Tag Archives: parenting young teens

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 9

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes
and part 6: process trumps content
and part 7: self-centered and perpetual now
and part 8: when to “back off” on parenting
(btw: this is the last installment. enough already, right?)

lonely boyQuestion: Our middle school grade son seems to have no real friendships. And I’m not even sure he wants them. Is this normal? Are there things my husband and I should be doing?

First, it’s important to know that this is a very normal situation for a young teen boy. In fact, it has become substantially more common over the past decade or so. So, your son isn’t “abnormal” on this one. It’s normal and natural for a young teen, even one who had friends as a child, to struggle as they move (a developmentally normal and good move) from forming friendships based on proximity (“You and I are friends because we live near each other or spend a lot of time in the same place”) to forming friendships based on affinity (“You and I are friends because we like the same things, or have the same values”).

But, that doesn’t mean it’s a healthy situation. As a youth worker, it’s been one of greatest new concerns I’ve had for my students in the last ten years. Boys, particularly (girls also, but to a lesser degree), are not learning the skills of friendship. Historically, I don’t think we thought of children and teenagers as needing these skills–friendship just came naturally to them! But today’s 10 – 14 year old is so often isolated, they’ve not learned the skills of friendship in their day-to-day lives.

Boys are naturally less expressive than girls (especially at this age). And our culture has told them “the strong, silent type” is a great male archetype. Even the U.S. Army, which, ironically has learned – out in the field – that soldiers can only succeed in teams, has been advertising this notion like crazy for a several years with their “Army of One” campaign.

Add to these cultural notions the fact that today’s young teens have reaped most parents’ desire to “cocoon”, by having a house-full (or more likely these days, a bedroom-full) of toys intended for solo use: television or laptop, video-gaming systems, music players. Not that these things are all bad. But the fairly normal overuse of them has greatly contributed to this “loner” trend.

So, what can you do? Here are a few ideas:

• Encourage friendship groups. Often, the safest place for a boy to learn about friendship is in a group, not in a one-on-one friendship. Hopefully, one of the best places for this is in a healthy and active middle school program at your church. I know many parents who have chosen their church based on this factor alone!

• Service potential friendships. When you see any spark of potential friendship for your son, find ways to subtely encourage that spark. This doesn’t mean talking about it like crazy! (that will only lead to retreat for most boys.) Instead, offer to drive them somewhere; suggest fun ideas for excursions and make them possible. Also, make sure you home is a “safe” place for your son to have a friend over: a place where he won’t be embarrassed or treated like a little kid in front of his friends.

• Encourage your son, but don’t nag. When your son spends time with a friend (or potential friend), say something positive–but keep it short and sweet. Lengthy speeches will feel like pressure or nagging, and will backfire on you.

• Pray like crazy!

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 7

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes
and part 6: process trumps content

Question: Why is my middle schooler suddenly so self-centered? It seems like she thinks the whole world revolves around her!

This is an almost universal issue with preteens and young teens. Consequently, the frustration parents and youth workers experience is also almost universal! Young teens who were, just months ago, generous and outward-focused turn into themselves and become seemingly obsessed with themselves and incapable of noticing others.

kind of a big dealEverything’s about me!

Self-centeredness is a natural fungus on the tree of development. Your preteen might still have a shred of others-focus; but it will disappear soon! The almost-crazy amount of change going on in the lives of young teens (11 – 14 year olds), draws every remaining bit of noticing others in on itself. Almost all young teens (and older preteens) see themselves at the center of the universe.

For example: if you walk across the back of a crowded classroom (or, say, church service), you will try to be quiet as to not distract–but you won’t assume people paying attention and facing the opposite direction are noticing you. Not so with young teens. In the same situation, they’ll assume that everyone in the room is watching them (apparently through the back of their heads!) and evaluating their every move.

This self-centeredness is natural, but that doesn’t mean parents should just ignore it. There are many ways to counter this; but I’ve found that the absolute best antidote is experience–experience that forces their attention off of themselves. Give them experiences serving others in need (through a day helping at a soup-kitchen, or a family mission trip, or other service projects). For a preteen, this establishes a pattern of noticing others’ needs. For a young teen, it can create a small opportunity for noticing that the world is more than themselves (and that will work like yeast, spreading into their worldview).

straightawayEverything’s now!

A related issue is how “in the moment” preteens and young teens seem to live. If you ask their favorite movie of all time, they’ll answer the one they saw last week. They don’t have a sense of the past (and I’m talking about their own past, not anything grander than that!), and often don’t have a sense of the future either.

Think of it this way: as an adult, you’re making decisions on the road of life. And you can look in the rearview mirror and see the long straightaway behind you, including the choices of life. You can also look at the long straightaway ahead of you, and get a sense of what’s to come. But preteens and young teens are on a sharp curve in the road of life (the curve of transition and developmental change). The rearview mirror doesn’t show much; and the front view is a blind curve.

This can be maddening for parents. Ask speculation questions about the future to help your child begin to see more of the road (he won’t naturally do this on his own). Share your own thoughts about the future (as well as the past).

And remember, the curve in the road–with its self-centeredness and “all is now” perspectives–will pass. This is the normal stuff of young teen development; and it’s the plan God designed for your child to go through at this time of life!

By the way, I unpack this more (and a bunch of other stuff about early adolescent development) in my book Understanding Your Young Teen.

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 6

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes

processProcess Trumps Content

This is a very important issue for parents to consider, especially with the current trend toward a college-prep emphasis in school culture. School curriculum often teaches toward test scores. Even Christian schools, who are rarely involved in state testing, often focus on cramming content with an eye to college acceptance.

Many churches take a similar approach: load young teens with info during this formative age, in hopes that it will “stick” and become a guiding force in their lives.

Unfortunately, this is quite misguided.

Just prior to puberty (around 9 or 10 or 11 years old), your child’s brain does a wonderful thing: it grows an abundance of new connections. Like a massive infiltration of tree roots grasping for earth, these new connections between various parts of the brain open up a world of possibilities.

However, these new connections are only that: possibilities. There is no good way to use them all. So, those connections that get exercised and used end up forming a dominant part of the brain’s function through the rest of life. And those connections that are used less, well, they actually disintegrate during the teenage years!

What does this tell us? It’s essential that the young teen years be about learning how to think. Process, “what if”, and “why?” are critical. Discovery is the best learning mode (for spiritual learning or academic learning). If young teens exercise this part of their developing brains, it will positively impact their lifelong thinking, their spiritual growth (after all, spiritual stuff is abstract), their emotional health, their relational maturity, and their desire to continue growing and learning.

So, make room for “why?” and “what if?” Those are questions of speculation (a brand-new, but wimpy, ability for young teens). Encourage discovery. Don’t be threatened by questioned values and boundary-pushing. This is the best stuff of early adolescent brain development!

By the way, I unpack this more (and a bunch of other stuff about early adolescent development) in my book Understanding Your Young Teen; and go into detail on teenage brain development (not only for young teens, but teenagers in general) in A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains.

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 5

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions

optical illusion cubeWelcome to the world of paradox!

If you have a preteen or a young teen living in your home, you gain a whole new appreciation for the concept of paradox. These wonderful kids completely embody every meaning of the word. In so many areas, they seem to be both one thing, as well as the polar opposite! (This can be quite maddening, and paradoxically, quite exciting!) It’s all about transition, baby.

Here’s a list of a few you might notice:

Young teens can be incredibly trusting, but will only listen to someone who’s honest and transparent. Young teens (and especially preteens) often don’t have the jaded skepticism of their older teen brothers and sisters. They are very willing to trust–a wonderful characteristic that shouldn’t be missed. This time of life is, in many ways, a last-stop refueling station into the long desert drive of adolescence. Take this opportunity to build on that trust, to show that your word is good.

At the same time, they are beginning to develop a more adult sense of the baloney-detection. If you want to be an example to your young teen, if you want to continue in a role of impacting their lives (in a positive way, that is), it’s essential that you do so through a commitment to honesty and vulnerability. This can be pretty tough, even threatening. When you’re wrong, it’s crucial that you admit it. If they sniff out insincerity or hypocrisy in your or your words, you’ll quickly lose your place of leadership in their lives.

They’ll catch less than you’d think, yet they’re savvier than you’d expect. This is a tricky one, but so true! Because the life of a young teen is all about change (physical, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, psychological), they have a huge tendency toward “in-one-ear-out-the-other” behavior. You’ve certainly experienced this! You explained to your daughter why a certain behavior is a bad choice, and two weeks later, she seems to have no memory of that discussion. Often that’s because she really doesn’t have a memory of that discussion!

But at the same time, young teens are developing a very savvy ability to see through charades, to understand when they’re being marketed to, and to be aware of consequences. Often what happens with kids this age is that they are savvy enough to understand a situation, but not enough to apply it to their lives.

They want to be treated like adults, but have the opportunity to act like children. This has enormous implications. They’re caught in an in-between world. They know where they want to go: they know they want to be treated like adults, to have more freedom, to make more decisions on their own, to not be treated as if they were 4th graders. It’s important to talk to young teens with an adult voice, and to begin the move to a come-alongside perspective.

But at the same time, they are still very much children, and need the opportunity to act that out, without pressure to grow up too soon. A girl may move out of her childhood music choices, but still love to play with Barbie dolls. Allow her to live in that place. A boy may desire to sit at the adult table at family gatherings, but still keep a childhood stuffed animal on his bed. Don’t rush them into adulthood, but don’t treat them like little kids anymore either.

Some are prototype young adults, while some are really children, and most are both. The reality is this: it’s not that the young teen living in your home is either a child or a young adult (with some magic line being crossed at some point); it’s that she’s both, at the same time. Young teens aren’t just in-between, they’re in an overlap zone–childhood remains, while they’ve already stepped into the young adult world.

Living with paradox isn’t easy! But it’s not only the reality of the young teen years, it’s somehow part of God’s wonderful design for this transition to healthy independence and adulthood. Have fun!

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 4

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it…

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god

teenage turtleBoundaries and Decisions

This research-proven truth may surprise you: Parents are still the number one influence in the lives of their teenagers. Many parents assume that with adolescence, the peer group takes the top influencer slot; or media; or something or someone else.

Here’s another fact that may surprise you even more: Young teens still want and need boundaries. Maybe you’re not surprised by the thought that they need boundaries; but the fact that they want them seems counter-intuitive to their regular spoken and unspoken demands for independence. Of course, unless uttered in sarcasm, you’ll never actually hear your student say, “Please, Mom, I want less freedom!”

You live this issue every day. Because the primary task of parenting a teenager is to foster healthy independence, the rub of boundary setting is in your face on a constant basis.

And it’s not that kids want (or need) a huge set of restrictions: instead, they want to know–with clarity–where the fences of their decision-making playground are placed.

Two extremes to avoid

The Cage. It’s very common (in fact, it’s increasingly common) for parents to be concerned about the world in which their young teen is growing up. It’s common–and good–for parents to be concerned about the fact that our culture is expecting kids to act older (and be exposed to “older things”) at a younger and younger age.

The good and appropriate motivation to protect your new teen, however, can easily result in an unhealthy restriction on growing up. Parents at this extreme keep the boundaries on decision-making and independence so close that teens never (or rarely) have the opportunity to make any real choices.

This extreme can stunt the emotional and spiritual growth of teens, keeping them from the essential learning that comes with good and bad decision-making. In other words: setting the boundaries too tight works counter-productively, keeping your teen from growing in maturity.

Free-Range. The opposing extreme is also common (though increasingly less so), and is possibly even more destructive. This comes from the often-exasperated parent who says: “I don’t know how much freedom to give my teen. He seems to want complete independence, and his friends seem to have that already. Since I don’t know where to draw the line, I’ll give him what he’s asking for: almost complete independence.”

I’m saddened and occasionally shocked by how many 12 year-olds have complete freedom in every decision other than the basics of life (shelter, food, car rides). These young teens are allowed, or even encouraged, to make every choice when it comes to things like: curfew, bedtime, music and movie intake, friendships, money-spending, clothing and appearance. I’m not suggesting a prudish approach to this list (anyone who knows me can vouch for that!). But remember what I said at the outset of this article: teens want and need boundaries!

The Goal

The challenging goal of parenting teens, then, becomes to provide ever-increasing boundaries, with freedom inside those boundaries to run wild and make decisions.

This is not just about maturation and growing up and becoming healthy whole independent adults (although that’s a pretty good list!). This is a spiritual task! For parents, this is a fulfillment of the spiritual task given to you by God: to raise whole and healthy independent adults (failure as a parent looks like a 28 year-old who is still dependent on his mommy).

It also has spiritual implications for your young teen: as she learns to make healthy decisions, in the semi-protected environment of the boundaries you set, she will gain courage and skill for the task of embracing a faith-system that needs to evolve and grow into her own.

nice review of ‘understanding your young teen’

benjamin kerns posted a thorough and generous review of understanding your young teen the other day. with his permission, here’s a selection from his post (click through to read the whole thing):

This book is conversational in tone which makes it incredibly easy to read. Every chapter has great stories to hook the reader and practical help for handling the many different topics discussed. Additionally, MarkO has invited other youth workers from diverse backgrounds and contexts to share their insights as well. These voices give a well balanced view for each topic and add just the right amount of variety to each chapter to keep the book from being monotone.

A potential danger is to take the casual and conversational tone as being a simple book with simple solutions. But don’t be lulled into this way of thinking. While every chapter has clever stories as their hook, the meat of each chapter is built on a solid foundation of experts in their respective fields. The combination of credible sources combined with MarkO’s contextual expertise, makes this book the perfect resource for the parent and youth worker.

MarkO resists the natural inclination to scare the reader into a “sky is falling” world view with the awful statistics about teenagers, at risk activities, the crumbling of morality, and the secularization of society. Instead, he leans into the goodness of God and reminds the reader how we survived this crazy time of our lives as well.

The picture MarkO paints of early adolescence is one of wonder and chaos. He explores hormones, cognitive and emotional development, relational change, independence, spiritual development and the changing and not so changing youth culture. In every chapter, the reader is left with a hope-filled impression that the early adolescents in our lives are going to be OK. And, just in case our current realities are seemingly hopeless, there are practical helps to move the reader into action.


adam mclane’s grade school children await to pack and ship boxes of this book for you (not the baby; adam doesn’t have him trained to pack boxes yet). order one, or get a bunch of ’em for the parents in your church! (btw: if you want to order a bunch, adam will give you a special bargain — contact him first)

understanding your young teen has released

my latest book, understanding your young teen: practical wisdom for parents, is officially available! i’m stoked. it’s my first book written for parents, and covers a wide variety of developmental issues about middle schoolers, as well as practical implications for parenting.

here’s the official description:

Between the ages of 11-14, adolescents experience one of the most significant periods of change they’ll face during their lifetimes—physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally and spiritually. Mothers and fathers of young teens are presented with new challenges in understanding, communicating with and parenting their kids during this time in their lives. Understanding Your Young Teen offers insights on early adolescent development, new research and cultural changes, and practical applications for parenting and living with young teens. Mark Oestreicher has worked with young teens for nearly three decades, and is also the parent of two teenagers. Based on his research and experience, this book is presented to parents of young teens as a conversation from one parent to another. With transparency about his own experience parenting, and examples from his extensive involvement with thousands of other young teens and parents, Understanding Your Young Teen dives into the developmental realities of early adolescence. Oestreicher educates parents on the latest research and cultural shifts that affect their children, revealing opportunities for faith formation in the lives of young teens.

we’re selling it at a discount on the youth cartel store. if you want to buy a bunch of ’em for parents in your ministry, let me know, and we’ll see about doing something special for you (like, a note for your parents, or me skyping into a parent meeting, or maybe even special pricing). i spoke to a group of 50 parents at bay presbyterian church in bay village, ohio, on the content of the book, last weekend. had a great time with them.

here’s the full cover (you can click on it to see it larger)…

pre-sale offer from adam on my new book: understanding your young teen

my sneaky partner in The Youth Cartel sent out an email to our email list recently. being more gracious than adam, i’ve decided to share it with a slightly wider audience! here’s the email i got from adam (since i’m on our mailing list!)

An insider deal
Hey mark, Adam here.

I want to let you know about a brand new book Marko has coming out from our friends at Zondervan. It’s called, Understanding Your Young Teen. If you do middle school ministry, this book was written with the parents in your ministry in mind.

I’m a little biased, but I think it would be an excellent book to buy for some key parents and host a discussion group. I’m convinced that as you develop a partnership of understanding with parents in your ministry your impact in the lives of young teens will become even more significant than it already is.

To read the full description of the book, click here.

A Special Pre-Sale Offer
Here at The Youth Cartel we just launched our online store. For you, what that means is that we can pass along some exclusive stuff for our Cartel friends. (You know– keep it in the family.)

Marko’s new book doesn’t start shipping until some time in December. But that doesn’t mean you can’t pre-order it from us and get some bonus stuff when it releases.

Here’s what I’m thinking:
The book itself is $11.99 in our store. (Retail is $14.99) So just on price we’re already hooking you up. But let’s add some fun to the equation, get all Cartel-y.

Pre-order 1-9 copies – Marko will sign one copy & Marko will send along a note of encouragement.
Pre-order 10-29 copies – You’ll get the signed copy, a note, and we’ll schedule a 15 minute one-on-one time with Marko to talk about whatever you want.
Pre-order 30+ copies – You’ll get the signed copy, a note, and we’ll schedule a 15-20 minute time where he’ll Skype into a parent meeting.
Pre-order 100+ copies – You’ll get all of that. And I’ll buy Marko a puppy. Because he loves dogs. (NOT!) Seriously, if you want to buy that many copies we’ll do something awesome and no animals will be harmed.

One of the fun things about our new store is that any order over $65 automagically gives you free shipping. In this case, that’s just 6 copies of Understanding Your Young Teen. Cool, right?

To take advantage of this pre-sale deal, click here.

Thanks for your partnership! Viva la revolucion!

~ Adam (whyismarko editor’s note: the less gracious one)

middle school culture, part 2

i have a new book releasing in december for parents, called Understanding Your Young Teen: Practical Wisdom for Parents. the book is a significant rewrite of some of my chapters from the book scott rubin and i co-authored a couple years ago, called Middle School Ministry. In this series, i’m excerpting portions of one of the chapters, called “White-Hot Temporary (Early Adolescent Culture)”.

my first post in this series covered a culture of information, and a culture of immediacy.


A Disposable Culture
Along with everything being instantly accessible, we also live in an era of disposability. Some things, such as disposable contact lenses and printer ink cartridges, are understood entirely as items to be used up and thrown away. Many more things have a sense of disposability to them, from cell phones to iPods to laptop computers. Even an MP3 file seems more disposable than a physical CD.

Just like other aspects of the middle school world, this “use it a bit, then toss it” mentality has been the norm for these kids their whole lives. So it naturally flows over into other realms of their thinking in ways that are new to this generation:

Relationships have a sense of disposability to them these days.
Knowledge has a sense of disposability to it these days.
Beliefs have a sense of disposability.
And affiliations.
And trust.
And truth.

The subconscious thinking is: If something new is going to replace this next week anyhow, why should I be attached to it now?

A Culture of Consumerism
Earlier, I noted that it’s time for us adults to own our complicity in today’s culture. Nowhere is this more true than with consumerism.

A significant portion of the still-forming identity of today’s middle schooler is just that: “I am a consumer.” They’ve learned this from the obvious places, such as advertisements everywhere. It’s become so prevalent we may not even realize that it’s not always been this way. For example, do you remember when major sports arenas weren’t “sponsored”? Or the era before ad revenue was the primary fuel of the Internet? Do you remember when product placement was a term you didn’t know?

But schooling in how to be a consumer is not just a product of those people in the marketing world. Almost everything and everyone in the lives of young teens treats them as consumers.

And treating young teens as consumers–get ready for the “ouch”–is what most of our churches and youth ministries do also. Unfortunately, I see it played out in many homes also.

Some time ago, I heard British youth leader Mike Pilavachi speak at a Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention. He shared the narrative of his earliest days in youth ministry, when he worked hard to provide the best “youth ministry show” in town. A turning point came for him on the night he put together a fun movie party for his group. He arranged comfortable seating, provided fun movie snacks, prepared a bit of stand-up comedy beforehand, and showed a fun film. At the end of the night, the room was trashed and all the kids were walking out. The last girl looked at the state of the room, turned to Mike, and said, “Wow, this room is a real mess.” He thought she might offer to help clean it up, but instead she said, “You’re really going to have to clean this up!” And then she walked out.

Mike was furious as he went about the work of cleaning up. He thought about how unappreciative the kids were, and he even thought how they “didn’t deserve him.” But an intrusive thought (from God, Mike was sure) came to him: Why are they this way?
The only honest answer Mike could give was, I’ve made them this way. Mike said, “When we treat them as consumers, they play their part very well.”

Or, consider this example of the consumerism perpetuated in our own homes: I was chatting with my middle school guys small group about their parents, and asked the very abstract question, “What role do your parents play in your life?” The first boy to answer smiled and said, “My parents are the people who get me stuff!”

This is one of those “less neutral” parts of middle school culture that we can work to undo. Or at least we can be intentional about not adding to it.


up next: an intense but temporary culture, and a networked culture.