“Late Adolescence” – What’s Going On?

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When I began writing this series I had one goal: to help parents understand what is going on in the development of their child IN PLAIN ENGLISH. I’ve done lots of research, read lots of books and articles and tried to present a clear and concise picture of adolescent development along with some helpful tips. As we wrap up this series we are going to look at late adolescence (ages 15-19) to see what is going on. Many parents get depressed during this stage because their child is becoming extremely independent, but actually it’s time to celebrate. Your child has left the terror state of early adolescence and is now becoming a young adult. However, don’t miss that phrase “is now becoming”.  As in, not yet completed. There is still a lot happening so, one last time, let’s talk about

WHAT’S GOING ON?!

Physically: Finally, the changes start slowing down. By this point most girls are fully developed and the late bloomers will be done developing by the end of this stage. Boys started a bit later so they will end a bit later. You may even notice that they are still gaining height, weight, muscle mass, and body hair even into their twenties. So for all of the juniors and seniors who are still toothpicks, your time will come.

Mentally: Students this age are really starting to grasp this whole “abstract thinking” thing. Now they can understand things that are symbolic or theoretical. They can make an educated guess as to how something will turn out. They can think through multiple ideas in order to arrive at a conclusion. Most of all, their thinking has become flexible. Remember in pre-adolescence how your child comes up with a thought or an idea and then it is set in stone? That is no longer the case. Now they can see that one problem may have many possible solutions. They can even do cool things like listen to multiple ideas from other people and take the best parts of each one to form a solution. With this new understanding, they will begin to test their new information against reality. This can lead to lots of dumb ideas. How many times have you asked your 16 year old boy “WHAT IN THE WORLD WERE YOU DOING?” as they are lying there with a broken arm, only to find out they saw something work on a youtube video and wanted to try it out for themselves. It can also lead to some really cool things though. Maybe they love to cook. They have multiple ideas of how to make a certain recipe taste the best. Therefore, they try all of their ideas out to see which one actually tastes and the best, and now they know. With this new testing phase, get ready to be wrong, A LOT, even when you aren’t wrong. In their mind there are so many possible solutions to every problem, so how could you have the ONE right answer? Also, a new piece has been added with this testing phase…technology. Have you ever said something to your teenager, they said “that’s not right”, you said “yes it is”, then they pull out their phone, googled it, and showed you how you were wrong. You think that’s fun? Try preaching to a room full of them. One piece of good news though: they can finally start thinking about the consequences of a decision before they make it. They just don’t a lot of times. Take advantage of these great teaching moments.

One Major note: This new thinking of testing and seeing multiple answers to one problem often applies to their spirituality. This is aided by a postmodern culture that says all beliefs are acceptable and whatever you believe works for you and whatever I believe works for me. This will be a process they go through as they are developing and testing their reality. You need to walk with them through this and help them live in the grays. God is not something they can test to determine reality. Don’t give them black and white answers for abstract concepts. They need to learn how to think through spiritual issues that don’t have concrete answers if their faith will survive without you.

Emotionally: At this stage your teenager is completing identity formation. This involves things like who are they, what will they do, and how do they fit in. They probably will have many fears of failure, and deal with unrealistically high expectations. You will also notice them distancing themselves from you as the parent. This is not because they hate you (even if they say it is) this is because they are becoming independent. Students at this age are usually VERY concerned about their appearance and their bodies. Students at this age feel an increased concern for others because they can now see from the perspective of others and feel the pain of others. Finally, let’s talk about boyfriends and girlfriends (I will do a more in depth post on this later). Your teenager will now begin to gain feelings of love and passion. Yes, I know they are only 16 and the thought of them having found their TRUE LOVE makes me roll my eyes as I write this. But it’s real to them, don’t forget that. These new feelings will add to their attraction and desire for relationships. Make sure you continue to talk to them about what healthy relationships with the opposite sex look like and don’t downplay their emotions. That is the best way for you to end up with a rebellious teen.

Socially: Your teenager is living in two worlds. One of parents and one of peers. During this time (if you haven’t already) you will begin to take a back seat in your teenager’s life to their friends. Parents, take a deep breath…your child will start to distance themselves from you. Now take another deep breath…DON’T STOP THIS FROM HAPPENING! This shift is critical in your teenager developing their identity and becoming unique and independent. It may seem like they don’t like you. It may seem like they don’t want to be around you. You won’t like it. But they are starting to become independent which is what every parent SHOULD want. You don’t want a 35 year old child with no job still living at home. If you do, come have a talk with me immediately. This is not to say your teenager should have no rules or curfews. This is not to say they don’t have to listen to you. This is not to say you should not force them to spend SOME time with the family. Those things are all good and necessary, but let them have independence too. Let them go.

Their social life is extremely important to them, and they need to learn how to develop healthy friendships. That is a necessary skill in college and in life. So let them go out with friends and do things WITHOUT YOU. Research shows that most teens this age actually place more value on their friends than their family. Their peers will have a huge influence on shaping their lives. Their friends will shape their behavior, social activities, the way they dress and many more things. That is why you should be having conversations (before this stage because now they care much less about what you think) about how to choose friends wisely and how to stand up to peer pressure. Their relationships with their friends are important and will help them develop social skills that they will need in adulthood. Their relationships with their friends also teach them not to be solely dependent on you as a parent. As much as you might disagree with me, YOU WANT THIS! Friends also add to your teen’s self-esteem and emotional security.

Spiritually: Teenagers this age finally start to get it. They begin to see the relationship aspect of following Jesus. There are three stages of spirituality teens enter through during late adolescence. It’s a bit technical but if you think about it, you probably experienced the same steps when you came to know Jesus. Remember, this is done with lots of questioning like we talked about earlier.

Stage 1 (Purgative): That’s a fancy word isn’t it? We are talking about purging or getting rid of something. At this stage a teen who wants a deeper relationship with Christ begins getting rid of the identity they had previously. They no longer view themselves (whether too positive or too negative) the way they did before. Now they think of themselves as who they are in Christ.

Stage 2 (Illuminative): All of a sudden new information comes to light in their minds. Now that they have lowered their walls of self-image and pride they see themselves as God sees them. They see that they are loved by God. Now they stop only focusing on themselves and begin to look at Christ. They now look to have a relationship with God instead of just asking him for things. They start to FEEL God, which is a very abstract concept.

Stage 3 (Unitive): Students now see themselves as one with God. They realize they must surrender control of their lives to Jesus. They start to take responsibility for their own faith and want to use their gift to help others.

IMPORTANT NOTE HERE: If you have not been doing this with them all throughout their lives, they won’t know how to do it. You should be reading the Bible with your kid(s) and doing things as a family where they use their gifts for God. That way when they get to the point where they are ready to take ownership of it, they know how to do it. Things like missions trips are great at this age, and not just the ones that we plan at church. Go out and do some things for Christ as a family.

One final thing to remember: Notice this late adolescent development stage ends around 19. That is when they are in college. It takes awhile. Therefore, when your 7th grader is not at stage 3 and still doesn’t truly understand what a relationship with Jesus actually means, be patient, it will come.

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“Early Adolescence” – What’s Going On?

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So often I get asked from parents and adult volunteers, “what in the world is going on in their head?!” in regards to pre-teens and teenagers. My response is always, A WHOLE LOT! If we take some time to understand what is going on in their minds and bodies we will be so much more prepared to raise them and minister to them. This creates a tough task, as there are countless books and studies that all involve fancy scientific language. That’s why I wanted to put out this series. My goal is to cover the basics in a condensed and easy to understand fashion, so let’s continue. In this post we are looking at the early adolescent, ages 10-14, and the question I aim to answer is, of course…

WHAT’S GOING ON?

Physically: This age sees the most change physically of any of the 3 stages. Physical change starts with hormones. Your child’s brain starts to send these signals (like radio waves) to their testes or ovaries to start producing hormones. This is where the joys of parenting really take a step up. All of a sudden your child will begin to see drastic changes. Hair starts to grow in places where they haven’t had it before like the pubic area, armpits, face, and legs. Their body shape starts to take form. Boys will notice change in shoulders and muscle mass. Girls will start to develop breasts. Major spurts in height will ensue and you’ll constantly be buying new clothes because the previous ones don’t fit. Boys and girls can easily become self-conscious about these changes. Girls may feel their breasts are growing too fast or not fast enough. Guys or girls may feel they are too tall or not tall enough. Penis size is a major area of concern as that is developing. Voices are changing. Then the biggest signs come along. Girls start their period and boys begin to have wet dreams. Parents, this is why talking during that pre-adolescent phase is so important but do not sweep this one under the rug. I know it’s awkward, but someone has to address it. Kids this age need to know what they are experiencing is normal. Also, you are going to need to go over some new grooming methods that may have not been in place before. Do all of us Student Pastors a favor and talk to your early-adolescent boys about showering more often and using deodorant. They sweat more, thus they smell more. Girls and guys will need to hear about shaving. Girls especially need to be educated on feminine hygiene. Is she going to use pads or tampons? How does it get used? Talk about things like masturbation and sexual temptation. You may ask, “why put ideas into their minds they don’t know about yet?” Here’s why. If you don’t, someone else will. It might be a friend at school, a high schooler, or someone else who isn’t giving them the same teaching you would. Finally, the most important thing? NORMALIZE! They need to know they don’t need to feel self-conscious. This happens to everyone. The easiest way to normalize? Have the talks before these things begin, not after they have started. Kids who are expecting it won’t feel as embarrassed.

Mentally: Your child is starting to be able to handle abstract thought. However, they think mainly in the present. Very rarely do kids at this stage think of the results their decisions will have on the future. This will require some great teaching moments, but also some major patience on your end. When you get fed up and shout “DID YOU THINK AT ALL BEFORE YOU DID/SAID THAT?” The answer is…no. Up until this point they have concrete thinking down. Their process involves trying things out, testing them, and then making a conclusion that, to them, is set in stone. Once puberty hits, all of this changes and the world looks brand new to them because of this new concept of abstract thinking. This thinking involves things like considering the perspective of someone else, self-awareness, and paradox. They begin to realize that everything is not always black and white and it is almost as if they are processing the world all over again. Have patience with them during this time. Welcome their doubts and questions. Realize you can’t answer all of their abstract questions with black and white answers. Teach them how to live in the tension

Emotionally: Emotions are an abstract idea, therefore the range of emotions felt by the pre-adolescent are limited. This new way of thinking for the early-adolescent opens up a brand new selection of emotional options. Here’s where the problem begins. The ability to have abstract thought is a new tool they have not completely learned how to use. Therefore, they do not necessarily know how to understand and control these new feelings. Students may cry, scream, throw tantrums, or display other extreme emotions for no reason. They may not even be able to explain to you in words why they are experiencing these feelings. This can bring along with it a great fear of the unknown. Again, it is important to normalize, have patience and understanding, and help kids this age learn how to put words to the emotions they are feeling. If they say they just don’t know why they are emotional let them know “it’s ok, that is a very normal thing to experience at your age.” Also ask them questions about how they are feeling and what they are going through and teach them how to describe it with things like, “it sounds like you are feeling…” or “could it be you are experiencing…” This will help them learn how to understand what is going on in their minds.

Socially: Major social changes are starting to take place because your child now thinks about how others view them. This can make them feel awkward about themselves and their new changes, and they worry about being able to fit in. Kids who didn’t care before now wonder things like “what kinds of clothes do kid my age wear so we don’t look like little kids?” “How am I supposed to interact with my parents and friends?” “What sports and hobbies am I interested in?” and “What sub-group of culture do I fit into?” (punk, goth, sporty, preppy, hipster, etc…) You will also see their friends begin to change. This is due to their new way of thinking. New thinking equals a new thought process for picking friends. Now instead of someone automatically being a friend because they live in the same neighborhood, go to the same church, or are in the same class, they will base their friends off of those who have similar interests. Here’s the kicker though. Since they are just figuring out who they are, they are figuring out what they like to do. This means their interests are constantly changing. Therefore, you guessed it, so will their friends. Finally, friendships will look very different at this age between guys and girls. Girls will tend to form friendships that have a high level of loyalty and trust. These usually happen by them sharing experiences together and take place between 2 or 3 girls. If groups get much larger than this they collapse under the emotional weight and become overloaded with gossip and drama. Guys on the other hand tend to form friendships with larger groups over similar interests (the basketball team, the skateboarders, etc…). These groups become a foundation for their identity.

Spiritually: Spirituality is another abstract concept. Discipleship, salvation, and the trinity are all abstract. As they begin to think abstractly this becomes obvious and troubling to kids this age. They begin to question childhood beliefs they assumed were black and white that no longer make sense that way. For example, at an earlier age maybe their concrete thought led them to believe that anyone drinking alcohol at any time is always wrong. Now with this new thinking they may start to question that as they see that some people drink in moderation. These types of questions will also arise about their faith. DON’T FREAK OUT! WELCOME THESE QUESTIONS! Because after they go through this questioning they will arrive at a faith that they own. If you suppress their faith questions with shallow black and white answers, they will end up with a shallow faith that they don’t own, because they did not arrive at it.

Quick story: One of the best conversations I’ve been able to have as a Student Pastor was when a student came to me saying he was questioning this whole Jesus thing. Why was that a great day? Because of his reasoning. He said if he was going to believe it he wanted it to be a faith that he owned, and he said he realized if he believed he would have to change his life. I want a student who comes out of the questioning phase with that kind of faith.

What we need to do at church and at home: Normalize! Normalize! Normalize! By the way, did I mention we need to normalize? The one word that describes this period of life for kids is change and they need to know that is normal. Physical changes must be normalized, and we must be sure to eliminate teasing both from other students and adult leaders. As emotions rage and are constantly changing, and kids are not even always able to articulate how they are feeling or why they are feeling that way, we need to normalize that situation. As kids are developing friendships and losing friendships, we need to normalize those situations and also help them enter into healthy relationships. Most importantly, as students are beginning to question, doubt, and reevaluate their faith, we must normalize this and let them know they are not the only ones. We must work through and process these tough questions with them. The most important thing we can do strategically is to create a safe environment where the early adolescent feels they can trust the adults and other students there. This is the key to help normalize their ever-changing life.

“Pre – Adolescence” – What’s going on?

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Here at First Christian, our Children’s pastor and myself have begun a restructuring process of ministry. Youth ministry as we currently know it did not even exist until recently. We then saw a shift in the division of ministry to children’s, middle school, and high school. Now we are taking it even further. We are working on dividing up into two grade increments (1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, and eventually 9-10, and 11-12). This idea of focused and age-appropriate ministry is pretty recent in churches and that is for a good reason. The words teenager, pre-teen, etc…did not even exist until about 50 years ago and this is because our understanding of adolescent development has come such a long way.

When I say adolescent development I am talking about the changes that the body and the brain undergo until we are a fully-developed human. This idea first came to light in the early 20th century but was viewed as only an 18 month period in the life of a child. Now it is something we realize occurs all the way into the early to mid 20s. During this time people develop an identity and independence.  However adolescent development has multiple phases and they should all affect the way we parent and the way we do ministry.

The first stage is called Pre-adolescence and usually occurs between ages 8-10. This stage is exactly what it sounds like. It’s pre “adolescent development”. It happens before the major processes really start. However, it’s so important to understand what is going on so we can prepare for what is to come. The main parts of this process involve what I like to call the PMESS (pronounce it PMS, it’ll help you remember). That stands for physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. So when your child is in this age range, WHAT’S GOING ON? Good question.

Physically: You can expect a wide range between kids in things like height and weight. They are beginning to lose more baby teeth and their eyes are starting to finish development. You’ve probably noticed that your child is very confident in things like running, walking, and playing in general. They are starting to get the whole coordination thing down. Also at this age, girls (who develop much earlier than boys) may even experience changes associated with puberty. Make sure to talk to them about these changes so they know what to expect.

Mentally: Kids at this age are very concrete in their thinking. This means that everything is black or white, yes or no, and they have trouble understanding things like maybe, sometimes, or exceptions to the rule. You can give them any problem and they will have a solution even if it isn’t reasonable. Want to test this out? Ask your 8-10 year old what to do about world hunger, or war, or slavery and just see what they say. They think concretely at this stage and cannot process abstract ideas. They can address one problem at a time and cannot identify multiple related problems. For example, maybe the lights won’t turn on, the tv won’t work, the internet is broken, and all the refrigerated food has to be thrown out because the power is out. They have trouble realizing all the problems are related to the same issue. Likewise, they have trouble tracing backwards. If they come up with a wrong answer and you ask them to look back over the decisions they made to see which one was wrong, they will have difficulty finding it. Finally, children at this age have very short attention spans but are fascinated by the world around them and can hold in lots of information about something they like. Maybe you’ve noticed your child seems to know everything about this certain type of animal, or action figure, or whatever it may be. Use this to your advantage in teaching and introducing them to new things.

Emotionally: Children this age desire approval. They want approval from friends and siblings, and most importantly parents. Make sure you are taking time to reaffirm your child. Although they are getting closer to an age where friends’ input and approval will mean more to them, currently parents are still at the top and they will listen intently to your advice. This is the time to have talks about safety, health, avoiding certain behaviors, and even sex.

Socially: At this age children still mostly have positive relationships with friends with little trouble. They usually play with others of the same sex and have around 5 very close friends. Kids this age may be bossy with younger children and dependent on older ones. Relationships with peers are important but their relationships with adults are still most important to them. Make sure they have a good understanding of what appropriate relationships look like with adults so they are not taken advantage of.

Spiritually: Faith is found in stories that children this age hear and tell about God. They hear the stories and their concrete thinking always finds literal interpretations of these even if that is not the point. Meaning, they probably won’t understand Jesus doesn’t literally want you to gouge out your eye if it causes you to sin. The best things to go with are foundational Bible stories as well as right vs. wrong. They will take clear understanding to this with their black and white thinking.

Things to do at home and in the church: First, their physical development makes them very active. It’s important to plan time for them to be active and play games and move around with one another. It’s also important for them to experience relationships with adults, especially in a teaching setting. Since kids this age are so concrete in their thinking we need to be careful what spiritual ideas we present to them. This is an ideal time to focus on storytelling and morals and explain easy to understand concepts from these stories. They also do very well learning through activities like acting out or crafts. The most important thing is how you live and act as well. Children at this age will mainly take their cues from the examples other adults set at home and at church.