Based on their book Your Teenager is Not Crazy, Jeramy and Jerusha Clark offer an overview of a teen's brain from a neurological perspective, sharing insights on your teen's emotions and the impact of puberty and hormones. The Clarks give practical advice on resolving conflict with your teen, handling disrespect and helping your teen navigate peer pressure. (Part 1 of 2)
John Fuller: Dr. Jeramy Clark shares a situation that's pretty common in his home with one of his teenage daughters.
Dr. Jeramy Clark: I have one daughter that literally will come home and there's a shoe and then another shoe and then there's a sock and then there's a sock and then there's a backpack and then there's a wrapper to the popcorn and then there's a popcorn bag and then there's an empty popcorn ...
John: She won't get lost, will she?
Jeramy: No. (Laughter)
Jim Daly: And then there's a mouse running across your house.
Mrs. Jerusha Clark: Yes, exactly.
Jeramy: And for me, I can get frustrated, like how many times do we have to say, "Pick up after yourself" da, da, da, whatever? Well, we know the adolescent brain needs scaffolding. We need to help them build to their maturity.
End of Teaser
John: Well, you'll be hearing more from our guests about your teen and their brain development and helping them build a good foundation. This is "Focus on the Family." Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.
Jim: John, today we're going to learn what, if anything, is going on inside our teens' brains. Are you ready for this?
John: There's a long silence. (Laughter)
Jim: I can't wait, because as a dad of two teenagers, I've got lots of questions to ask our guests, and it's going to be very informative. I am sure there are parents out there going, "What is goin' on with my teenager? They were so wonderful at age 8, 9, 10, and then something happens." Well, what's happening is a lot of brain chemistry changes, physiological changes, and we're gonna discuss that today, along with the impact it has on your relationship with your teenager.
John: Yeah, we want to equip you so you can better understand where your teen is coming from and become more effective in your parenting strategies. We have resources, by the way, at http://focusonthefamily.com/radio, and those would and those will include Your Teenager Is Not Crazy, which is the book our guests have written. Jeramy Clark served as a youth pastor for 17 years, and he's now the pastor of discipleship at Emmanuel Faith Community Church.
His wife, Jerusha, is a writer and speaker, and together they put this book together and they have two teen girls of their own, right?
Jim: Jeramy and Jerusha, welcome to Focus.
Jerusha: Thank you for having us.
Jim: And Jerusha, you were actually here, you talked about post-partum depression probably seven years ago, so thanks for coming back. That was a powerful program, and we appreciate your openness in the environment to share those things with us. Today we're going to crack open all this brain science--
Jim: --which obviously John and I are very interested in, along with about a million other listeners right now (Laughter). But before we get in there, you do speak to a lot of teenagers and have for many years. What do teenagers tell you in that kind of an event format where maybe you come to a church and you're doing a teen night and they'll line up to talk with you? I mean I know what that feels like, because I've done a bit of that, but what do they tell you that maybe they're not telling their parents?
Jerusha: That's such a great question, and in fact we structured the entire book based on things that teenagers say. So the first chapter is "You Don't Understand." There are chapters like "Why Are You Freaking Out?" "What Do You Expect From Me?" "I Can't Take This." "I Hate My Life." We really--
Jim: Check, check, check.
Jerusha: --took the things that teenagers would say to us and made those the focal points of each chapter. And what was remarkable was that we were able to see, biologically, in each chapter something that was occurring and then find the different dimensions that worked into the relationship aspect between parents and their children, and finally spiritual truth. There was not one time where there was not an application from Scripture. That was so exciting to us because it really was a holistic approach. And instead of having to read multiple books on the subject, we tried to bring everything to the parents so they could know what's going on physiologically, psychologically, and spiritually in one book. That was our goal.
Jim: Yeah, and this is a terrific resource. In fact Jean, when I was going over the prep and reading the book over the last few days, she said, "Bring that one home." I always know I've got a home run when she says, "Hey, make sure I get that book." So, but let's talk about the science. So let's get into that for a minute and then we'll come back to some of your stories. But what's the broad science, the amygdala and the development of the brain and the systems that are going on that really impact a puberty moment, you know, when that pre-pubescent child is now moving into puberty? What's happening?
Jeramy: Well, leading neuroscientists discovered, this was just about 12, tops maybe 15 years ago, that as they could image and look at the brain, that the brain from 11, about 11 in girls and 12 1/2 in boys, the adolescent brain begins to prune from the back to the front.
Jeramy: And this pruning is significant, and as the brain prunes, major things happen, and it can account for the erratic behavior that you experience in your adolescent's life. And so, as the brain, from the back to the front, begins to prune.
Jim: What do you mean by "pruning"? I just need to know. Is that the shedding of brain cells, or what?
Jerusha: Yeah, well, it's actually very interesting, because in late childhood there is a radical and very explosive growth. They call it "arborization," kind of similar to a tree growing new branches. And then at the shifting point, as Jeramy was mentioning, there begins to be specialization. So the pruning is actually the process of the brain moving toward adulthood.
Jeramy: Right, so as a young person begins to go through this process, it can often be very confusing for them, very much confusing for parents for sure. (Laughter) Hey, look, I felt like I was an all-star of young toddlers. When my girls were little, I would race home to see them. I'd open the door and I'd hear these little screams and they would run down.
Jerusha: Yeah. (Laughter)
Jim: I hear ya.
Jeramy: They would run down the hall and hug my legs and I just would play with them until they went to bed. I felt like I was an all-star at that point. And then things changed, and it began to get difficult for me and I began to feel frustrated that I didn't have that kind of relationship with them anymore. And this research has given me great clarity into what's happening with my teen daughters. I don't have to just white-knuckle this time; I can keep growing.
What happens is I felt like, and I continue to feel like I should have some equity. You know we take care of our kids, right? We take care of them; we do everything for them, and when they get to the right age, you would think that all that love and attention would equal some equity that then would show in respect.
Jim: Kind of payback for all the goodness you've given?
Jeramy: I think so, right.
Jim: Not that I've ever thought of this.
Jeramy: And you get to live in this house. (Laughter)
Jim: Come on, A plus B equals awesome.
Jeramy: Yeah, right. "Dad, you're the most amazing. I remember when you use to throw me in the air." You know, all that stuff goes out the window. Things begin to get challenging. And oftentimes the first thing out of my adolescent's mouth steps on my last nerve, and I don't understand. The look, even "Why are you angry?" And I'm like, "I'm not angry. I have a neutral face." "Why are you angry?" "Now I'm angry."
Jim: But it's those underlying things and this is what I love about your book, you're helping parents better understand what's going on in the mind, literally, of your teenager, and that's what I love. Jerusha, you mentioned something with your oldest when she turned 12 that you began to feel apprehensive.
Jerusha: Yeah, I was so nervous.
Jim: Yeah, what was going on?
Jerusha: Yeah, I mean though Jeramy and I had worked with teenagers for many years, I started realizing how fearful I was of the teenage years. People make such a big deal of how difficult it is and, "Oh, you've got teenagers now." And I realized I was dealing with a lot of fear, and I had to take that to the Lord and ask for help and peace. And one of the ways, because He's wired me to investigate and be curious, that's one of the reasons that I jumped into this research. I needed to know, because I didn't want to just try to get through these years. I wanted to actually enjoy them as much as possible.
Jim: I mean again, some people listening don't have a relationship with the Lord. It's one of the great things I appreciate about the radio program, John. Not everybody is there. Describe what that means when you pray to the Lord? What did you actually receive back that began to give you greater confidence, that your fear began to dissipate? What was tangible in that regard?
Jerusha: Yeah, I'm glad you put your finger on that, and just to let you know, in the book we very much try to bridge the gap between those who maybe have had a relationship with God for many years and those who currently are questioning.
Jim: Certainly teenagers will make you question your relationship with the Lord.
Jerusha: Yes, that is absolutely true. But with regard to my own relationship and how that worked was I was beginning to feel that kind of pit in my stomach, uncomfortable, nervous feeling, and when I take my cares and lay them down and say, "I can't do this on my own," I receive God's peace, and that is profound. It's, you know, Exhibit A for evidence of a relationship with God actually changing things. 'cause it does. I genuinely felt as He took those cares from me, as I let them go--and it's hard not to keep going back and grabbing them again--but as I let those go, I did experience [what] He calls the peace that passes understanding, because there really it doesn't make a lot of sense when it comes to teenagers. You would think, yeah, I need to be afraid.
Jim: But you said it very well. It's the shalom of God, the peace of God, and that's what so much of the world desperately needs, especially in parenting, 'cause there is a chaotic world out there. But it is the peace of God that allows you to get through so much of this. So if you're, man, if you're struggling and you don't know what to do and you don't have a relationship with Christ, call us. Talk to us about that today. That's kind of the bedrock. We can help you with your family issues, but if we don't introduce you to who Jesus Christ is, man, we have missed the mark. So do that. Be bold enough to call us today and talk to our counselors, talk to our phone folks about what it means to have a relationship with Christ.
Let me come back now to parenting teens, which should drive you to a relationship with Christ.(Chuckling) I keep joking about that, but it's so true. You break the book down into multiple segments, like you said. One of them is a statement, John, I'm sure you've never heard in your household, you and Dena, from a teenager, "Leave me alone!" (Laughing) I think that may have been just the other night one of my boys said that.
John: It's been that long for you?
Jim: "Would you just leave me alone?"
John: Twice this morning I heard it.
Jim: And then what do I do? I go tickle them, because I just think that's fun. I do the opposite. But what is a teenager expressing when they are expressing, "Leave me alone"?
Jerusha: Well, some of the radical changes that are happening in the brain are both physically and emotionally exhausting for teenagers, so they actually do need space. And this is where the important principle of discernment comes in, because there are times that we need to push in and not allow our kids to push us away. There are other times we need to leave them alone. And so, using discernment is so key.
In fact, the two watchwords for us in the whole book are "compassion" and "discernment." The word used most often to describe Jesus' emotions in the gospels is "compassion," and so, as parents, having the compassion for our teenagers that are going through these radical changes, then also the discernment to be able to see when to speak, when to be silent. I mean it's just like, you know, Ecclesiastes says there's a time for everything, and hopefully not to live and die in this teenage season.
Jim: One of the most difficult things as parents, we fail to remember this, is that there's usually underlying issues. When a baby is small, an infant, the reason they cry is they are uncomfortable. Something's wrong. They're hungry; they have a wet diaper. And of course you can apply that rule all the way up to a 5-year-old, a 10-year-old, and a 15-year-old.
Jim: So I think what you're saying here—and some of this brain transition—is it's a teenager's cry to say, "I'm changing, and I don't know what's going on. I don't know why I yelled at you, Dad."
Jeramy: That is so, it's so true. It's so revealing, this whole research. For my daughter, we'll sit down and try to get to the core of some issues, but oftentimes she really doesn't know how to express herself. She doesn't understand, really what's going on within her own brain and in her own life and her own emotion. And so, for us to give her space at times and so often for me as a dad, I want to fix things and I want to figure it out, and I want to chase it down.
Jim: We don't know what you're talking about.
Jeramy: Yeah, exactly. So I really need to give my daughter some space. We even discovered through this process that neurobiologists discovered that an emotion follows and arc of 90 seconds. So if you don't add fuel to that emotion, an emotion will rise and then fall within 90 seconds. And sometimes, as parents, we just need to back off. You know on the one hand we hold our breath and we white-knuckle through it.
Through this research, I would say, no, we let the breath out; take another deep breath; walk away. Calm down. Let the situation calm down for them, as well, and give them space. Because even in their from, you know, from concrete to abstract reasoning, there's so much going on in their brains. And I have found that even in that idea alone that an adolescent is learning how to paint with all these new colors of conversation and curiosity. They went from black and white. Now they're getting some new colors, but it's often garish. It's not really clear and precise.
Jim: It's not quite the right color for the moment.
Jeramy: Right and they're learning. And so, for us, one of the best things we can do during those moments is not continue to follow them down the hallway and into their bedroom. Sometimes it's okay to let them go and sometimes even for me as a parent, to let them have the last word. Like, oh my, it's not gonna end the world by allowing my 15-year-old daughter to have the last word.
John:Your Teenager Is Not Crazy, that's the title of the book. That's the basis for our conversation today on "Focus on the Family," and we'd encourage you to get the book and a CD or download of our conversation with Jeramy and Jerusha Clark. You can find that at http://focusonthefamily.com/radio, or call us and we'd be happy to tell you more. And we also have counselors. Jim mentioned that a few minutes ago. Call if you need counseling. Our number is 1-800 the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Jim: Hey John, too, the subtitle catches my attention. Understanding Your Teen's Brain Can Make You a Better Parent. I mean that's what's exciting me here. Jeramy, you mention that whole thing about step back, take a deep breath. We don't naturally do that. What triggers do you use as parents, both of you, to do that? You have two teen girls; you're in the middle of it. So now you're experiencing it. It's not theoretical for you any longer, speaking to parents' groups or teens about teenagers. You're in it with your own teens.
Jeramy: We are.
Jim: So how do we become more effective, more Christ-like, in our parenting?
Jeramy: Well, we understand first it comes through just understanding. Do you know that the perspective memories of adolescents [are] developing? Meaning it's hard for them to determine in advance what they should do. They are constantly thinking in the moment, but it's hard for them to assess what I should do right now for something in the future. So we get exhausted by repeating ourselves, but if I know that, if I know that, if I know that my adolescent's brain is developing unevenly and at times I'm gonna have to keep reminding them, it takes some pressure off of me and it gives me a greater compassion for where they're at.
That I have one daughter that literally will come home and there's a shoe and then another shoe and then there's a sock, and then there's a sock, and then there's a backpack, and then there's a wrapper to the popcorn, and then there's a popcorn bag, and then there's an empty popcorn [wrapper].
John: She won't get lost, will she?
Jerusha: No (Laughter)
Jim: And then there's a mouse running across your house.
Jeramy: And for me, I can get frustrated. Like how many times do we have to say, "Pick up after yourself" da, da, da, or whatever? Well, we know the adolescent brain needs scaffolding. Literally we need to help them build to their maturity. And something that we often say to one another, like I have the most incredible partner right here, my wife, and we are in it together. Married 18 years and we say better
But we say, "Hey, you have an adult brain; use it." Parents have the ability to be mature, to be well-seasoned, to hold their emotion. We can be mature and not enter in. So we want to rise above. And so, those are some of the things that we'll look at each other, because as much as I can know the research, we still blow it on a daily basis.
Jim: Do you give each other permission to call each other out privately about that?
Jerusha: Yes, we do.
Jim: Honey, you really attacked that a little inappropriately?
Jeramy: Oh, absolutely.She'll grab my arm and whisper in my ear, "You have an adult brain." And I'm like, do I?
Jim: Well, I was gonna ask you about that. Now brain science shows that a male's brain isn't fully formed until 50-years-old.No, I'm just kidding!
Jeramy: Wow, 24, 25 is optimistic.
Jim: I think it's 24, which should shock a lot of us. That seems late even at that. Twenty-four is the actual research, but it's a little tongue in cheek. But the development of the brain, what's developing that takes 24 years in a male brain, and I'm not sure what the female brain is, 20?
Jerusha: Well, it's 23 typically for young women. And actually that portion of the brain that is the final frontier of maturation is the executive functioning of the brain.
Jerusha: It's the brain's CEO. It's called the prefrontal cortex, and it's located like right behind your forehead, so don't bang your head. (Laughter)
Jim: No Three Stooges stuff.
Jerusha: Yes, exactly, no. the teenage brain, as it is pruned, like we mentioned earlier, it's also being what's called "myelinated." Myelin acts like insulation on a wire. When you're, you know, doing electrical work, you insulate the wire so that the electricity can go down faster. Well, the brain has a similar function with myelin sheaths. It allows the transmission of thoughts to go quicker and more specialized. So that's actually the process that finishes around 23 for girls and between 24 and 25, for some young men even 27. That's kind of the outside, you know, outskirts.
Jim: So we start late and we end late. (Laughter)
Jerusha: Well, but you know it's wonderful to see the differences. In the book we have a chapter devoted individually to both the female brain and the male brain for adolescents. It's wonderful to see what God does and why it takes a little bit longer for young men.
John: Answer the why part, please. There are a lot of parents wondering, why is this taking so long?
Jim: I don't even know what's wrong with you?
Jerusha: Again, the compassion aspect. If you consider that a young man experiences an increase of testosterone between the ages of 10 and 20 that's 30 times the amount of childhood, during adolescence just to secure your compassion alone.
Jim: So it's just a rush.
Jerusha: And because the testosterone works with other brain structures, specifically what you mentioned earlier, the amygdala, the seat of fear, emotionally charged memories, causes that and the hypothalamus to grow larger in young men. So it takes longer for their brains to become accustomed to perceiving threats, to understanding risk versus benefit. All those things are wonderful because—and here's the why—because our men need to be brave.
Jerusha: Our men need to be courageous, and God is giving them opportunities to test that and try that, and I think it's a beautiful thing. Is it frustrating and confusing for parents? Yes. Can we have greater discernment and compassion in understanding these things going on? Absolutely.
Jim: That definitely describes the boy's brain. Let's give the girls some due here. What's happening for the teenage girl with her brain development in terms of size and other things?
Jerusha: Yeah, well one of the most fascinating things is that a girl's brain, the increase in progesterone interacts with the stress hormone called cortisol. So when a stressful thing happens in a girl's brain, the progesterone in her brain makes it more difficult for her to calm down. There really is a reason why girls tend to have more drama than boys. So, as a parent, one of the things that you can do is allow the girl to calm down. Say, you know, give her some space; allow her to go in her room. And, as Jeramy mentioned earlier, don't fuel the emotion. Let the emotion rise and fall.
Jerusha: Eventually, it takes about 30 minutes, they say, no, no, for the calming down.
Jim: Right, so not the 90-second thing.
Jerusha: Because once cortisol is released in the brain, it takes a while. In fact, in both girls' and boys' brains, the reaction is inverse to adults. So whereas our brain as adults, releases a chemical called THP to counteract cortisol, in teenagers THP is ineffective. And in fact, it can sometimes have the reverse effect and cause escalating stress. So, we really, even though we feel we look at them and think, "You can handle this," we really have to look with compassion and say, okay, they need fewer stresses in their life.
Jim: So as a parent of a teen girl and you recognize this, this is what's happening, I'm in that moment, what's a good thing to say? "Let's take a break for 30 or 45 minutes and then let's talk about this again."
Jerusha: Yeah, but don't continue the conversation. Don't minimize. Try to empathize. So for instance, one of the stresses that may come up is there's a huge zit on her forehead before homecoming, and you're like, "It's really not a big deal." It is a big deal to her. That, the stress that comes for a young woman, don't minimize those things. "Oh, you'll get over it. It won't be that big of a deal. Just use concealer." Don't minimize; empathize, "That must be really hard for you, honey." And that just brings it down one level. "I can understand where that would be really frustrating. Is there anything I can do to help?" takes it down another level. You know, it's just these calm, taking a step back, one after another instead of adding fuel to the fire.
Jim: You mention in the book, Your Teenager Is Not Crazy, about the need for parents to surrender their need to be right. Okay. Let me say that again, because everybody just went, "Ouch!"
Jim: I was reading this to Jean today and we're both going, "This is our battle!"
John: But I am right! (Laughter)
Jim: That's the point. So how do you coach a parent not to gravitate to that, my need to be right And especially black-and-white thinkers, you know? My wife's a biochemist. She's right most of the time.
Jeramy: You know I just ran into one of our members at church and he was having a fight with his son, who happens to be 14, and they were just going at it, just arguing with one another. And the dad was so involved in the argumentation and just he's so frustrated, it's almost like he couldn't stand out far enough to recognize just what was going on. The son's just exploring life; he's curious. He's doubting; he's questioning everything. And so, for us as parents to encourage other parents to allow kids to explore, allow kids to disagree, allow kids to challenge you. They're trying to explore the world and press into that. Don't just stop it.
One of the things I try to do, and I lead lots of teams and ministries, and I try to practice "Yes, and," instead of "No," and we're just always stopping somebody and pressing them in a different direction. I try to think, yes, and how do I step into these conversations without crushing their spirits, without quenching the fire that's within, of the curiosity and the creativity and all of that. And I think parents want to be right and at the very core of it, I think my issue for me, is respect. I have an idol of respect, and we talk about that in the book.
Jim: Is that an idol, or is that a reasonable requirement?
Jerusha: Well, all idols are good things that are made ultimate things. I mean respect is a good thing, but when you make it the ultimate thing, that's when it becomes an idol. So yes, our children should respect us. That's a very biblical idea, and yet, respect or our own comfort or our security or our peace, those can all become idols as we allow them to become the defining characteristics of our life. Our teenagers are going to make us uncomfortable, and if we are looking for our life to be, you know, comfortable above all else, then we're gonna have trouble.
Jeramy: So I think helping parents, and we teach parenting seminars, we talk about recognizing this in our own lives. What kind of idols are we defending in our lives, potentially, because that informs everything that happens with our kids. If I'm defending this idol of respect and I think everything they say and everything that comes out of their mouth is disrespecting me, then I'm defending that, and I have this expectation that they will just walk around and treat me as king, that's a problem.
Jerusha: I do that for you, baby. (Laughter)
Jim: I love it.
Jeramy: This is true.
Jim: This is good. You guys, we have covered a little bit of this. There is so much to go into, and I'm not even sure if we're gonna get it all done in a couple of days, but let's continue to roll through, come back next time and pick up on this disrespect issues. Maybe we could do a little role-playing, 'cause those of us in the parenting realm, I think, John, you and I could come up with a few phrases of disrespect that we've heard in our lives and have you come back about how we as parents should be thinking about this; how we take a deep breath when your child shows you disrespect.
I think the other thing is certainly peer pressure. When you have friction within the teen relationship with parents, it can push teens into relationships that are unhealthy, and they find comfort in their friendships because the expectations aren't there. I can just be relaxed, I don't have to worry about grades and my people love me and I don't feel loved by my parents. Let's get into all that next time. Can we do it?
Jeramy: Yes, please.
Jim: All right, let's do it.
John: And meantime, contact us. Get a copy of the book, Your Teenager Is Not Crazy and learn more about how you can be more effective as a parent by understanding that physiological change that's going on inside them. Our number is 1-800 the letter A and the word FAMILY, and you can find the book and other resources, including a CD or a download of our conversation, at http://focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: I hope you, like Jean, you're saying to each other right now, "We've gotta get this book." Jean's saying, "Hey, make sure, Jim, you bring that one home. I want to read it." If you can't afford it, just call us. I mean we will make this book available to you for a gift of any amount as our way of saying "thank you." Don't let that be the barrier. And for those that can help us offset the cost of putting it in the hands of parents who can't afford it, stand there with us. Be in the gap. That's what we do together. The folks who are donating to the ministry, that's what you're donating to, to help us be there for couples who are struggling who can't afford to acquire these resources. So thank you for that. Do it today. Don't hold back. Let's put some help in your hands so that you can start parenting more effectively starting today.
John: And again our number if you'd like to donate, 1-800-232-6459. Well, join us again next time on "Focus on the Family" as we have more insights from Jeramy and Jerusha Clark and once again, help you and your family thrive.
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Jeramy and Jerusha ClarkView Bio
Dr. 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, youth ministries and small groups. Jeramy and his wife, Jerusha, have co-authored four books, three of which are bestsellers. Jerusha has her own writing and speaking ministry, focused on helping others glorify and enjoy God. She recently completed her twelfth book, Every Piece of Me: Shattering Toxic Beliefs and Discovering the Real You. Jeramy and Jerusha have two teen daughters. Learn more about the couple by visiting their website, www.jandjclark.com.