Much to the disbelief of my students and younger friends, I was a teenager once. Surprising, I know. You wouldn’t think it looking at me, but believe me, I’ve been exactly where you are right now, neck-deep in a world of firsts. First kiss, first car, first heartbreak, first girlfriend/boyfriend, first fight, first traffic ticket, first job, first breakup, the list goes on. It’s an exciting time. It’s also a very confusing time.
One day, one of my freshman students asked me if I had any dating advice for her and her boyfriend of three months. My dating advice was simple: Don’t. She rolled her eyes and said I was lame, and the conversation ended there. Yes teenage girl, I may be lame at times, but I am smarter than you, and that is because my brain is more developed. This is why I’m more capable of a dating relationship (at least on a purely physiological level) than a teenager. Let me explain.
Located in the front part of the brain, there is a region called the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is responsible for many important things, things such as:
- Planning complex cognitive behavior (otherwise known as planning and forethought)
- Personality expression
- Decision making
- Keeping social behavior in check (aka repressing urges)
- Problem solving
- Differentiating between conflicting thoughts
- Figuring out the difference between what is good, bad, better, best, same, and different
- Seeing potential long-term consequences to present decisions
- Predictions of outcomes
- Certain parts of empathy (being able to understand/feel other’s emotions)
- Aspects of short-term memory
How many of these things could apply to relationships? ALL OF THEM. The prefrontal cortex, according to neuroscientists, is not fully developed until around the age of 25. So that means that all teenagers brains are not fully developed in these areas. What this says to me, is that teenagers shouldn’t date.
This isn’t because teenagers are stupid, they just don’t know any better. I should know, I used to be one. Think of all the things that could be avoided if teenagers didn’t date! Pregnancies, emotionally damaging breakups, needless drama that drives friends apart, losing your virginity to some loser in the back of car on prom night, hurting other people, the list goes on! We could have utopia in soon we would have a generation of emotionally healthy adults running the world. But, there’s a problem here, one that cancels out everything I’ve just said. The enemy of common sense in the teenage mind:
Hormones are like that friend who always manages to get you to do something you probably shouldn’t do, but magnified by 1000. They have an incredibly powerful effect on the body and the brain, even to the point that hormones can supersede your common sense or decision-making processes. If you want a visual metaphor for how hormones act and the consequences they often lead to, feast your eyes on the following:
But it doesn’t always have to be that way. We can be better than that.
The point behind this whole exercise is not to discourage dating (that will never happen. Teenagers ignore old men like me). The point behind all of this is to get you to stop and think before you do something. Mark 12:30 says “And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” Often when hearing this verse we tend to put emphasis on the heart. Here I’m asking you to put emphasis on your mind. Put your mind on the things of God and ask him to guide your thoughts and decisions. Let him guide your path. Your brain can justify anything if you try hard enough, so (try to) filter decisions through the things of God and also common sense. Could this potentially hurt me or someone else? Could this lead me into something I will regret later? Would I have to hide this from my parents if I did this? For me, one of the things that really shifted my perspective on some of the poor decisions made in dating relationships was something a friend said to me when he saw that an ex-girlfriend was getting married: “I realized that because of stupid decisions that were made years ago MY NAME is going to be brought up in premarital counseling and talked about at length. I don’t like knowing that I could have possibly caused some issues years down the line in the beginning of someone’s marriage. Also, what about whenever I go through that process? Her name is going to come up and I’ll have to look my future wife in the eye and talk about it.”
So when you date (though you probably shouldn’t), be smart. Be godly. Be intentional. Strive to reflect Christ in the relationship. Don’t let drama dictate things. If things don’t work out, don’t burn bridges and leave damage. And have (safe) fun! It’s exciting to feel those flutters and get to know someone you’re attracted to on a deeper level. But like any fire that can give you warmth or cook your food, it can get out of control you can burn the forest down without healthy boundaries. Being smart doesn’t just apply to physical things. This applies to the emotional as well. Emotional scars can be just as damaging, if not worse, than the physical ones. This advice about being smart, godly, and reasonable doesn’t just apply to teenagers, it applies to me as well, because I wish I’d had someone to tell me these things when I was 16 years old. I’m still single (ladies) and I need to be reminded of how I can date well. My desire and prayer for myself and for anyone who reads this is simple: To date without any regrets. As believers we are called to set ourselves apart. We should do that with our relationships too.
If you would like some other great dating advice, check out Debra Fileta’s True Love Dates and her book. You can get it on your Kindle for less than 10 bucks. It’s a fantastically practical but also biblical perspective on dating and relationships.