Understanding a few basics of what is happening in the brain of an adolescent prior to an impulsive and destructive behavior (i.e., self-injury, fighting, etc.) will help you walk through the lies, negative thoughts, and emotions that often drive these behaviors.
The goal is to teach them when they are being hooked by lies from the enemy, self-doubt, and old negative patterns of behaviors and thought so they can step back, get centered, and make life-giving choices instead of life-stealing choices. Choices that honor God and support their value as created beings.
The brain is divided into three major areas:
- The Cerebral Cortex is our thinking brain. It is the part of the brain that surrounds the Limbic System and fills the upper part of the skull. The Cerebral Cortex helps us to reason, reflect on our experiences and consider various options for responding. This part of the brain enables us to put words to our feelings, to settle ourselves when we are upset, and to make intentional choices.
- The Limbic System is our feeling brain. It surrounds the brain stem, and is the primary center for storage and processing of emotional memory. It is the key player in the triggering of the brain’s alarm system (fight or flight) when we perceive threat or danger. It is a place of no words, no thoughts.
- The Brainstem is the automatic brain. It surrounds the top of the spinal cord and is responsible for regulating basic life functions such as breathing and heartbeat. It regulates functions you don’t have to think about to make happen. It does it automatically.
- The Alarm Mechanism of the Limbic System is said to be sloppy. What this means is that when we are in a situation that we think is dangerous or threatening, we respond emotionally first, before we are aware of what we are responding to.
- An Emotional Hijacking occurs when the Limbic System’s quick alarm system short-circuits the Cerebral Cortex’s ability to more thoroughly process the situation.
This emotional hijacking can sometime be adaptive or helpful. For example, imagine that you are walking down a deserted street at night, and a large dog jumps out from between two buildings, starts to snarl and bark, and begins to run toward you. If you were to pause, think about the situation, and consider alternatives, you might get eaten. Instead, this event sets off a full-body hormonal response that bypasses the thinking part of the brain and is experienced physically as overwhelming and possibly uncontrollable fear. Before we are aware of it, our Limbic System signals our brainstem to increase breathing and heart rate, and we are primed to fight or flight.
Emotional hijacking can be destructive; however, when the Limbic System’s short-circuiting of the thinking brain occurs in situations in which it is not helpful or adaptive for the Cerebral Cortex to shut down. For example, imagine that your student is with a group of friends, and somebody says something to him/her that is hurtful or mean. This experience brings on an immediate and painful escalation of negative emotions – shame, fear, embarrassment and anger. They are not able to pause, think things through, and act or speak in a positive manner. They literally can’t think straight. Instead, he/she either lashes out in anger (fight), which results in greater escalation, or they shut down (flight), and tell themselves that they are “no good,” “a loser,” or that “nothing ever works out” for them. In either case, your student may feel hooked, or taken over by the negative thoughts and emotions, and later, in an attempt to make those feelings go away; engage in a negative and destructive behavior. This process often happens so quickly that when it does happen it seems like they are on autopilot. When internal reactions result in repeating old unhealthy and ineffective patterns of speech and behavior, this is known as emotional hijacking.
Fortunately their brains have a tremendous capacity to change, to reorganize and restructure neural connections over the entire lifespan. In order to restructure negative neural connections, they need to learn how to step back (Galatians. 5:23) and settle themselves a bit before acting or speaking (Psalm 34:13, 1 Peter 3:10) when they become overwhelmed with painful emotions and the quick alarm mechanism of the Limbic System.
In terms of brain operation, this literally gives the thinking brain a chance to catch up with the alarm signals of the feeling brain, to make a more thorough analysis of the present situation and avoid an emotional hijacking that results in repeating old habitual behaviors.
The practices of prayer and meditation enables young people to break their old emotional habits and replaces them with more thoughtful and effective ways of thinking (Romans 12:2). These practices allow the old brain circuits conditioned by fear to die out as we help replace them with new neural circuits created by God’s word and the Spirit’s activity in their lives.
How does this help us better understand adolescent behavior?
What implications does this have on how we practice youth ministry?
Are there times when we inadvertently reinforce our students negative emotions, behaviors, and stories?
Chris Schaffner is a veteran youth worker and certified counselor. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.