that “pruning” and connection building to puberty, which has triggered the pituitary glands to release hormones that are acting on the limbic system (the brain’s emotional center) and you’ve got the perfect conditions for doing some seriously deep faith formation.

So what parts of the brain are going through this massive update in the teen years and how can those of us in faith formation and leadership development have a hand in this massive update?

Understanding emotional nuance and comprehending perspectives of others

For many of us, the ability to read other peoples emotions and facial expressions comes naturally; we barely have to think twice about it. But the part of the brain associated with social interaction, the pre-frontal cortex, is going through major transition in adolescence.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore explains it better than I can:

Have you ever caught yourself saying to a teenager, “Didn’t you think about how this was going to affect people around you?” Well, no, in that moment they probably didn’t, because that part of the brain is undergoing major reconstruction. Here’s how we in faith formation and leadership development can support youth in understanding emotional nuance other people’s perspectives:


While the ability to take into account and apply a rule is pretty much fully developed by adolescence, the ability to take in to account another person’s perspective when making decisions is still in development. I believe this is one reason youth are very determined to create and uphold a covenant in community spaces. Co-creating an agreement of how they promise to treat each other that they can refer back to in challenging situations takes away some of the stress associated with trying to figure out what someone else is thinking/feeling and is an excellent reminder to practice looking outside oneself in service of others.

Chaplain/Pastoral Care Training

The most requested training and sought after staff positions are for peer chaplain. Youth who attend Chaplain Training often say they do so because they’re eager to learn skills for being there for a friend in need and want to strengthen their empathy muscles. Chaplain training teaches youth practical skills like active listening, asking probing questions and paying attention to body language to figure out what another is thinking/feeling.

Small Group Ministry

What better way to practice understanding the perspectives of others than listening to other people’s perspectives? In the Small Group Ministry format teens gather to share their personal wisdom and feelings on topics like loneliness, understanding cultural difference, personal conviction, letting go of childhood and ‘finding your people.’ Spending an hour a week or a month actively practicing taking in other’s perspectives can create stronger synapse in the grey matter related to social interaction.

What could you try immediately in the classroom?

Try these activities that help wire the brain to distinguish emotional nuance on Sunday.

What could you try immediately in virtual UU spaces?

Introduce youth to the Flutter app that helps them express grief and loss through music and start a conversation about their experiences.

Decision making and navigating risks

It’s a pretty common cliché that teens are notorious for taking risks many adults would calculate as just plain stupid. But suspend the judgment of stupid for just a moment. Risk evaluation is all about whether or not the potential consequence outweighs the potential reward. Due to the way the teenage brain processes dopamine and serotonin differently than the adult brain, a teenager is more likely to evaluate risk based on reward, whereas an adult is more likely to evaluate risk based on consequence. While prioritizing reward over consequence is not inherently stupid, unfortunately sometimes it can be dangerous or even deadly. Here’s how we in faith formation and leadership development can support youth in practicing healthy risk evaluation.


Our Whole Lives is a comprehensive, lifespan sexuality education curriculum that helps participants make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health and behavior. OWL helps students analyze risk in a safe environment in the company of peers and mentors that is all to often not available to young people in school.

Shared Leadership

Ever heard the term “acceptable failure?” Secondary only to safety, setting youth up for success as they take on leadership roles is a priority for all advisors and religious educators. Part of success is learning from mistakes or failures. We use the term “acceptable failure” to denote those critical learning moments when a youth took a risk and failed, but the failure was only life altering in a positive way because they were able to learn from it. In shared leadership, where adults support youth in taking on leadership that fits their capacity, development and skill level, adults can set up safe environments for youth to experiment with risk and reward to develop a growth mindset and reduce fear of failure.

What could you try immediately in the classroom?

The next time you meet with youth, lift up when you notice youth choosing difficult tasks, asking for feedback and demonstrating courage and curiosity to develop a growth mindset. Ask a check in question that helps youth calculate and analyze risk in a low stress environment.

What could you try immediately in virtual Unitarian Universalist (UU) spaces?

Introduce youth to this ReThink app that sends a polite little “are you sure you want to send that?” message to you when it finds key words in your text message often found in cyber-bullying. 

Metacognition and Self Awareness

Here’s Donald Rumsfeld ever so eloquently describing exactly what metacognition is.

Metacognition is about having awareness of what you know and what you don’t know and using what you’ve previously learned in strategic thinking and problem solving. It’s thinking about thinking and engaging in curiosity and doubt.

One thing that UU congregations often do well is create a safe space for holy curiosity. We guide middle school aged youth in creating their credos, or statements about what they believe (not adhering to a church doctrine) and high school aged youth in continuing to think critically about the purpose of life, who they are and want to become, what happens after we die, how we connect to others, and the role of the sacred in their lives. Without this, we run the risk of creating what’s known as a ‘doubt deficit’ in the pre-frontal cortex, “a hindered ability to question, scrutinize, or be skeptical of new information,” which can lead to extremism, radicalism or militancy. Here’s how we in faith formation and leadership development can support youth in developing self awareness.

Identity Development

Now is the perfect time to engage in workshops on identity formation around racial and ethnic identities, gender identities and sexual orientation. Send Youth of Color to Thrive Leadership School, engage white youth in exploring their identities with the Examining Whiteness anti-racism curriculum, and have youth co-facilitate the Be the Change! curriculum. In truth, developing self-awareness never stops (hopefully) so this is a particularly excellent area for adults to companion youth on this part of their spiritual journey. They will learn more about themselves too!

A Place of Wholeness

A Place of Wholeness is a Tapestry of Faith curriculum that gives youth the opportunity to examine their faith journeys to better understand themselves in the context of Unitarian Universalism. This curriculum helps youth match up their “outsides” with their “insides” to live authentically and articulate their faith. It also helps youth identify their place in the ancestral constellation of Unitarians and Universalists. A Place of Wholeness creates an opportunity for youth to think critically about their faith and strengthens their sense of curiosity.

Transitioning to Young Adulthood

Supporting young people in their identity development and self-awareness is critical as they transition into young adulthood. This transition is so much bigger than completing the final revolution around the sun so that now you can vote, get a tattoo or join the military. Use the Bridging Handbook to talk with youth about their changing relationship with Unitarian Universalism, creating a new home or family structure and what it means to grow up. Support your newest young adults by sending them care-packages so they can live their UU faith out in the world.

What could you try immediately in the classroom?

Show this video to youth and start a conversation with them about what going on in their brain.

What could you try immediately in virtual UU spaces?

Share the StopBreathThink mindfulness app with youth, which helps youth take the time to check in with their thoughts and emotions and learn how to broaden their perspective.

What ways have you supported the brain development of the adolescents in your congregation?

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One Response to “Adolescent Brain Development and Faith Formation”
  1. Keri says:

    Thank you posting this. The information and links are both interesting and helpful.

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