I’m convinced that understanding middle schoolers is the second most important thing you can do to increase your effectiveness as a parent. Yeah, it’s the second most important thing. So we’ll return to it in a couple of paragraphs.
The most important thing you can do to increase your effectiveness, as a Christian parent of a middle schooler, is to deepen your own connection to God. See, parenting a middle schooler flows out of who you are, not what you know. You can have all the best tricks for getting conversation going, an almost mystical ability to motivate your child, a deep understanding of middle schoolers, and the relational ability of Oprah Winfrey, but if you aren’t authentically and deeply connected to God, how would you stand a chance of pointing kids in God’s direction?
But I want to focus here on the second most important thing you can do to increase your effectiveness in parenting a young teen. And that, as I’ve said, is to understand young teens. Deeply.
I’ve been working with and studying young teens for more than three decades. And I can honestly say that while I’ve learned a ton about kids in that time, I still feel as though I’m always learning new stuff.
Early adolescence is a profoundly unique period of human development. Really, it’s just astounding how much is going on and how different it is from other developmental life stages.
Where most people go wrong (especially those who don’t work with young teens or don’t care about them) is in making one of two assumptions. And historically, most cultures have erred in one of these two directions.
The first extreme is to assume young teens are just little adults. (Or, that they are little versions of high schoolers, which is slightly different, but still inaccurate.) Young teens seem like teenagers in many ways, and they certainly want to be treated like teenagers and don’t want to be perceived as children. So we parents capitulate to culture—and to the premature desire of kids themselves—and assume they’re slightly smaller versions of ourselves (or slightly smaller versions of their older siblings).
Historically, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have treated young teens this way (at least for the last couple of hundred years). And with a media culture that serves up more of what young teen consumers want, this perception has deepened in recent decades.
The other extreme, of course, is the assumption that young teens are really just oversized children. This, for many reasons, seems to be the default in lots of churches. I believe this often comes from a desire to protect young teens from rushing into adulthood and adult-like behaviors. In some ways this is a good motivation, and it carries some developmentally appropriate freight. But it can also be misguided—an overprotection that stunts the growth of kids during this critical transitionary time of life.
The dealio, as I’ve clearly tipped my hand, is that neither of these extremes is especially helpful.
If I asked you to summarize the young teen experience in only one word, what would you choose? I’ve asked this question from time to time during seminars and conversations, and here are a few common responses I’ve heard:
- Challenging-but-full-of-possibility (People always try to get away with strings of hyphenated words when you ask for just one.)
If you asked me (Go ahead and ask. Say it out loud: “Marko, if you were to describe the young teen experience in one word, what word would you choose?”), I’d respond calmly: “Change.”
That’s it, in a word. The life of a middle schooler is all about change. As previously noted, it’s the second most significant period of change in the human lifespan. Stepping into puberty, and the two or three years that follow, brings about cataclysmic change in pretty much every area of life. It’s a deeply radical seismic shift that upends everything that was and ushers in a period of profound instability.
Think of a significant change you’ve experienced in your adult life—maybe a move or a new job. Remember how you felt during that time? You probably experienced a combination of uneasiness (from fear of the unknown) and excitement (from the prospect of what could be). That’s very much akin to the experience of early adolescence.
But the difference between a significant change you may have experienced as an adult and the significant change young teens are slogging through is this: Your feelings associated with change are mostly due to external factors. You likely experienced all kinds of internal stuff as a result of the external factors. But for young teens, the momentum of change is largely internal (although most young teens experience a host of external changes—such as a new school, new youth group, new friends, new freedoms—that further radicalize the internal stuff). The massive tsunami of change in the life of a 13-year-old is developmental, stemming from physical, cognitive, emotional, relational, and spiritual changes that are taking place in their bodies and minds.
This article is an excerpt from Mark Oestreicher’s book, Understanding Your Young Teen (Zondervan, 2011).
Mark Oestreicher is a partner in The Youth Cartel, and the author of multiple books for parents.
(Marko) is a veteran youth worker
and founding partner in The Youth Cartel
, providing resources, training and coaching
for church youth workers. The author of dozens of books, including Understanding Your Young Teen
, and Youth Ministry
, Marko is a sought after speaker, writer and consultant. Marko lives in San
Diego with his wife Jeannie and two teenage children, Liesl and Max. Marko’s blog:
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