Archive for the ‘Equipping’ Category

Becoming a Neurosurgeon who Powerfully Shapes a Teen’s Brain

New information about the developing brain has helped parents and teens alike to understand that the teen brain is still, indeed, under construction.   High tech images of the brain and pioneering research led by Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health reveal that the frontal lobe, the most sophisticated region of the brain, continues to grow, develop and prune until a person reaches their mid 20’s.  This discovery and many others like it explain why teenagers can often behave, well… like such adolescents- irrational, impulsive and immature!Since the release of this groundbreaking research many parents, educators and youth worker have expressed their “aha” and nodded in agreement with these findings as they regularly observe evidence that clearly points to an incomplete frontal lobe. Unfortunately, instead of motivating adults and educators to view this as a limited opportunity to powerfully shape the incomplete brain, many have used these findings as an excuse to passively tolerate, and even immature beliefs and behaviors.  Our response to this incredible information should prompt all who work with teens to swiftly move from the waiting room to the surgical chamber.  The regular storms  of adolescence give parents and youth workers many opportunities chance to be like a neurosurgeon to the teen brain.  Never again will this region be so open to receiving and adapting to new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.  I am reminded of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy who found himself in a powerful position to lead and impact others for a season.  Paul reminds him to…

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 2 Timothy 4:2-3

Adolescence is a powerful season in life when the brain’s immaturity allows it to be extremely pliable or impressionable as hard wiring (neural pathway development) is still being formed.  As parents and adults in a teen’s life we would be wise to view this period in development as a time for us to pull up our boot straps and seize every last chance we are given to mold a teenager’s minds toward assimilating biblical principles and healthy ways of living.  All too soon they will leave the home and enter a world where they will hear people say whatever “their itching ears want to hear.”

So how can you actively shape the frontal lobes of your teenager’s brain?  Well, I bet that many of you are engaging in behaviors and activities that are extremely impactful to the brain.   In an attempt to affirm and equip every one of us to be more intentional, I’ve listed TEN practical behaviors that positively promote the healthy growth and development of the most sophisticated region of a teenager’s brain.

1.      Be consistent in your discipline and consequences.    Parents who are predictable and firm reinforce a teen’s ability to predict consequences, suppress and control negative behaviors, and delay gratification.  God’s rules are clear to us.  Make your rules clear to your teen.

2.     Refuse to rescue or solve problems for your teens. Parents who empower their kids by requiring them to solve their problems are fostering vital neural pathways.  They will need these pathways to be there in order to solve future problems on their own.   When parents rescue their teenagers they deprive their teen’s brain from developing these vital skills/pathways.

3.     Encourage and provide places and spaces for ongoing dialogue.  The brain was designed for relationship and actually grows and develops best in face to face contact and communication.  Be the one your teen turns to by listening well, expressing compassion when necessary and speaking the truth in love.  Our spirits can assimilate biblical truths and principles when the brain feels safe instead of threatened. 

4.     Allow your teen to argue with you (with clearly stated boundaries). I know this sounds crazy.  A brain with a strong frontal lobe is a brain that knows how to think for itself and defend what it believes. This skill is fostered when it is permitted and honed.  Allowing your teen to state their opinions helps them test their ideas and draw their own conclusions as they hear and are challenged by flaws in their arguments.  Even when you don’t agree, arguing always model healthy conflict skills and the expression of unconditional love. 

5.     Be the person you want them to be.  This means managing your mood, your words and behaviors in a way that you want them to manage theirs. Let them see what loving well and clinging to biblical truths really looks like. Mirror neurons in the brain mimic observed behaviors and create templates that become accessible when needed.  In other words, what a teen sees you doing in any given situation will lay down a powerful neural pathway that will prompt them to respond in a similar manner.

6.     Encourage movement and aerobic exercise.  Exercise releases brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).  BDNF fosters connections and learning in the brain.  Move and play together.

7.     Avoid yelling or using abusive tones, words or expressions with your teens. The frontal lobe activity of the brain shuts down and the limbic (primitive) regions of the brain flare up when teens feel there are under attack or threatened.  Our tone of voice, mannerisms, and facial expressions impact the region of the brain we are stimulating.  Learning occurs in the frontal lobe.  Safety is required to keep this part of the brain engaged.

8.    Teach your kids how to set goals and offer rewards for especially difficult tasks. Research confirms that the teen brain will do difficult or uncomfortable tasks (crate new neural pathways) when it is reinforced.  Rewarding is goal directed and purposeful.

9.     Engage in playful behavior with your teenager.  Novelty, fun and excitement are also healthy for all brain development.   Adults who connect with teens in fun and even humorous ways are more likely to positively impact neural pathway development when things are not so fun and lessons are difficult to receive.  

10.   Limit screen time (TV, computers, ipads, video games, and other electronics). Research continues to reveal that screens do not promote any activity in the frontal lobe regions of the brain.  We must limit screen time if we want to seize the opportunity we have to impact pathway development in this region of the brain. Remember, a healthy brain requires human contact and interaction.  There is no substitute.

When adults play an active role in shaping a teen’s brain we play a powerful role in shaping the Christian leaders that God is calling our kids to become.  Ask God to give you a vision for who the teen in your life can become with a more mature brain and then look for opportunities to play the role of a “parental neurosurgeon”, powerfully shaping the life and spiritual health of your teen’s brain.


Tuning in with Teens Who Cross the Line

This past week I asked Facebook friends to give me some ideas for this week’s blog.  I received many requests through comments or private messages asking me to address a whole myriad of issues we face as parents of teenagers.  Reading each suggestion reminds me why this season in life can be so challenging-there are so many tricky issues we must address with our teens!  As one person commented, I now have plenty of material to blog about over the next few weeks!

Today I will lay a foundation that is helpful to consider when teens ignore, violate or ridicule limits or boundaries.  I picked this issue for many reasons.  It is one of the most common topics of conversation I have when I am counseling or chatting with parents of teens.   And, if I am completely honest, after some conflicts in my own home this week, I think I needed to remind myself of a few things too!

I have always been a believer in principle-based techniques rather than formula-based parenting.  To me, formulas or regimented ways of parenting disregard the uniqueness of you, your child, or your family.  Moreover, they completely quench God’s ability to lead me in determining the best response to the things that pop up in the life of my teen.  Principle based parenting, on the other hand, helps me focus on the spiritual, psychological, developmental and emotional truth or principle that is at play in a given situation.   This then guides my response to my teenager when they have chosen to disobey or disregard a limit.  The question I ask myself is: “What may be going on within them in each of these areas and what do they need or require from me at this moment in time?”

Taking a teen’s spiritual, psychological, developmental, and emotional needs under consideration all at the same time following a limit violation is extremely difficult.  Tuning into each of these requires time as well as a powerful mix of skill, discernment and self-control.  The picture that comes to mind is that of a one-man band effortlessly playing and singing his tune with a happy heart blessing all who are listening.   Give me a chance at putting on the one-woman band gear, especially when people are crossing lines, and I am certain you would hear a cacophony instead of a harmony.   I simply don’t have the patience, rhythm, coordination or expertise it requires to create a joyful noise!

I often feel this way as I am trying to decide how to respond to one of my teenagers who has crossed a line.  Should I address each aspect of this issue by playing all of my “instruments” loudly and at the same time?  Or maybe I should just blare the horn in their face and walk away?  Or perhaps I should make very little noise and instead allow a steady beat of consequences to affect them?  At other times I wonder if I should just sing a pitiful melody and finish it off with a loud toot on the horn.  Surely this will remind them of who is in charge!

I am so thankful that unlike the one-man band, we have a Conductor who is willing to guide us in our response to our teenagers.  If we allow Him to set the rhythm and pace, he will let us know which “instrument” to pick up and tune.  The Bible is full of examples where Jesus responds in just the right way to the many needs of the individual with whom He is interacting.   Likewise, God desires to lead us in our relationship with our kids.  He is fully aware of where they need a little “tune-up”.  Some questions that I often consider when asking for help in these areas include the following:

Spiritual: How will my response spur them on, challenge them, convict them?  How can I both reflect the Father’s love for them and still communicate the biblical principle that a person’s wrongdoing or sin has consequences?

Developmental: What is my child developmentally capable of doing or not doing on their own? Am I aware of typical milestones for this age and expecting those with reason?  Am interfering with development by rescuing them? How can my response foster developmental growth instead of delays that will cost them later in life?

Psychological: Knowing that my teen is called to slowly separate from our family and become independent, how does this issue foster or stifle that process?  How can I use this problem or violation to gain an understanding of how they see themselves, others, God? Are my own fears interfering with their ability to learn hard lessons on their own?

Emotional: How is my child doing emotionally?   Do they need me to hear their heart, their fears, their concerns about a situation first?  Do I see any clues in their mood, behavior, attitudes that may require some empathy and understanding before I offer consequences?

Many years ago, one of my children had interacted with a teacher at school in a very disrespectful manner.   Thankfully, the teacher informed me before my child came home that day.  This gave me time to calm down and prayerfully consider each of these areas.  As we talked about the incident, it became very clear that I first needed to address some emotional struggles that were apparent.  After listening with genuine compassion, my child emotionally yet independently came to a place of contrition. Furthermore, this child humbly received the predictable “beat” of a consequence because his emotional need had been addressed before I tackled the other needs of the moment.

Teenagers are in need of so much guidance from us before they leave home.  Knowing that time flies and they will soon be off on their own, we are often tempted to address every single area when a limit is crossed. Resist the temptation to create a one-man band response by responding abruptly and impulsively to every aspect of the problem at once.  Instead, ask for wisdom, look for clues and lovingly address one or two areas well.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.  James 3:17-18




Insanely Sleepy


“My teenager’s mood changes are driving me crazy!”

“I’m sure my kid has bipolar disorder!” “Their moods are all over the place!”

“My son has been so edgy and irritable.  I think he has a mood disorders!

“I am sure our daughter has ADHD.  She just can’t seem to stay focused.”

These and other concerns are heard every day in the counseling offices of those who work with teens.   I hear them all the time as well.  Parents genuinely concerned by their child’s erratic behavior.  Kids frustrated by their parent’s reaction to their temper tantrums yet secretly worried they might really be going crazy.   Often times these irrational outbursts lead both parents and kids to wonder if a serious mental health issue really is emerging right before their eyes.

The truth is there are so many things that shake up teenagers and cause extreme changes in both mood and behavior.  Hormones, brain changes, losses in relationships, academic expectations and family stressors are just a sampling of the issues that can lead to “crazy” behaviors.  A problem in any one of these areas quickly impacts another causing a trickle effect to occur.  Before you know it, their overall stress level is so high that they lose it with you over the littlest thing.

While there are many things to consider when dealing with problems in any one of these areas, I think it is wise to first evaluate one specific area in the life of your teenager.  In fact, in my own home, this problems in this particular area have recently impacted emotional balance, cognitive clarity and our ability to be civil with one another.  Yet even though I know better, I too often overlook or minimize this area in my own life or in the lives of my teenagers.  Wondering what I am talking about?   This powerful antidote I am referring to is sleep.  Yes, sleep.

The decrease in the quantity and quality of sleep that teens AND adults face in the US is of grave concern.  According to the CDC, sleep loss is taking its toll on the physical and emotional health of Americans as over 20% report getting less than 6 hours of sleep most evenings.   Research on sleep deprivation is not new and continues to confirm that interruptions or limitations on sleep cycles can lead to serious mental, emotional and physical problems.  More recent research concludes that sleep deprivation not only makes us moody and more impulsive, it also makes it very difficult to manage and regulate emotions.  (Seminars in Pediatric Neurology, Mar 1996).  These three symptoms alone (moodiness, impulsivity and emotional lability) can be misinterpreted as ADHD, anxiety or even a mood disorder.  God surely knew what he was doing by ordaining a day of rest!

Consider the average teen today.  They are connected to electronics late into the evening, chatting, studying, listening to music or mindlessly surfing the net.   Studies confirm that they optimally need 9 ¼ hours of sleep yet most are getting less than 7.  It is not a surprise that so many adolescents are moody and irritable and emotionally unstable at times!  While it is difficult to make a teenager go to sleep, there are some things that we can do to help in this area:

1)      Set the example.  Make sure you have created enough margins in your own life so that you can get enough sleep.  A grumpy, sleep-deprived parent only aggravates an already irritable teenager.

2)     Give electronics a curfew.  Consider “checking in” all phones, ipods and laptops in a common area by a reasonable time.  Due to their interference with the release of melatonin , electronics need to be off at least an hour before sleeping.  (I know, that seems impossible these days.)

3)     Help your teen learn how to manage their time more effectively.  Don’t assume they know how to plan out their work for the week.  They may need guidance.

4)     Let them sleep in when possible.  Many teenagers benefit from the opportunity to sleep in on the weekend to rejuvenate their body and mind and balance their emotions.

5)     Short naps can actually help teens regain some focus, energy and cognitive clarity.  The time of day is critical as late naps can affect their ability to sleep at night.

The next time your kid loses it, and behaves in a completely irrational or impulsive manner, resist the urge to diagnose or label them.  Instead, take a minute to evaluate the quality and quantity of their sleep.  It just may be that sleep deficits may be significantly interrupting their emotional and mental stability, making them seem a little insane.

Finding Their Way

In my town streets are numbered using a grid system designed to help people easily find their way around town.   Unfortunately, the meandering roads of Western North Carolina don’t lend itself to a system like this at all.  Roads ending in multiple combinations of Avenue, Place, Drive and Street make it almost impossible to find your destination.  As a result people get lost here all the time.

When I moved here 14 years ago I did not own a GPS system.  Instead, I relied on maps and helpful people to tell me how to get where I needed to go.  Although I love my small, Southern town and its residents, the directions I received were often impossible to decipher.  Because the numbered system makes no sense here, people instead use landmarks when giving directions.  “You’re going to pass the old Fresh Market on your right and then bear left where Jones Fish Camp used to be,” is an example of what I often heard.  Jones Fish Camp?!  This place was frequently used as a point of reference.  First of all, who knew that a fish camp was an eating establishment?  Not growing up in the South, I had never understood what went on at a fish camp. Second, when I finally found it, I realized why I never knew what it was.  The sign was missing letters and was barely visible from the road.  I suppose the owners didn’t bother fixing it since everyone seemed to know where they were located.


Being new to town, however, directions like those did not help me at all.   They required me to have a baseline of knowledge before they made sense.  To cope with my frustration and confusion, I would often smile and just endeavor to figure it out on my own.  Over time reference points commonly used as markers became familiar to me.  In fact, I knew that I too was becoming a local when I found myself regularly referring to Jones Fish Camp as I gave directions to others.

Could this be what our directions for living sound like to teenagers trying to navigate their way through issues they are facing?  Well-meaning phrases like, “Just go and talk to them,” or “Why don’t you plan out your week,” or perhaps even, “Calm down” have little meaning to a teenager who is struggling to get from their current location to a new, more helpful destination.  When we see the “What are you talking about?!” face from our teenager, perhaps we should stop and ask ourselves if we are saying something that is completely foreign, difficult to understand or impossible to accomplish by themselves.

Regardless of a teen’s verbal or facial response, surveys continue to show that teenagers do long for help and insight from a caring adult.  They want someone who has gone before them to show them the way.  Many teens I counsel, however, admit that they do not ask their parents for help when problems arise because they are certain they either  1) won’t really listen,  2) will be shocked, enraged or, disappointed when they reveal “their location on the map” so to speak, or 3) will punish them, confine them or corner them instead of offering them guidance and a realistic pathway out of their problem.

If we want to be a GPS (Guiding Parent/Professional Supporter) when our teen needs some help finding their way, then perhaps we can adjust the way that we respond to their requests.   ACTIVELY LISTEN when your teens talk to you and/or ask for your input.  While their timing may not be ideal, tune into their deeper need.  This will help you to IDENTIFY THEIR ‘CURRENT LOCATION’.  Where are they emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually with regard to the situation they are facing?  These starting points will help you GUIDE THEM TO THE NEXT PRACTICAL STEP.  Use language and strategies that are clear, practical, and reasonable.  Some teens don’t need specific steps to move from one point to another while others will require continued instruction and encouragement along the way. LOVE THEM BY REMAINING RATIONAL, ATTENTIVE AND EMOTIONALLY SAFE throughout the conversation. Remember what you really need when you are feeling lost or have had a difficult time finding your way.

Though it may be suppressed or hidden, most teens today are dealing with high levels of stress from relationships, family expectations, new experiences, and academic work loads.   Each day they are making choices about how they will cope with these stressors.  They can always find people who will flippantly lead them down dead end roads.   Pray that your spirit will be ready, your heart will be open and your mind will be creative as you guide them down life giving pathways when they need a little help along the way.

The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent and their lips promote instruction.   Proverbs 16:23 



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