A parent commented to his 14 year old
that math these days was much easier,
because kids can use a calculator to solve the problems.
His son responded, “Easier? No way. Math is hard.
You have to learn which buttons to push.”
Who Are They?
For this study, adolescence describes ages thirteen through nineteen. However, since this book focuses on communicating with the child living at home and attending our children’s and youth classes, we’ll stop with age seventeen, the age at which most youth graduate from our high school programs.
I recently taught a series on the life of Jesus in historical context to the youth of our church, who ranged in age from twelve through seventeen. Every Sunday after my large-group lesson, they split into eight smaller groups for discussion: seventh and eighth grade girls, seventh and eighth grade boys, ninth and tenth grade girls, ninth and tenth grade boys, eleventh and twelfth grade girls, eleventh and twelfth grade boys. Each group had at least one adult, and usually two, to help guide the conversation. Our youth leaders are still discussing the best way to divide the age groups, but they know that it’s awkward to have twelve-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds in the same group. There is a great difference between the youngest and the oldest in this age range. To most effectively communicate with the give-and-take of discussions and activities, they need to be in groups with kids close to their own age. Here’s a general breakdown of traits to be aware of:
- boys lag behind girls about a year in signs of physical maturity
- peer pressure increases
- can be touchy, withdrawn, sarcastic, worried about school work
- boys now entering puberty
- identity tends to be wrapped up in the peer group
- distancing from adults
- desire to be accepted
- establishing their own value system
- want to do it their way
- may argue for argument’s sake (1)
- idealistic; may be disillusioned
- more individual, less group-focused
- strong convictions, strongly expressed
- embodies both a sophisticated adult and a sensitive youth
- both sexes are physically mature and interested in each other (2)
The Task and the Strength
Kids in this age bracket are not children anymore. They are young men and women, young adults. They are beginning the last stage of what began in infancy: becoming an independent individual. It’s no surprise then that their main task is to develop a sense of IDENTITY. As you remember, this task began in the previous stage. It now intensifies as the adolescent tries to figure out who he is, what he believes, and where he plans to go. He explores different roles that are available to him, and he chooses a path to pursue for the future.
For this reason, adolescents continue to be targets for the marketing pitches of almost anyone and everyone who has a product to sell. They are “a market segment worth an estimated $150 billion a year.” (3) In an in-depth look at marketing and the youth culture, commentator David Kupelian stated that “teenagers increasingly look to the media to provide them with a ready-made identity predicated on today’s version of what’s cool.” (4) But, he points out, advertising and media are interested in promoting a consumer identity, not necessarily a healthy identity.
Money is the marketers’ ultimate goal, but health is ours. One way parents and teachers can encourage teens to develop a healthy sense of identity is to listen to them and let them question. Teens often try ideas on for size. Sometimes they express themselves very strongly in certain areas just to hear themselves take a stand – often a stand that they know is different from that of the adult they’re talking to. They are trying to say what the two-year-old discovered so long ago: I am a person in my own right. I am not you.
Anastasia Goodstein, publisher of Ypulse, an online news and commentary site about Generation Y, gives us a good description of the identity-seeking teen through the popularity of “MySpace” and other similar sites. She says, “Teens are narcissistic and exhibitionist. For teens, especially, who are going through this stage where they’re constantly looking for that affirmation and validation and response for everything they are, it’s addictive.” (5)
Allowing teens to make more and more of their own decisions as they move through the teen years helps them navigate the waters toward establishing their own identity. They need to wobble around where it’s safe and they still have adult support. If the teen is still treated like he’s a ten-year-old, if his views and opinions are not valued and listened to, or if someone maps out his future paths for him, he will develop a sense of IDENTITY CONFUSION. But they do need loving adult support and appropriate youth-sensitive boundaries.
Raising a teen is a bit like flying a kite. You toss the kite into the air, holding tightly to the string. Little by little, you let the string out, watching it bob around on the air currents. At times, you reel it in a little; at times, you lengthen the tether. In parenting, you eventually take the scissors out of your pocket and cut the kite string so it can take off and soar on its own.
If a teen is developing his own sense of identity, the strength of FAITHFULNESS becomes his. Faithfulness, one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23), means being faithful, or dedicated, to your beliefs and values. It means being true to who you are, or in the case of faith development, to whose you are.
Faith in Adolescence
Because the adolescent is trying to establish identity, the teen years are a time to personalize faith. Teens are involved in and affected by many arenas of life, including family, school, peers, work, the media, church groups, hobbies, and other interests. Fowler says a teen needs to understand how faith relates to all these involvements in order to make his faith personal and real. Faith “must provide a basis for identity and outlook,” and faith must operate not only in the area of inspiration, but also in the realm of practical interaction with today’s world.
Ultimately, no arena in which the young person is involved will fulfill him in and of itself. Disappointments and difficulties are common as adolescents begin to realize this truth. Kevin Huggins, a professor of counseling, talks about this in his book Parenting Adolescents. He writes, “One of the most important developmental tasks an adolescent has to accomplish (is) to come to the realization that his deepest desires cannot be met anywhere except in a relationship with Christ.”6 The teen needs to find in God someone who loves and accepts him and has actually placed within him the deepest desires of his heart.
During this stage, questions and tension abound. Teens may rebel against take-for-granted beliefs, not in the sense of revolting, but in the sense of refusing to “buy in.” However, this is part of what leads the teen toward achieving a personal faith. He does not want to simply imitate his parents’ faith or his friend’s faith, or his youth group’s faith. He wants to develop a strong relationship with Jesus on his own so that he can know that these are his beliefs, his values, his faith.
After all is said and done, a Christian’s identity is found in who he is in Jesus. Christ in us. Jesus becomes the source and essence of our identity as we grow up in faith. This is where we hope our teens are headed, and the path we want to help them find.
What’s Going on in the Adolescent’s Mind?
By now, the adolescent has entered into the formal operational stage, according to Piaget. He is maturing, beginning to reason logically, becoming able to think about abstract concepts and hypothetical situations and think about thinking. He begins to see many options open to him, which may make decision-making difficult. But as this stage progresses, his thinking becomes more like an adult.
However, Kevin Huggins reports that many teens choose not to use formal thinking. Why? Maybe because of stress. Maybe because formal thinking often grows through pain and problems, and these are things we try to avoid. Maybe because the best way to develop mature thinking is to interact with other people who are thinking maturely.7 Many young people spend most of their time associating with their peers and very little time associating with mature adults.
Another characteristic of teens is their tendency to exaggerate. They often have “over-the-top” reactions. And they often contradict themselves. A sixteen-year-old girl proclaims, “I can’t stand chocolate.” Later, she says, “Snickers! That’s my favorite candy!”
Novelist Orson Scott Card writes that the life of the adolescent is “full of passion, intensity, magic, and infinite possibility; but lacking responsibility, rarely expecting to have to stay and bear the consequences of error. Everything is played at twice the speed and twice the volume in the adolescent – the romantic – life.” (8) That’s a reminder of the “wishful thinking” type of fantasy again, the “it won’t happen to me” mindset. As I mentioned earlier, this type of fantasy lasts until around sixteen or seventeen for girls, into the early twenties for boys.
An adolescent is very conscious of other people’s opinions, particularly their opinions about him, because his mind can now reason formally. He can think about what others might be thinking about him. He may also contemplate how different value systems would work in his life. He’s looking for what “fits” him. They may doubt their parents’ viewpoint, yet turn around and swallow the tales of the world around them, hook, line, and sinker.
As a writer for young adults, I find coming-of-age novels fascinating. They show the adolescent’s search for identity, which of course reflects the real-life struggles of real-life teens, but usually in a time-limited frame. Kelly Bingham, a YA writer and mother of teens, has compiled a list of some of these changes. She says that a teen protagonist often enters his or her story with one or more of the following: self-doubt, bitterness, anger, self-centeredness, jealousy, depression, guilt, refusing to mature, blaming others for their problems, wondering where they fit in, and/or wondering “who am I?” The adversity the teen faces in the novel at first creates a surge of self-doubt and no obvious way forward, says Bingham. By the end of the story, the teen has worked through his or her problems. Although they still have more maturing to do, teen protagonists have at least learned one or more positive traits: resourcefulness, bravery/courage, empathy/concern for others, the ability to ask for help, gratitude, resilience, hope, a conscious choice to mature, self-awareness, and a conscious search for who they are and where they belong. Bingham says these positive traits are what they can cling to when things get tough. (9)
But how do these changes come about? Through conflict, hardship, pain, and problems. As teens face challenges head-on, we adults need to allow them to feel the challenge, grapple with it, and grow through it, instead of trying to help them avoid or eliminate their pain. Orson Scott Card says, “Only when the loneliness becomes unbearable do adolescents root themselves, or try to root themselves. It may or may not be in the community of their childhood, and it may or may not be their childhood identity and connections that they resume upon entering adulthood.” (10) Of course, we pray that the teen finds his ultimate hope in God and His gift of love and grace in Jesus.
Since one of the teen’s strong desires is to be accepted, his morality tends to be a “conformist morality.” When he has a decision to make between right and wrong, he will ask, “What will they think of me if I do this (or if I don’t do this)?” The they in question are the people who are significant to him. They might be his school peer group, or his church youth group, or his youth director or teacher, or his parents. But the significant people in his life will become part of his moral compass.
Chip Wood points out that community service helps build moral strength. To this end, we need to involve young people in missions, serving the poor, disaster relief, building houses for needy families, emergency first-aid, and other areas of service. We can also train teens in the practical, real-life skill of mediation, helping others make peace. Serving others helps kids feel needed. It gives them something significant to accomplish and prepares them for the future. It can become part of the teen’s growing sense of identity. In fact, there is a growing group of teens who are expressing a “deep-seated exasperation” over the fact that they are “essentially deprived of opportunity to do their best – through ‘low expectations’ of society.” (11) They resent being thought of as the church of tomorrow. They are the church of today.
It’s interesting to note that a strong identity helps people resist temptation. Only when a young person knows who he is and what he believes can he be faithful to his beliefs and values. Isaiah told King Ahaz, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9). Standing firm is faithfulness.
Do you know any teenagers? What do they like? What are they “into?” What do they enjoy doing? What kind of music do they like? What kinds of games do they play? What do they talk about? You’ll notice a variety of personalities, and a variety of likes and dislikes. Is there common ground?
Look at your answers to these questions. Add that to the information you learned in this chapter. Now your challenge is to communicate God and His Word to teens through what they enjoy. How can you communicate in ways they can understand? How can you make God relevant to their world?
–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 9
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.
Photo courtesy pixabay.com
1) Chip Wood, Yardsticks.
2) Ron Habermas and David Olshine. How to Have a Real Conversation with Your Teen (Cincinnati: Standard, 1998).
3) “The Merchants of Cool” <www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/view> accessed 10/01/08.
4) David Kupelian, “Selling Sex and Corruption to Your Kids”
<www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=36598> accessed 10/01/08.
5) As quoted in “Teens Give Out MySpace Pages . . .” USA Today, Monday, January 9, 2006.
6) Kevin Huggins, Parenting Adolescents (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1989).
8) Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead (New York: Tor, 1991).
9) Kelly Bingham, “Facing Life Head On: Teen Protagonists,” lecture at Southern Festival of Books, Nashville, TN, Fall 2008.
10) Orson Scott Card.
11) Ralph D. Winter, editorial, Mission Frontiers, September-October 2008.