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Book Dr. Kathy

Friendship And The Adolescent Brain by Jerusha & Jeramy Clark

Today Jerusha Clark and her husband, Jeramy are guest blogging for me for a second time. I met Jerusha when we spoke together at a convention and I instantly loved her and definitely have come to respect her as I got to know her work. I wrote a bit about the adolescent brain in my book, Screens and Teens. Their book, Your Teenager is Not Crazy, is brilliant.  They clearly write about very important applications of significant brain research in ways you can understand. Today’s post is about friendship, which is always a relevant topic. Maybe it’s on your mind more, though, as Valentine’s Day will be soon upon us. Read this and then share it with your friends. You’ll want to!

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Do you remember who your best friends in middle school or high school were? Of course you do! Faces either swam into your memory or your stomach tightened as you recalled being alone day after day. Adolescent friendship—or the lack of it—powerfully impacts all of us.

If you’re the parent of a tween or teen, chances are it’s impacting you all over again, this time from the other side. You’re navigating hurt feelings and adolescent drama with your child, and it’s not that much easier (it may, in fact, feel harder) than lo so many years ago when your most pressing concern was the North Star zit that exploded on your forehead right before Homecoming.

Your tween or teen is experiencing radical changes in his or her brain. Neuroscientists liken this to the brain being remodeled. Have you ever remodeled a room in your house? If you have, you know that it always takes more time, costs more money, and requires more of you than you planned to give. Raising a teen is kind of like that! Why? Because adolescent brains are being progressively renovated as a tween or teen moves away from childhood and toward young adulthood.

We described some of the general changes happening in the teen brain in this post for Dr. Kathy and the Celebrate Kids community. For today, we’re going to look at how the amazing adolescent brain deals with friendship. If you’ve wondered why it seems so hard for your teen to make or keep friends, if you’re concerned about the people your tween is hanging out with, if you’re hoping that maybe things will change this school year, we’d like to equip you with some knowledge and some hope.

Knowledge first.

As your adolescent’s brain is remodeled, the neural structures that make up what scientists refer to as “the social brain” are pruned and transformed. During this season, there is a natural and healthy push away from the home and toward peers.

It used to really hurt my feelings when my teenage daughters would ask, “Can I bring a friend?” or “Do we have to have a family night?” Now I understand there’s way more at play in their brains than I initially assumed. Whereas I once assumed these changes meant I had been weighed and found wanting by my adolescent children, I now understand that when adolescents push away from parents and toward friends, it can actually be a really good sign.

God designed for your tween or teen to move toward peers while they are still in your home so that they can learn important social skills like conversation, interdependence, and empathy. Imagine if your son or daughter only stayed in your home and never interacted with peers. That’s a frightening prospect for their adult life!

Adolescents need to practice these new skills and then come home to a safe and stable environment where their brains can “rest” from the (often dramatic) ebbs and flows of teenage friendship. And similar to flabby muscles that need to be worked out for optimum performance, your tween or teen’s social “muscles” need to exercise in the world of their peers.

In other words, don’t take this personally, parents! This is both a physical reality (the social brain is “propelling” adolescents toward one another) and a heart desire (the need for acceptance is common to us all). You can be an ally for your tween or teen by facilitating healthy friendships.

Of course, I’m not saying we should release tweens and teens to limitless peer interaction. Yikes! Scary thought.

Instead, we can remember and put into practice the following truths about friendship during the teen years:

  1. Teen brains learn best by example. If you want your son or daughter to develop healthy relationships, show them how to do it. Love your own friends well. Treat strangers with compassion. Listen patiently and attentively when someone wants to share a story or opinion (even if you don’t agree). You may not think your adolescent is watching, but studies show otherwise. Your tween or teen’s brain is busy—constantly busy—interpreting what’s going on in and around him or her. If you’re “too busy” to be with friends but are perennially on your phone or computer, don’t be surprised if your son or daughter enacts the same pattern. Your example certainly isn’t the whole story, but it does play a significant role. Don’t let your input be an empty set or worse, a negative one.
  1. Surround your teens and their friends with “surrogate prefrontal cortexes.” The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is sometimes called the brain’s CEO. It’s the portion of the brain that coordinates executive-level functions like forethought, judgment, planning, and impulse control. Kinda reads like a laundry list of what teens struggle with, doesn’t it? That’s because the PFC is the “final frontier” of brain remodeling. Because your adolescent’s PFC won’t fully develop until approximately twenty-five years of age and his or her friends’ brains won’t develop until the same time, they benefit from having more mature brains around them. This can’t always be you, so it’s essential to engage “surrogate prefrontal cortexes” in your tween or teen’s life. Coaches, church group leaders, mentors, and teachers are great options. Invest in knowing these people. Facilitate times for them to be with your teen(s). We recently paid for one of our teenage daughters to get coffee with a family friend who offered to talk with her about some concerns she was having. Via text, a youth group volunteer also helped one of our adolescent girls process some friendship drama. Knowing that your adolescent and his/her friends have more mature brains around can give you greater confidence and peace.
  1. Influence whenever possible. Making blanket statements about your tween or teen’s friends usually gets you nowhere and them angry. Don’t make rash judgments about your adolescent’s friends. Instead, ask questions to determine what your son or daughter likes about the people he or she is with. If you can’t get an answer, observe carefully. Yes, this takes time. Yes, it requires some work. Yes, it’s worth every bit of effort. You lose the opportunity to influence when you dismiss your tween or teen’s friends out of hand. You also miss the chance to influence when you just want teens “out of your hair.” If you see your adolescent’s friendship needs as one prolonged hassle, you’re headed in the wrong direction. You have a tremendous potential to influence your teen’s life of friendship. Don’t miss the opportunities!
  1. People first, devices second. This fantastic phrase came from my friend, Arlene. It’s a great way to remind your teen that people always come before electronics. If your son or daughter is having a friend over, consider setting limits on their tech time. It’s amazing what happens when teens don’t have the option to default to screens. They actually talk; they may even Imagine that?! This is also helpful when you’re visiting family, especially older relatives who may not be as initially “exciting” to talk to; if you already have the “people first, devices second” principle in place, you won’t be in a constant battle with your teen. He or she will know that when people are around, relationship is the #1 priority.

Finally,

  1. Don’t be afraid of getting some professional help! Today’s world can feel like a scary place to teenagers. Faced with near-constant media bombardment about issues many adolescents don’t understand (world terror, elections, economic pressures, immigration, sexual and gender tensions, just to name a few), modern teens are finding it more difficult to interact in safe ways with one another. Some adolescents would rather just stay home with their video games and phones; this feels safer. Others are battling mental health issues and isolating themselves is an outgrowth of this struggle. The habits your tween or teen learns by withdrawing from relationships can ultimately be detrimental. If you find that your teen is struggling with friendship, don’t assume “this will pass” or “it’s just a phase.” Go see your pastor and/or consider talking to a counselor to get equipped. Perhaps taking your son or daughter to a counselor is in order. All too often, parents don’t reach out for help because they just want the issues to go away. If you find yourself in this situation, we understand how hard it is! We’ve been there. When you get help, however, you help for more than just right now; you’re setting your adolescent up for relationship success long-term.

There are several chapters in our book, Your Teenager is Not Crazy, that deal with peer dynamics and influence (including peer pressure), why and how teen friendships form and last, and how you can be part of the grand adventure. We just can’t fit it all into a little blog!

For lots more on the teenage brain, how understanding it can make you a better parents, and ways faith impacts it all, check out the resources available at www.jandjclark.com.

Your Teenager is Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent is available online and at local retailers from Baker Books.

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7-20-16 JeramyClarkDr. Jeramy Clark received his Masters of Divinity and Doctorate of Ministry from Talbot Theological Seminary.  He served as a youth pastor for 17 years before becoming the Pastor of Discipleship at Emmanuel Faith Community Church.  His role includes overseeing Men’s and Women’s Ministries, Care and Counseling, and Small Groups.  Jeramy roasts, brews, and savors coffee of all varieties, plays pickup basketball, is a drummer, and enjoys surfing.

7-20-16 JerushaClarkJerusha Clark co-authored four books with Jeramy, including three bestsellers, prior to launching her own writing and speaking ministry, focused on helping others glorify and enjoy God, one thought at a time.  On quiet days, you can find Jerusha body-boarding, reading, or singing around a bonfire at the beach, her absolute favorite place.  Jeramy and Jerusha have two amazing teenage daughters and love ministering together at churches, retreats, schools, and conferences.

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