“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.