Editor’s Note: This post is a product of the Youth Minister as Pastor and Leader class, taught by Dr. Andrew Zirschky as part of CYMT’s Master of Arts in Youth Ministry degree program through Memphis Theological Seminary.
by Tina Boyd
“Do you have any food?” he mumbled upon wandering in to the break room where I was washing dishes. “I haven’t eaten in like an hour.” I could hardly suppress my small smile as I nodded silently and waved him over towards a part of the youth room where we keep some extra snacks for students in this young man’s specific predicament. If I’ve learned anything about what it means to be a teenage male, it’s that I would not get a single coherent word out of this young man until I got him some food. This is one example of a broader theme that I’ve observed about the essence of being a teenage guy in America. After extensive academic reading, narrative reading, and formal and informal interviews, I realized it all really boils down to the brain. The teenage male brain and its underdeveloped functioning create a behavioral whirlwind, and we as their pastors, leaders, parents, and caregivers need to know about it.
This realization is contrary to popular assumption, which argues that the essence of being a boy in America is all about sex. Interestingly, when I asked the guys I interviewed about the biggest misconception people have about teenage guys, they all responded with something along the lines of “that all we want to do is have sex all the time.” One elaborated, “We also, like, just want to get through high school.”
So how does male brain development and function affect young men’s relationships with others? In the throes of brain development, many teenage guys will become the true test of how high a youth minister’s blood pressure can go. In his 2006 book, Teenage Guys: Exploring Issues Adolescent Guys Face and Strategies to Help Them, Steve Gerali says that the nature of brain development in teenage male brains is different in that of girls, resulting in males having to concentrate their processing efforts in one hemisphere of the brain or the other. This is due to the male corpus callosum being less dense than the female corpus callosum. For girls, their corpus callosae allow them to use both sides of their brains when processing information. As for guys, they tend to end up using one hemisphere or the other. This can create tensions in relationships with others in that when they have disagreements, a guy might not be able to see both sides of the situation or see the situation from another person’s perspective.
Girls can process multiple emotions and thoughts from both hemispheres of the brain, but a guy cannot, which can often leads to miscommunication (Gerali 171). I experienced this fairly recently after happening upon my friend Sarah who had hit a deer on the interstate. Our friend Brian was riding with me, and another guy, Drew, had pulled over as well to check on Sarah. After checking to see if Sarah was OK, Drew moved on to the next logical task in his brain: putting the deer out of its misery, and Brian seemed to follow the logic. I, however, was able to process the emotive effects of being in a traumatic car accident, and how watching an innocent animal get shot and killed was probably not the best thing for Sarah to experience right then. Because I was able to see both sides, I was able to step in and help her. Gerali summarizes our situation well: “A guy’s brain is programmed to analyze; a girls to process,” (172).
Additionally teenage guys’ brains have a particular way in which they focus. They find themselves on a seesaw where on the one hand they are so deeply and easily distracted—spend more than two minutes around a seventh-grade boy and you will see what I mean. On the other hand, however, when teenage guys do choose to focus on something, they focus on that thing very deeply (Gerali 176). They do tend to, in a certain sense, have a one-track mind. Whatever that track is, a guy will be able to fully focus on it for only so long, so he has to take advantage of those times when he does feel fully focused. This can create tensions in guy-girl relationships when a girl asks a guy to help her in a way that would interrupt him while he’s fully focused on a task.
While adolescent male brain function can be difficult to interact with at times, and can create a sense of miscommunication, we must remember that there is room to grow and that boys do develop beyond this stage. We can, with great patience, grace, and care, walk alongside these young men and help them develop an awareness of how they function, and how they as members of the body of Christ can in turn surround themselves with people who can help foster their development.
Tina Boyd is a 2015 graduate of the Center for Youth Ministry Training and Memphis Theological Seminary. She is the youth minister at St. James Episcopal Church in Greenville, SC.