if you’re a youth worker reading this, please feel free to copy and paste (or email) this in a parent email or newsletter (though a credit line would be appreciated)…
see part 1: doubts
Nikki is 11 years old, and in 6th grade. But she looks more like a 16 year-old. And I’ve had more than one mom comment to me that they would pay big money to have fingernails as nice as Nikki’s. But Nikki still loves to play with Barbie dolls. In fact, it’s not uncommon for her to bring a couple with her on youth group trips. The other kids tease her about it – but she’s naive enough to think they think it’s fun that Barbie is in tow. It’s not that Nikki is neither a child nor a teenager: she’s bits of both.
Then there’s a group of guys I used to call the “Punk Pokemons” (this was several years ago when Pokemon was big). Their group was five 8th grade guys – all taller than me – who were trying very hard to be tough. They wore baggy pants and spiked their hair. And they never smiled. Never. They were 100% committed to looking disinterested. But on a regular basis, they would gather in the back corner of our junior high room at church to trade Pokemon cards (those goofy little trading cards that were popular with kids at the time). It was hilarious to see the snarling wannabe tough guys saying things like, “I”ll give you two Pikachus for one Mewtwo.”
Nikki and the Punk Pokemons are in transition. Not quite adults, but not kids anymore either.
If you ask me to define the young teen years in one word, I’d have to use the word “transition.” Everything about the world of a young teen is somewhere in-between where they’ve been and where they’re headed.
The signs of “work in progress” show up in every area of a young teen’s life, including her faith. She’s finding that her “childish” faith system isn’t working anymore, faith-bit by faith-bit. She begins the search – sometimes consciously and proactively, sometimes not – for a richer, more complex adult faith system. And much of this is accomplished through experimentation.
Here’s what I mean: your young teen might show less interest in church, but more interest in spiritual things. By spiritual things, I don’t necessarily mean youth group retreats and the church children’s choir. For a young teen, the dimensions of the spiritual life are just opening up, and they’re noticing depth and spirituality in music, in movies, in TV shows, in conversations with friends, even listening in on adult conversation.
But they’re in transition! They’ll continue to have pieces of childish faith and elements of an adult faith at the same time. Just as you would never try to rush the physical growth of your child (by pumping them full of hormones or steroids), it’s a bad move to attempt to rush this spiritual transition also. But you can help them: by listening, discussing, staying open and not threatened. Watch for these signs of transition in faith, and ask open-ended, non-threatening questions to help them develop their faith-thinking.
Share more openly about your own spiritual journey: your longings and doubts, your hopes and a-ha moments, places where you’ve seen God active in your life in the past week.
And most of all: be aware that this transition means they won’t stay this way for long; so cherish this time!
Mark Oestreicher is a partner in The Youth Cartel, a veteran youth worker, and a parent of a 20 year-old daughter and 16 year-old son. He speaks frequently to parents, and is the author or co-author of six books for parents, including A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Guys, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Girls, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains, A Parents Guide to Understanding Social Media, A Parents Guide to Understanding Sex & Dating, and Understanding Your Young Teen. With his own “apprentice adults,” he co-authored a book for teenagers: 99 Thoughts on Raising Your Parents.