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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


The Marvelous Teen Brain (Part Two)

Yesterday, I posted part one of a two-part series on the adolescent brain. I suggested that brain research over the last decade has enlightened those of us who work with middle school, high school or college students. At least it should. The brain is developing between ages 12-25 in new ways that prepare a person for adult life.

This new research helps us understand a teen’s predisposition toward four pursuits:

  1. Excitement – Doing something for the thrill of doing it.
  2. Novelty – The hunt to find and express their unique identity.
  3. Risk – The pursuit of unfamiliar territory with unknown outcomes.
  4. Connection – The exploration of social interactions with peers.

In light of this, I posed the question: if the adolescent brain desires to explore these four outcomes in order to mature and prepare for life on their own—what have we done in our culture that has stunted their growth? Why is it that, according to the Baltimore Sun, 80% of students return home after college? I’m sorry. I don’t buy the fact that it’s merely the economy. 80% represents a huge population.


I think we, as parents, teachers, coaches and youth workers, have failed to equip them for adult life. Consequently, they’ve found counterfeit ways to appease the desire for excitement, novelty, risk and connection. Allow me to suggest a few:

1. Excitement – Instead of leveraging this pull to explore new opportunities to use their skill sets, many satisfy it with a tattoo, a nose ring, or riding roller coasters.

2. Novelty – Instead of discovering their unique strengths and contribution at work, many satisfy this desire by wearing bizarre clothing or coloring their hair.

3. Risk – Instead of taking meaningful risks that prepare them for adulthood, they satisfy this desire in video games, reality TV or vicariously living via the paparazzi.

4. Connection – Instead of moving out into face-to-face relationships where they can get burned, many satisfy this need on-line, through Facebook and social media.

Please understand. I’m not suggesting any of the above counterfeits are bad. I am on Facebook and I love roller coasters. I’m simply saying there are real and meaningful ways to respond to our brain’s hunt to grow up—and we’ve often been satisfied with artificial ones.

I know this could be controversial. What do think? Are we failing to grow up because of counterfeits?



  1. Greg Baird on September 27, 2011 at 8:29 am

    Tim as my sons move through their teen years I am acutely aware of this whole conversation. Sometimes I look at young people that I think should be out on their own but are floundering and I don’t understand why. But I think you are right on, and it confirms some of my own direction in investing in the boys. Michele & I talk often with them about what it takes to “be a man” and “if you can learn this you will be ahead of 90% of the young people out there”. It seems with all our technology and “social” media we are actually dumbing down our kids in many ways. They try and replace what’s important with what’s impressive because they don’t know what’s important – or at least how to pursue what’s important. 
    Thanks Tim…love your work as always and as the boys continue to mature it is becoming more and more relevant to us! 

    • Tim Elmore on October 3, 2011 at 8:07 am

      Thanks for adding to the conversation, Greg. Sounds like you are on the right track with your boys! I like the distinction you make between what’s important and what’s impressive – this is definitely something that children need adults to help them learn to distinguish the two.

  2. Scott Shaw on September 28, 2011 at 8:27 am

    I had a college graduate tell me recently that if he could do anything in life he would be a professional ultimate Frisbee player… This guys marriage was failing, his wife was in need of a leader, and all he could dream of was being a professional ultimate Frisbee player. When I pushed in to explain I didn’t think these leagues existed and he needed to start thinking in terms of reality he could not go there or even dream of it. He was accepting the counterfeit of I don’t have to work hard to get what I want. Unfortunately, he was handed things all of his life from his parents. This guy has lost his wife, has worked in mundane job after mundane job, and at the age of 28 has no direction still. 

    I wonder if our push to live the dream is stunting growth as well. We tell kids all the time you can be anything you want to be. That message may not be true, in fact that might be the controversial thought. We put our kids in gymnastics, basketball, soccer, ballet, piano lessons, and continually shove these activities down their throats and say you can be anything you want to be…. Then we give them trophy’s for 15 place. What if they aren’t good or that activity doesn’t exist professionally and make a living on it? Guess what, they will never make it even if they dream really hard. I see too many college graduates wanting to live the dream and be what they want when they just are not good at it. Just my two cents.

    • Tim Elmore on October 3, 2011 at 8:12 am

      Wow! Your example is sad but unfortunately more common than ever. You make a great point – we used to use activities to build skills that would translate to the real world. Unfortunately, many kids are stuck thinking the activities are the end goal. Certainly there are students who posses the talent to make a career in sports or music but it’s essential for adults to help students understand if an activity will become a profession.

      • Eric on January 4, 2012 at 9:34 am

        Your comment reminds me of the NCAA commercials stating that most collegiate athletes will go pro in something other than sports.  Perhaps there need to be Little League commercials focusing on the same message!

  3. lisa on September 28, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    I think you are right on.  Our schools, churches and communities offer so many ways for your pre-work-age-teens and young adults to participate/grow/explore in exciting ways that are innovative and “risky” (to their current world).  How do we help these organizations promote the mission work, clubs, extracirriculars, service opportunities to the teens in a way that they will be receptive to…not “mom and dad think you should do this to build your resume” or “it’s what the ‘good’ ones do?”

    • Tim Elmore on October 3, 2011 at 8:18 am

      Great questions! I believe that students participate in what they help create. Great organizations have figured this out by involving students in the decision-making process. When they are given ownership, it changes the motivation from satisfying parents and building the resume to knowing they are contributing.

      I’d love to hear how others have addressed this dilema.

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The Marvelous Teen Brain (Part Two)