Why the Atonement is for Teenagers (part 1)

*This articles is based on “The Adolescent Brain and the Atonement: Meant for Each Other, Part 1: The Dilemma” by Mark H. Butler, Genevieve L. Smith, and Brittany R. Jensen in The Religious Educator, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2016

Confessing My Sins to the Bishop

When I was a teenager I found myself standing outside of a bishop’s office, waiting to go in and confess my sins. 

Technically, I didn’t need to go to the bishop.  There was nothing in any Church handbook that said my particular sin required working with a bishop.

But still I stood there. 

Why? 

Because, like every teenager in the history of the world, I had committed a sin. 

And I had tried to repent.  I really had.  

I had prayed and wrestled, and wrestled and prayed. 

But forgiveness seemed impossible.  

This sin was bigger than previous ones I had committed and the guilt was overwhelming.  

As the days and weeks passed without a feeling of forgiveness I became hopeless.  I wondered if what I had done was so bad that I was unworthy of forgiveness.  I even found myself distancing myself from God and others to try to alleviate the guilt.  

It was the darkest and most alone I had ever felt in my life up to that point. 

I finally realized that I had two choices: I could continue as I was and slowly distance myself from God and the Church, or, as a last ditch effort, I could talk to my bishop to see if he could help me find forgiveness. 

And so I stood outside my bishop’s door on what seemed an especially dark evening- more embarrassed and ashamed than I’d ever been- and knocked. 

What happened next is something I will never forget.  

My bishop was kind and loving; he asked questions and listened as I answered; and then he did what I hadn’t expected.  

He taught me about the Atonement of Christ.  

He shared with me his feelings about, and testimony of, the Savior’s desire both to forgive me and for me to forgive myself.  

Over the course of an hour my heart completely changed.  My testimony completely changed.  I completely changed. 

I left that bishop’s office feeling as light and hopeful as I’d ever felt.

But a part of me has wondered ever since, what if I hadn’t gone?   What if I’d never knocked on that bishop’s door?  

Even more I have wondered about all of the teenagers in situations similar to mine who haven’t knocked on their bishop’s door.  And I mourn for them and for the peace they haven’t know. 

Because the dilemma I faced was not special or unique.  

It is faced by thousands of teens every day.  

This same internal struggle I had causes thousands of Latter-day Saint teens to disengage from the gospel and from God.

And there are 5 specific reasons this happens.

5 Influences on Teens

Our teens face many, many problems. 

But there are 5 specific influences in their lives that have the potential to cause them to disengage with the gospel and God.  

  1. Their brains
  2. Sexual maturation
  3. Their hyper-sexualized environment
  4. Their spiritual development
  5. Parents and leaders’ responses

#1: The Teenage Brain

Scientifically, teenagers have fantastic brains.  Their gray matter is pretty much in place which means they are ready to learn and explore new ideas.

The problem is, that this developed brain isn’t fully “wired up”.  In fact, there is about 20% of the teenage brain that hasn’t fully connected yet- and it won’t until they’re 25 years old!

Unfortunately for teens, the last part of the brain that gets “wired up” is the frontal lobe, which is an important part of making good decisions.

So what does the frontal lobe do? 

Well, it helps you make logical decisions using proper judgment and future planning.  It’s how you and I could look at our friends jumping off a bridge and go, “I would never do that.  I’d break every bone in my body.” 

It’s how we’re able to watch our peers all buy shiny new boats, but decide that we’d rather save our money for retirement.

It’s also how we’re able to control our emotions- so that when someone tells us we look fatter than usual, we’re hurt and might skip dessert that night, but we also don’t think it’s the end of the world.

Teenagers don’t have the advantage of always being able to control their big emotions or of being able to make current decisions that match with their plans for the future.  

It’s why your teen will blow off a big test even though you know they really want to get into a good college.  Their brains just aren’t completely wired yet.  

#2: Sexual Maturation

Right in the middle of your teenager dealing with a brain that’s not fully wired, the body decides that it’s the perfect time to go through puberty.  

Suddenly your teen is faced with their first sexual urges as their sex drive ramps up…  And yet their brain isn’t ready to control those urges yet!

This is why your 9 year old has zero interest in pornography while your 14 year old may be struggling every single day to stay away from it.  

Butler, Smith, and Jensen put it this way, “The very capacities essential to successfully managing sexual drive are in limited supply at the very time sexual drive is nearing its peak.”

Are you feeling bad for your teens yet?  Just wait. 

#3: A Hyper-Sexualized Environment

You might remember facing your own sudden sexual urges and budding sex drive as a teen. 

Personally I remember that on my walk home from school I would pass a particular house that inevitably had it’s garage doors open.  And inside on the wall was a pornographic poster.  

I walked past that house every single day and had to really struggle (out of teenage curiosity or whatever you might call it) NOT to look at that picture.

But that was only once a day and, after the first exposure, I knew exactly what to expect and was prepared for it.  

You and I faced our own sexual temptations without the internet, and cell phones, and pop up ads, and sexting.  You and I were in an environment where if we wanted to find opportunities to sin, we usually had to go out and look for them.  

Our teens are in an environment where pornography and sin in all their forms are pushed in front of them on a daily basis.

One year when I taught at EFY the session director had to make a rule that no one could airdrop pictures to other peoples’ phones because someone had sent a pornographic image to everyone that way.  

It seems like nowhere- even EFY – is safe!

Can you see how our teens are NOT put in a winning position?  They are faced with a brain that isn’t fully wired yet, while their bodies are going through brand new changes that cause new temptations and desires, all while they’re hanging out in the most sexually saturated environment ever known to man. 

It’s a total disaster!!

Now for SOME teenagers and their parents, all of this isn’t that big of a deal. 

I was once a guest in a home where the family had no specific standards of sexual morality for their children.  

In one evening conversation the parents were laughing hysterically because they found a pornographic magazine under their son’s bed.  They found it quite humorous that their “little boy” was now so grown up and interested in something like that. 

For a family in that situation, the adolescent brain, faced with sexual urges in a sexually-saturated environment is really NO BIG DEAL. 

But what about for the LDS teen who has been taught all their life to stay virtuous and pure? 

#4: Spiritual Development

It is widely recognized that adolescence is a time of self discovery – when teens are trying to figure out who they are, independent of their parents or anyone else around them.  They’re trying to find themselves. 

Do you remember that feeling?  I remember when I stopped holding my mom’s hand, and I stopped wanting to hang out with my family because I wanted to just be “myself.”  I wanted to figure out who I was separate from the home I’d grown up in. 

For many teens this time of self discovery is also a period of time in which they’re trying to find themselves spiritually.  

Now that their brains are so fantastically developed in so many ways, teens are able to think abstractly and reason through complex ideas. 

So instead of sitting in class and nodding their heads while the teacher talks about the First Vision they begin to question, “Can God really appear to a teenage boy?” or “Why would God show Himself to Joseph Smith but not to me?”

They’re searching for answers and meaning.  And as they do so, the standards of the gospel become not just Mom and Dad’s standards – but theirs.  They begin to own their spirituality and the responsibility of it as well.  

Which is all really, really great, except that, once again, the adolescent brain isn’t fully developed.  

As our teens become more spiritual and religious, they still find themselves repeatedly failing at keeping promises to themselves.  

They might make lofty goals like, “I will never look at pornography because I know Jesus doesn’t want me to.”  

And yet they find themselves looking at it again the next day.  

Or they might decide never to french kiss because it might lead to something more, and yet the next time they’re on a date they find themselve french kissing once again.  

Over and over and over they hit the brick wall of failure.  And for them, it’s disastrous.

Because, for teens their identity is often defined by their behavior. 

If they can’t stop looking at pornography, it’s not their behavior that is bad it’s them that is bad. They are a bad person.

Rather than seeing themselves as fantastic children of God who are struggling their way through their teen years (like everyone else in the history of the world has done) they see themselves as total and complete failures.

It’s this kind of black and white thinking that puts teens so at risk for pulling away from the gospel and from God.  Because who wants to feel bad about themselves all the time?  

If being spiritual means feeling such intense guilt all the time, then who wants to be spiritual? 

And this is one of Satan’s greatest tools against teens.  It’s not just the temptation that he uses against them, it’s the shame that follows.  

Unlike God’s use of guilt to motivate repentance, shame causes a teen to hide, to lose confidence in their ability to change, and to feel hopeless. 

#5: Shaming Responses

As parents and leaders of teens we have high expectations for our teens. 

We know who they can be and so we try to help motivate them to become better.  

We plan out their path from baptism to temple marriage and figure it will be a straight shot with zero deviation.

And even if our teens want exactly the same thing- even if they dream of a mission and temple marriage- their current actions likely aren’t going to line up with that all the time.  

Why?

Because, as we’ve discussed, their brains, their bodies, and society just don’t let them.  

That same kid who is eagerly awaiting his mission call might also go too far on a date with his girlfriend. 

Or the girl who knows that she wants a temple marriage might also choose to go out partying with friends and come home ashamed of the decisions she made that night.  

These teens know better, but their brains, bodies, and society don’t always help them in their efforts to do better.

And with those feelings of hopelessness can come disaffection- from us, from the gospel, and from God.

And the way we, as parents and leaders, react to these decisions matters A LOT!!

Our teens are already plenty hard on themselves as they define themselves by their behavior.   So if we seem to be doing the same thing, that simply confirms for our teens that they truly are a failure, or a loser, or hopeless.  

The problem is, parents and leaders often don’t realize that they are communicating disappointment in their teen without saying a word.  Our disapproval and disappointment can be communicated in small ways such as:

  • A change in tone of voice
  • Rolling eyes
  • Sounding at all frustrated, exasperated, or angry
  • A change in body language

Teens are extremely aware of these small, nuanced changes in our behavior and they take them as a big flashing sign that says, “I think you’re a bad kid,” whether that’s what we intend or not.

Our attitudes about our teens can shape their own feelings about themselves.  

And their feelings about themselves can lead to either spiritual success or spiritual disaster.

It’s a Disaster!

It’s no wonder that so many teens find themselves feeling lost and hopeless during the adolescent years.

Because without Christ, their situation would truly be hopeless!

But luckily, Christ is a part of the teenage equation.  In fact He is the biggest part of the teenage equation. 

And with a better understanding of His part in our teens’ lives we (and they!) can learn not only to have hope for the teenage years, but to rejoice in them!

I hope you’ll come back for part 2 of this article in which we’ll talk about the hopeful and happy solution to the teenage dilemma.

*If you enjoyed this article please share it with the teens, parents, and youth leaders in your life!

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Kristen is a former seminary teacher, an EFY speaker, and a BYU Education speaker. Her favorite things in the world are peanut butter and Elder Holland talks!

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  • Christina R, 18, Arizona
    May 13, 2020 at 11:48 pm

    I love this article so much!!! I can’t wait to hear what else you have to say about Christ’s Atonement! It’s so true that there is so much going on with teens these days, it’s hard to always make smart choices and satan does love to use guilt against us all. satan is working so hard on the youth and I’ve been feelingand seeing that especially this year. I think this is something all leaders, parents, and teens should read. Thank you for sharing!