There’s a popular narrative today that the pre-frontal cortex isn’t fully developed until the mid to late 20’s – implying that children, teens and young adults are incapable of making wise, informed choices. I’m here to tell you that it’s a nice story, but it’s mostly a myth. What the articles leave out is that the pre-frontal cortex developed at much younger ages in earlier generations. Teens and young adults were marrying, running businesses, raising children and making lots of wise choices. It wasn’t because they ate foods that were healthier or some other similar reason. It was because the pre-frontal cortex got a lot more training and exercise at younger ages than it does now.
With apologies to those in the medical field, the brain is not a muscle, but in many ways it acts like one. Learning and memorization can make parts of our brains healthier, more efficient and more helpful to us. Age related mental decline is often slowed by continuing to exercise the brain by learning new things and using it for more than watching a screen all day.
The prefrontal cortex is primarily responsible for things often called executive functions – skills like planning and time management and things we sometimes refer to as character traits like self control, self regulation or impulse control (all slightly different, but often used interchangeably). It too can be strengthened by doing things that create stronger pathways in that part of the brain to information and skills that promote those positive executive functions. (Once again, apologies for a slight over simplification.)
Why does all of this matter to you as a volunteer Bible class teacher or Christian mentor to children, teens or young adults? Because you can work information and activities into your Bible lessons and mentoring sessions that strengthen the prefrontal cortex. Having a more well developed prefrontal cortex will in turn make it easier for those young people to make godly decisions. And that, will in turn, make it easier for them to live a faithful, productive Christian life without having to take a detour into rebellion, disobedience and negative consequences in their teens and 20’s.
Here are some of the things that will help in the development of the prefrontal cortex of students, while also encouraging them to use it more wisely and carefully.
- Understanding how God created them. Not the actual creation, but the functions of the brain and how God created the prefrontal cortex to help them make not only better, more godly choices, but choices that have fewer negative consequences attached. Exercising anything – including the brain – requires time and effort. The young people with whom you work need to understand what they will be doing and the benefits they might expect from all of this extra effort.
- Learning helpful self talk that includes scripture. Many popular affirmations are actually contra-biblical if examined closely. The best most effective self talk comes directly from God. I know when someone is trying my patience, quoting 1 Corinthians 13:4 (Love is patient, love is kind) over and over to myself is more convicting than telling myself “You need to be nice to this person” – even if I use virtually the same words. Why? Because God’s words should always carry more weight than ours. Arm young people with lots of helpful scriptures they can repeat to themselves when they are tempted to lose self control, make poor decisions or sin.
- Slowing things down. A lack of self control is often tied to a lack of impulse control and therein lies the problem. Impulse means we are reacting quickly in the moment – almost without thinking. There are thoughts, but they are so quick, most young people won’t even realize they had them. Learning to pause before saying or doing anything – especially in reaction to someone or something, gives them the time to recognize their own thoughts and correct poor ones. That extra few seconds can mean the difference in making a good choice and sinning – between a productive Christian life and living a life clouded by consequences from poor choices.
- Identifying weak spots. The word “hangry” came into our vocabularies for a reason. When we are too hungry, we are much more likely to feel angry quickly and say or do things in that anger that we might normally not. Help your students analyze their choices. What factors tend to be present when they make poor choices? Maybe, they have worse impulse control when they are tired or are around certain people. Once they know their weak spots, they can be more aware and make adjustments to avoid making poor choices.
- Making pre-decisions. It’s tough for adults to make complex, emotionally charged decisions quickly and well. It may be tough for some of your Bible students to decide when they are out with friends that they aren’t going to do the drugs that suddenly appear and everyone else is using. If they have pre-decided, however, that they will never use illegal drugs, it is much easier to decline or walk away. They aren’t having to make a choice – it’s already been made. They are just acting on it.
- Developing helpful strategies. There are many scenarios that are common to almost every teen and young adult. Many parents already have a secret code their kids can use if they are out with friends and want to be rescued from a bad situation. Help your students think of other strategies that can help before they actually need them. It’s faster and more natural in the moment and they will feel less awkward, thereby being more likely to actually use them.
- Having guided practice. Some teens and young adults need to practice common scenarios to feel more comfortable when they occur in real life. Guided practice means you or another Christian adult is watching them act out the various scenarios and giving them feedback. Young people with certain special needs may even benefit from being given a written script to practice until the words are remembered and feel natural when said.
- Getting regular mentoring sessions. Some teens and young adults get a lot of mentoring from their parents, but many don’t. Even those who do often appreciate a second opinion. Providing children, teens and young adults with well trained Christian mentors can give them the extra help and encouragement they need.
- Developing a sense of meaning and purpose. Without understanding God’s purpose for their lives, young people struggle. The sense of higher purpose and meaning in life can in and of itself be motivation for doing the work needed to make godly choices more easily. Your students need to understand their choices matter and that there is something bigger and more important than their own selfish desires.
It will take work to find ways to help your Bible students develop their executive function skills as part of your regular ministry to them. It’s worth it though, if it helps them make more godly decisions.