Tag Archives: young teen development

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 2

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

transitionThe young teen years summed up in one word: transition

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.

Young Teens and Exploration

the explorer archetype, commonly found in history texts
Have you ever noticed how young teens want to try everything? Sure, some are shy, and won’t try something that exposes them too much. And young teens approaching the middle teen years (like, 8th graders) sometimes get less and less willing to try new things. But most young teens are game for anything. If they’re into sports, it’s usually not just one sport – they try two or three or four. Ask for a volunteer for a crowdbreaker, and there are hands all over the room (very different than a room full of high school students).

Have you ever stopped to think about the reasons for this? Or even more important, have you ever stopped to think about the implications of this?

Years ago, a psychologist named Stephen Glenn suggested a helpful little developmental chart. He said that babies, birth to four years old, are in a stage of exploration – they want to sample everything. Little kids, roughly five years old to eight years old, move into a big-time stage of testing. They’re unknowingly trying to learn the boundaries and “rules” of their world, and test everything. Pre-teens, about nine years old to eleven years old, move into a stage of concluding. Ask any ten year-old a question about the world, and, if they understand the question (and often, even if they don’t understand the question), they’ll have a fairly confident explanation of how things work.

Then, along comes puberty, and wipes the slate clean again. All the conclusions of the pre-teen years are either wiped out or ripe for destruction. And the whole cycle repeats itself again.

Eleven to about thirteen years old become years of exploration again. Roughly fourteen through seventeen year-olds slip into testing once again. And the years beyond eighteen slip on to years of concluding.

A side note: when Glenn proposed this (with slight variations in the ages), adolescence was commonly understood as a five or six year process, from about 12 or 13, to about 18. But developmental psychologists and youth workers alike have now realized that adolescence has extended to an almost 20 year journey, from about 10 or 11 years old through (on average) the entire 20something years. I haven’t seen research on this, but my hunch is that a third cycle of this process has developed in the “emerging adult” years. I’d guess that about 18 – 20 are years of exploring all over again; that about 20 – 24 are about testing all over again; and past that become a whole new season of drawing conclusions about life. This is, I believe, one of the reasons we see more similarities – developmentally – between middle school kids and college age young adults than we do between either of those groups and their high school age counterparts.

Back to young teens. They are in a massive season of exploration! They want to take in as many experiences as possible to fill up their “possibility tank”. From that “tank”, they’ll eventually start to move into the adolescent task of individuation, figuring out who they are (identity) and how they fit in (belonging) and how they’re different from others (autonomy).

This provides such a rich opportunity and responsibility for those of us who are called to do ministry with young teens! Do you see it? If we are part of providing them with a rich diet of experiencing God, of learning to connect with Jesus on their own (not only through a dependence on us), and experiencing a process of spiritual growth and formation that includes processing doubts and moving on to new beliefs, we can greatly influence the faith they’ll hold onto and live into for a lifetime!

So don’t be disheartened when your young teens try things and don’t stick with them. Don’t consider this kind of fickle temporary commitment to be a sign of immaturity. It’s actually maturity (if maturity is defined as “behavior that is appropriate for that particular age”). And even more so, it’s a red carpet of invitation from your young teens to engage them in spiritual practices and experiences that could become part of who they are for the rest of their lives! Wow. What an honor. What a privilege!

(btw: if you want to hang out with a tribe of people who ‘get’ this–and love this–check out the middle school ministry campference!)