i’m starting a new series of occasional posts with this one. i’ll probably post about one per week or so. but these will be a random tidbit of input for parents of pre-teens and young teens. if you’re a youth worker, feel free to copy and paste these into a parent newsletter or email (though i’d appreciate a credit line), for forward them a link.
A nervous set of parents met with me. Tears came quickly. Judy, the mom, spoke in-between honks into her tissue: “Johnny, our 7th grader… [honk!]… he’s always been such a good boy. And he’s always loved Jesus.”
The dad nodded.
Judy continued: “But the other night at dinner… [honk!]… Johnny said, ‘I’m not sure I want to be a Christian anymore.’” [honk!]
A big smile broke out across my face.
Their faces made it obvious they were somewhere between confused and offended by my grin. So I explained:
Questioning and examining (usually called “doubting”) Mom and Dad’s faith system, or her own childhood faith system, is a necessary part of early teen faith development.
Did you catch that? Parents (and plenty of youth workers) are usually threatened, even frightened, by their kids’ doubts. But teenagers who don’t go through this process will reach their early 20s with a stunted (childish) faith!
Let me back up and explain a bit more fully.
The Task of Discovery
Stephen Glenn, a psychologist who published a bunch in the 70s and 80s, developed a helpful little timeline (I’m modifying the ages Glenn suggests to account for our current context). He said the first few years of life are all about “discovery”. The next few years (4 – 7, roughly) are all about “testing”. And the years from 8 – 10 are focused on “concluding.”
Then a shift of seismic proportions–-usually called puberty–-comes along like massive storm waves crashing against a sea wall made of chalk or sandstone. Wave after wave, erosion takes place–erosion of all those nice pre-teen conclusions. And the cycle begins again: 11 – 14 are years of “discovery”; 15 to 20 year-olds tend to focus on “testing”; and those in their 20something years (now called “emerging adults”) shift to forming conclusions.
Can’t you see that in your young teen? They’re in the midst of a massive adventure of discovery. That’s why they want to try everything–four sports, three clubs, five friendship groups, a new hobby or collection each month. They’re trying to gather data about the world, about how people interact, about values, about reactions. And, about what it means to be a Christ-follower.
So wrestling with “what do I believe?” becomes a wonderful question for young teens to ask. That doesn’t mean we fan the flames of their doubts (“I can’t believe you still believe that!”). It means we come alongside them in their doubts, rather than interpreting those questions (that data collection) as a real rejection of faith.
How Should Parents Respond?
Don’t freak out. When you hear doubts squeaking out, take a deep breath. Thank God that your budding teenager is still willing to verbalize this kind of thing with you. A strong negative reaction will teach your child that she shouldn’t share in the future.
Exercise curiosity. Young teens rarely have the self-awareness to verbalize their doubts in helpful and constructive ways. We have to look beyond the presenting evidence for the question(s) forming in the background. And we have to ask.
Encourage verbalization. In other words, talk about it! Healthy dialogue is often all that’s needed. Ask questions, rather than preaching.
Share in first-person. Your pre-teen or young teen will “catch” more from your life than from your words. When you do choose to share words, try not to be too prescriptive (“Johnny, what you need to do is this….”). Instead, share from your own life. Respond to doubts with your own story, including your own doubts (past or present).
Pray. Isn’t that one obvious? Your child is going through the most formative and tender years in faith development. Talk to God constantly!
Mark Oestreicher is a partner in The Youth Cartel, a veteran youth worker, and a parent of a 20 year-old daughter and 16 year-old son. He speaks frequently to parents, and is the author or co-author of six books for parents, including A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Guys, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Girls, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains, A Parents Guide to Understanding Social Media, A Parents Guide to Understanding Sex & Dating, and Understanding Your Young Teen. With his own “apprentice adults,” he co-authored a book for teenagers: 99 Thoughts on Raising Your Parents.