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.