i’m starting a new series of occasional posts with this one. i’ll probably only post one every other week or so. but these will be a random tidbit of input for parents of pre-teens and young teens. if you’re a youth worker, feel free to copy and paste these into a parent newsletter or email (though i’d appreciate a credit line).
Welcome to the world of doubts
A nervous set of parents met me in my office. Tears came quickly. Judy, the mom, spoke in-between honks into her tissue: “Johnny, our 7th grader… [honk!]… he’s always been such a good boy. And he’s always loved Jesus.”
The dad nodded.
Judy continued: “But the other night at dinner… [honk!]… Johnny said, ‘I’m not sure I want to be a Christian anymore.’” [honk!]
A big smile broke out across my face, as I slapped my desk and exclaimed, “That’s fantastic!”
As they picked up their sagging jaws, I explained:
Questioning and examining (usually called “doubting”) Mom and Dad’s faith system, or her own childhood faith system, is a necessary part of early teen faith development.
Did you catch that? Parents (and plenty of youth workers) are usually threatened, even frightened, by their kids’ doubts. But teenagers who don’t go through this process will reach their early 20s with a stunted (childish) faith!
Let me back up and explain a bit more fully.
The Task of Discovery
Stephen Glenn, a psychologist who published a bunch in the 70s and 80s, developed a helpful little timeline. He said the first four years of life are all about “discovery”. The next four years (five- to eight-years old) are all about “testing”. And the years from nine to eleven (Glenn actually said age 12, but the average age of the onset of puberty has shifted down a year since then) are focused on “concluding.”
Then a shift of seismic proportions – usually called puberty – comes along and wipes that slate semi-clean. And the cycle begins again: 11 – 13 are years of “discovery”; 14- to 16-year olds tend to focus on “testing”; and those over 17 shift to forming conclusions.
Can’t you see that in your young teen? They’re in the midst of a massive adventure of discovery. That’s why they want to try everything – four sports, three clubs, five friendship groups, a new hobby or collection each month. They’re trying to gather data about the world, about how people interact, about values, about reactions. And, about what it means to be a Christ-follower.
So wrestling with “what do I believe?” becomes a wonderful question for young teens to ask. That doesn’t mean we fan the flames of their doubts (“I can’t believe you still believe that!”). It means we come alongside them in their doubts, rather than interpreting those questions (that data collection) as a real rejection of faith.
How Should Parents Respond?
Don’t freak out. When you hear doubts squeaking out, take a deep breath. Thank God that your budding teenager is still willing to verbalize this kind of thing with you. A strong negative reaction will teach your child that she shouldn’t share in the future.
Encourage verbalization. In other words, talk about it! Healthy dialogue is often all that’s needed. Ask questions, rather than preaching.
Share in first-person. Your pre-teen or young teen will “catch” more from your life than from your words. When you do choose to share words, try not to be too prescriptive (“Johnny, what you need to do is this….”). Instead, share from your own life. Respond to doubts with your own story, including your own doubts (past or present).
Pray. Isn’t that one obvious? Your child is going through the most formative and tender years in faith development. Talk to God constantly!