Young Teens and Exploration

i wrote this article for the leader magazine for jh believe (the event i’ve been speaking at this spring). thought it might be helpful to some. feel free to pass it along to leaders or parents.

Young Teens and Exploration
By Mark Oestreicher

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 become years of exploration again. Roughly fourteen through seventeen 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 a 15+ year process, from about 10 or 11 years old, well into the young or mid-twenties. I haven’t seen research on this, but my hunch is that a third cycle of this process has developed in the college years. I’d guess that about 18 – 20 are years of exploring all over again; that about 20 – 22 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 with 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!

11 thoughts on “Young Teens and Exploration”

  1. We just got back from jh believe this past weekend and had a blast. believe is just an incredible program and our junior highers came back challenged. I have to be honest and say I was disappointed that you weren’t the speaker, but Nathan did an incredible job as well. Thanks for the article, very insightful.

  2. i definitely would agree on the cycle happening again in their twenties. i’ve been doing a research project on believers between the ages of 18-30, and their relationship to the church as well as older generations in the church, and what you’re saying definitely fits what i’ve been seeing. 18-20 is right when people either go to college or enter the work force; you explore majors or job opportunities, you join all sorts of groups or new circles of friends. 20-22, you test the waters, committing yourself to more things, but not wholeheartedly. you may have explored various religious beliefs as an 18-20 yr old, and now you’re committing yourself to looking into 2 more deeply, for example. then, after college (roughly 22-23), you’ve made conclusions about the way to live life, and you go from there, suddenly “all grown up.” i definitely think you’re onto something with this extension though. thanks for posting :)

  3. I agree – and don’t at the same time. I recongise some of this through my work with young people (and I think adolescence just keeps going, I’m 38 now and, well, still figuring out who I am) BUT, if kids have experienced God in a way that reasoning can’t negate or challenge – they just know, is that experience all wiped out when they are a bit older? Do kids receive a junior or baby version of the Holy Spirit? In terms of faith development can we assume we are starting with a blank slate . . . ? If we are being transformed into His likeness (2 corinthians 3 verses 17-18), if a child aged 7 has decided to follow Christ, is there anything that changes that also sticks past puberty? I think so – lets recognise the challenges that teens face, but lets also look for what is rooted and established in their hearts.

  4. “So don’t be disheartened with 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”).” I needed to hear that. I have been treating teens like that, especially jr. highers. Thanks for the correction. I’ll try and adjust my expectations, while still trying to teach students to stick with commitments. “Balance, Daniel-san.”

  5. Ali makes a great point that I haven’t figured out the answer to yet. On the one hand, I have no problem saying that a person who makes a commitment at 7 (as my oldest two have) may not be a Christian if there’s no evidence of it during their teen and adult years. On the other hand, if they truly have made that commitment to the best of their understanding, doesn’t the Holy Spirit live in them, and is therefore constantly transforming them into Christ’s likeness? How much does age-appropriate maturity play into spiritual growth, and how much of it is a work of the Holy Spirit? That’s a hard call, difficult to measure and explain. Interesting discussion to have in the future.

  6. Great article! A friend of mine says that the “core temptation” of early adolosence revolves around a fear of missing out on something. They are so hungry for experiences that just can’t stop moving and trying things out. That is where spiritual disciplines come in! Especially disciplines that lead students into expereinces of self-discovery and discovery of God!

  7. hey, off topic…our youth group is having an experiential prayer service tomorrow with different interactive prayer stations. we just realized, however, that most of our activities will exclude one of our students who is blind. any suggestions for alternate activities that don’t require sight?

  8. i wonder if this exploratory stage is what drives the wedge between adolescents and adults. If an adult (parent or otherwise) is expecting that increased maturity will lead to greater solidification of identity and purpose than their expectation are certainly misplaced for the developmental stage in effect. I wonder if that dead fear toward adolescence that i recognize in the eyes of most adults comes precisely becuase teens can’t fit into the expectations. It may be a stretch but fear does have its origins in a loss of control, right?

  9. …and I wonder if it doesn’t begin again in our late 30’s/early 40’s? That’s when I began to re-evaluate church and my take on Christianity. By the time I reached 45, I had explored a lot, thrown out a great deal and started testing. Now at 51 I feel like I’m approaching a few conclusions, but I’m still testing- I know this because I still get _testy_ about stupid church stuff :)

    I think this is at least one of the reasons there’s a bunch of emergers in our late 40s/early 50s (Scot McKnight, Todd Hunter, others- and me).

    Sorry I missed you at the Pastors’ Conf. I’ve already paid for next year- If NT wright is going to be in my state, I’ll get to where he is somehow… Perhaps we can get together then over a coffee.

    Blessings on your holiday in NZ.

    Dana Ames
    (the “vinegar lady”)

  10. “How much does age-appropriate maturity play into spiritual growth, and how much of it is a work of the Holy Spirit?” Just picking up on Paul’s comment – I don’t know! I know the OT relationships with God are different from ours in the sense that the Comforter has come . . . but what was the deal with Samuel? He heard clearly from God when he was a youngster (though needed Eli’s help to realise that), but when he went to annoint David as King, he made an “adult” assumption about who God would choose? Would the child Samuel have been different? Faith is the key – without Faith it is impossible to please God, well, I don’t know whether God is pleased with me right now or not . . . I do know I had incredible faith in Him when I was 10. There is also a difference between a childlike faith and a childish one – and, let’s not forget we need to recieve what God has for us “as a child” or we will have no part in the Kingdom – woah!

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