I’d like to mention one more thing before we begin – just to ask the question, “Why is it important to know about developmental stages?” It helps us understand children better – what they’re hard-wired to learn at each age. And it’s easier to relate to people when we understand them. I know for myself, once I learned about these stages, it helped me a lot, because I had a framework to hang my interactions with kids on. As I was at school, I could see things more clearly and understand it. And so there was a framework to work from.
One last thing I want to mention before I begin. There is a huge difference between a twelve- year-old and an eighteen-year-old. And there are huge differences between one thirteen-year-old and another thirteen-year-old and one eighteen-year-old and another eighteen-year-old. So it’s quite possible that many of the generalizations that I’m going to make here today might not apply to any given young person.
So let’s begin. We’ve started each one of these by discussing the developmental tasks of each age group. And the first one in the book is physical development. Adolescence is a time of incredible physical change for this age group. And the tendency, I think, for adults is to think it’s going to happen, so what’s to know. It just happens to everybody. And the older we get –the more time we get, as adults, between that change that we had and where we are now – the less we remember about how difficult it was. I think the thing that helps me to think about is that change is always stressful for people, because with this kind of change going on with young people, sometimes it is stressful to them. They may be self-conscious about the changes that are taking place. Or they may not. It just depends on the individual. Most kids, from my experience, pretty well sail through this phase. The difficulty for some in dealing with these changes is compounded by another factor. And that is, when we’re teenagers, there’s a narcissistic component to our thinking. Now I hate that word, because when you talk about narcissistic personalities, it’s talking about mental illness. But this isn’t that kind of narcissistic. It’s just that because they’ve had so little experience living life – so many things are new to them – that they focus on that a lot. And most of the things are happening to them , so it’s focusing on self. I try to think about it that way. But when we’re that age, quite often, our emphasis is on what’s going on with us. And anyone working with people this age needs to understand that that can cause additional sensitivity.
There was a boy I knew – I think he was about sixteen – but he’d grown about six inches in six months. And at that stage with him, there was just too much of everything. And his brain wiring, literally, had not caught up to all of that. So he was always snagging elbows and toes and knees on table legs, and tripping over his own feet and falling down, and he was really having a hard time with basketball. So I remember that I had invited him to go to a movie with me one Sunday. And we went in and we got our seats, and right after we got settled he got up and he went out and he bought this gigantic tub of popcorn and this great big drink. And the theater that we had back then…there were two doors close together. You opened one door and it shut. You opened the other and it shut. So it formed a little tiny room in between these two doors. Well, when he was coming back with his popcorn and this big drink, navigating those doors, he dropped this humongous tub of popcorn right in this little room. He was probably knee deep in the stuff. He came back to his seat, kind of wagging his head, and he sat down and he told me what he’d done. And I said, “I bet, if you take that tub outside and tell them what happened, they’ll just give you a new one. And they’d probably like to know that that room is knee deep in popcorn, too.” So he went out and he came back, and sure enough, he had another great big tub of popcorn. And he sat down, a few minutes later, he spilled his whole drink in his lap. Later we went out to catch a bite and he told me that everyone knew he was a total klutz, and he worried out loud if he would ever be able to play basketball. So everybody knew that he was klutz. That’s that narcissistic component. Not everybody knew that he was klutz. Only he and I, at that moment, knew that. What I told him was – and I didn’t know that much about how to help people with issues at that time – but I told him that what was happening to him was completely normal, and that in six months it was just go away all by itself. That was somewhat helpful to him, because, as you’ll see, kids can understand the process of time by the time they get to that age. But it really didn’t do him that much good, because he still had to deal with all that extra stuff he was carrying around and his brain didn’t know what to do with it.
But I did offer to help him with his basketball. And six months later we were at a church basketball tournament, and I noticed that he was creating a large space under the offensive boards, and ripping down every rebound that came his way and laying the ball back up on the glass with a velvet touch. Looking back at it I think perhaps the most helpful aspect of the support I was able to give, actually, was the time that we spent practicing together. Because of his teenage, kind of self-centered way of thinking, he’d convinced himself that his stalkiness made him completely useless. And I think my willingness to invest time with him probably knocked the edge off of that – dispelled it a little bit.
Girls have concerns about body changes, too, but in a whole different way than boys do. According to recent studies, girls are a lot more dissatisfied with their appearance than boys are. The main thing, according to the studies, is that adolescent girls worry a lot about obesity. It’s really good to know this. Bulimia and anorexia are on the increase among teenage girls. Our girls are susceptible to that. And I’d just like to say to all the men and all the guys, “Listen to this. When you are talking to a young girl, never , never , never make any negative remarks or references to size, shape or body attributes – ever. Just be blind to it. Leave it alone, unless they bring it up. And never tease them about it. You know, I’ve teased a lot of kids about a lot of things, and sometimes I get myself in trouble, but I can honestly say, I’ve never teased anybody about that. Anorexia and bulimia are nothing to fool with. They are life-threatening conditions. And wouldn’t we hate to contribute to something that serious.
Some time ago I was talking to a nineteen-year-old I’d known for a long time. She’d made a special trip to visit Elaine and me. And she came to see us because we used to be close, and she missed us. A few years earlier our church had suffered a split, and all her friends went another direction. So there she was alone at church. And I noticed that and started taking an interest in her to try to help her get through it, and we developed a friendship. And then, of course, we had to move away. So several years later she had come to visit, I’m pretty sure, with the hope of rekindling that closeness that we had in the past. And one evening we were sitting out on the patio, talking about nothing in particular, when she mentioned that she was quite dissatisfied with her shape. My natural inclination was just to blow it off, and say, “Come on, you know you’re a babe!” But I didn’t say that. And I’m bringing this up to help all the people, who might be uncomfortable with the issue, realize there’s something they very much need to know about this – girls. Why would a young girl confess her worries on this subject to an older man? Pretty risky, really. Quite vulnerable. Well, men and boys do things together to feel close. You know, the male bonding thing? Going out and riding dirt bikes down steep hills till their hair is on fire, and crashing, and all that sort of thing. Most men do not know that most women and girls seek closeness by going face to face and talking about issues that are of concern to them. So she brings this up, I think, because it’s a vehicle by which she can regain the closeness we had. This points to this whole issue that value transmission takes place in loving relationships. She’s instinctively seeking a face-to-face highly personal interaction with one, who in her past, was sensitive enough to notice that she was hurting, and who cared enough to help her when she needed it most. When we have that kind of a relationship with a young person, what we believe becomes important to them. And that’s one reason why she’s bringing up this sensitive issue. She wants to know, “What do you think?” So you’re probably wondering what I said to her. And what I said was, “It sounds like you think you might not be attractive to the opposite sex.” And yeah, that was the case, and so we noodled that one for awhile and through the course of the conversation, I helped her recall a significant number of positive interactions she’d had with boys her own age. And that seemed to help her allay her apprehensions. And then we moved on to less important issues, like world peace after that. She’s happily married now, and she’s a mother, and that concern is ancient history – left behind with her teenage years.
Now these super sensitive issues don’t come up often, but if they do come up, it’s an opportunity to provide help when it’s needed the most. And it’s the kind of help that’s not soon forgotten either. We can do a whole lot of good, or we can blow it big time. And the difference is sensitivity.
Now if the body changes dramatically during this age, the mind changes even more. The next task of teenage is what they call formal operational thought. What’s that? The ability to manipulate mentally more than two categories of variables simultaneously. They can think about changes that come with time. So it is helpful to tell somebody who’s clumsy that in six months they’re not going to be. People can think about, at this age, logical sequences of events. So they can put things in logical order. And they can make plans – much more so than an elementary-aged child. They can see logical consequences of their actions. So that means that they can look down the road and figure out how to avoid problems, or how to go toward something good. They can see logical inconsistency in a set of statements. And what that means for us is, we’d better have our ducks lined up if we want to convince them of anything. You know, it better make sense. And also the ability to think about self, others and the world in a relativistic way. So that ability gives them the ability to understand God and the behavior of others and themselves in a way they never could before. That’s formal operational thought.
Now, it’s not in the textbook that I’ve been using as an outline, but brain research has shown that these new mental capabilities give teenagers a capacity to understand spiritual issues, and to ask and seek answers for the great transcendent questions of life. I know I first listened to a man on the radio when I was thirteen. That made an impact on me. If I had heard that a couple of years earlier, it would have (swish) right over my head, probably. In fact I may have heard him a few years earlier, but when I was thirteen, I had the brain wiring to analyze and think about what I was hearing.
So, that’s good for us to understand that, because we need to know that it’s an important time for spiritual exploration for people this age. And they have been hard wired – they have the hard wiring in place, actually – to build connections with others outside the home, and the drive for the relationships there. That has huge implications for us in the church.
When we think of this, we immediately think of peers. And that is the main drive of most teenagers, but teens also seek relationships outside of the family with adults. A lot of people don’t think about that because you hear peer pressure, peer pressure, peer pressure. But it’s not just a drive to build relationships with peers, although that is the main focus. They have a drive built into them to connect to groups of teens, and they’re also open to spiritual values and people in the congregation if they feel close to them. Let me repeat that: if they feel close to them.
The next thing we want to look at is emotional development. People this age often experience extreme mood swings and heightened emotions. Teen suicide is a big, big issue in this country. The statistics are skyrocketing. Teen depression, teen anxiety disorders are really starting to climb – much more so than in past years. And we’ll talk a little bit about why as we go through this.
For a long time people have thought that during this age, people develop the ability to experience heightened emotion. And they think that it’s all sort of augmented or magnified by all the new hormones that are in their systems. But actually, the latest research is proving that that really isn’t what’s going on at all.
I work with elementary-aged kids all day long, and I can absolutely vouch for the fact that they have the capacity for extremely intense emotion. That’s already there, and it’s been there for a long time by the time kids hit twelve years old. The extremes that you see in emotions, and the swings that teenagers experience, isn’t because they’re just now being able to feel those things. I believe that it has a lot to do with the fact that the frontal brain and the outer brain wiring isn’t yet in place. And I’m going to explain what I mean by that. And also, coupled with the lack of life experience, it causes the emotional extremes that kids are prone to feel at this time. It’s kind of complex, so it’s going to take me a while to get around all of that.
What does this mean in practical terms for those of us who want to help teenagers? Well, what it means is, if they are upset, if they are depressed, it they are anxious, we really need to take it seriously. If a teenager is behind in school and stressed about it, it’s really easy for adults to blow it off, and say, “That’s just a part of life. When they get to be forty, nobody will care.” But if a teen hasn’t lived that much life yet, to them it’s a serious problem. And those feelings are very real to them. They’re caused by real stimuli and the stress that they feel is real stress. And it’s going to cause real stress reactions as well. So the problems deserve our respect.
If a young guy’s afraid that he’s going to be clumsy forever, and never learn how to play basketball, and that fear causes him to become so anxious that he can’t sleep, that’s not just his hormones. He has a real problem he’s worried about – a problem that’s all new to him – that he’s never experienced before.
Now, let’s talk about two other things that we know about human development at this age that ties in with this business with what’s going on with the emotion. Let’s talk about that narcissistic component. Part of the reason this young boy that I mentioned is so concerned about his clumsiness, or the young girl her shape, is because they think everybody is as aware of it as they are. We mentioned that already. They don’t realize that nobody else is as concerned about it as they are. But we can blow that off as adults, or we can realize, “Oh, this is really an issue for them.” Sensitive adults can support them through these phases. And it helps them a little bit to know it’s a phase, but it helps them more when adults take their concern seriously, and help them verbalize them.
When we’re born, we’re completely emotional beings. Did you know that before a baby is born, it can tell whether it’s loved or not? It can detect feelings. We can’t think in words yet, but we can detect whether or not we’re loved. And in the first two years of life, the limbic system – that’s the part of the brain under the cortex – wires itself and we gradually become able to experience emotions, as well as detect them in other people. And at a much slower rate, the cortex begins to wire. And that’s the part where the cognitive abilities come from – the abilities for speech, and for analysis and reason, and all those things that we saw there in formal operations.
So why is it important to know that? Have you ever asked a teen a rhetorical question, and have them tell you, “I don’t know?” That means one of two things. They either don’t want to talk about it, or they don’t know. And the latter can be translated, in some cases, to mean, “I don’t know how to think about this.” So when we have trouble putting our feelings into words…. You know, it’s hard to process things in an intellectual level when you don’t have what it takes to think about it. And we become at the mercy of our feelings then, because that’s what we’ve got and that’s what we’re used to. That’s been wired in since we’ve been two, and that’s where we go. So teenagers, a lot of times, have a lot of strong feelings, but they’re not able to think about them in an organized way. Remember, I was talking about the developmental stages, and how they’re a framework to hang your knowledge and experiences on? It’s very helpful for us to have those things. All that takes place in your cortex. And if there’s lack of wiring there, because of immaturity, it’s hard to organize our experiences. And what we have left is our feelings.
When you go to rent a car, they want two things from you. They want a credit card and they want a driver’s license that shows, number one, the same name as the credit card, and they want to show that you are twenty-five years old or older. And that’s because they know that younger people often rely on their feelings to make decisions, rather than on their ability to process things with their intellect. We have a lot of wiring already at teenage, but we’re not used to using it yet, because all our lives we functioned from another place in the brain. So this whole cognitive-emotional issue is really important if you want to understand how to relate to and help teenagers.
I received a phone call from a lady, who had been in a congregation that I used to pastor years ago, and she told me that her seventeen-year-old daughter was going steady with a boy, and the family was in conflict over that issue. And I knew this girl well. She was a wonderful child when I knew her, and her parents had done a really great job with her, and she’d done a really great job with herself, as well. And I had a lot of respect for her. So I asked her mother if she would be willing to talk to me. And she was. So I said, “You just heard what your mother said?” And she said, “Yes.” And I said, “Well, I want to know what you think about all of this.” And immediately she poured this torrent of words and tears, “I just want to be with him .” And the him was like in all caps every time she said it. “And we’re not doing anything wrong, and it’s so unfair that my parents don’t trust me, and my dad’s acting like Hitler, and he’s so mean, and I don’t want it to be like this. I love my dad.” And after she disgorged this torrent of raw emotion, she started to calm down a little bit. And so I summarized what she said, adding the emotions in, and I said, “You love your parents, and it hurts you that this disagreement has come up. But you know you aren’t doing anything wrong, and you really want to be with HIM .” And I all-capped that myself. “Any you just wish your parents would understand that.” And she said, “Yes!” And then she covered the same ground all over again, this time with even deeper emotion and more detail, and even deeper expression of frustration and love for her parents, and for HIM ! And after that, I asked her to do something that she hadn’t done yet. I said, “Why do you think your parents are acting this way?” See, she has to go to another place now, doesn’t she? I’m inviting her up out of her limbic system into this new place that she has, where there’s all this new wiring. And you know, there was this long pause, and she slowly formulated this wonderful presentation, telling me that her parents deeply love her, and only want to protect her, but she really wants to be with him , and it really is frustrating that they won’t let her do that. And they just don’t understand that she’s old enough to take care of herself, and needs to have some freedom to live her life. I mean, you could almost hear her brain wiring itself. By the time she finished that explanation, she was much more calm than she was at the beginning. As she processes this whole thing, she’s actually using a different part of the brain. And that’s the intellectual part. So the emotion is put aside while she thinks about this in an adult way. And then, I said, “If you hired a professional negotiator to talk to your parents and work out a compromise, what would be the most important thing you could hope to get out of the negotiation?” And she didn’t need to go to her cortex for that one. She immediately said, “More time with him !” And I said, “If you were going to give up one thing to get more time with him, what would you be willing to give up?” Well, once again, I was asking her to go to a different place than she’d been used to going to, and so she processed that for a bit. And then she said this – now listen to this – she said, “I think my dad just wants me to be safe. I think he doesn’t want us to be out in the car alone so much. So maybe we could agree that I could bring him to our house, or we could go to his house, or maybe we could do some things with other people more.” There’s a lot of adults that can’t do what she did right there. Not only did she come up with what she wanted, which is what I asked her to do, she also crawled inside her dad’s skin and understood what he was worried about and how he was feeling. See, she’s not stupid at all! She’s really smart. But she’s just not used to using all that stuff. It’s new stuff for her. And she went where she needed to go very rapidly. So I said, “Why don’t you let things calm down for a few days, and then talk to your parents when they’re in a good mood. Maybe you could start out by telling them how much you love them, and then how much you want to please them, and how much he means to you. And then you can offer the deal. And if they like the deal, make sure everything’s nailed down, so everybody knows exactly what we’re going to be doing. What does that sound like to you?” And she said, “That sounds good.”
I think that this girl had some really great intellectual and cognitive capabilities already, but she’s still going to go with her feelings, because that’s what she’s been used to all of her life. And all the research says that we don’t really finish that process and move up into our intellect, as an adult does, until we’re about twenty-five years old. Girls do it sooner than boys do actually, as the women are quick to point out to me at every possible opportunity. (Chuckle) As she tried to talk about it, at first, she was overwhelmed by those feelings, which were more real to her than any thoughts she might have on it. But because she was raised in a loving home, she was naturally able to slip into her father’s skin and feel his anxiety – something that a lot of adults can’t do – and it was very beneficial to her to have somebody help her put words to the feelings, and develop a plan.
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s good to know this about kids, but here’s the kicker, okay? A few days later, her mother called again. And her daughter’s initiative to communicate had caused the tension to resolve in favor of a compromise. So all is now well with the world in their house. And after her mother told me this, she asked me this question. She said, “How did you cause her to feel so completely respected and loved in only ten minutes?” And I said, “From the time your daughter was in elementary school, she has known that I have respected and loved her. We were just picking up from where we left off.” What’s the connection here, as far as values transmission and faith transmission? Well, when somebody feels respected and loved by somebody older, they’re willing to listen to their suggestions about what to do, and buy into them. What the older person believes becomes important to the one who’s younger. And it’s also really helpful, to most teens, when somebody can help them process their feelings and put them into words. When we ask them questions like this, then it helps them wire their brain and to engage their intellect. But that happens only when there’s a trusting relationship. And love and respect are what causes trust to flourish.
Now, here’s something else I want to point out about emotional development at this age. And this is a huge one. Adults tend to forget about this completely. One year, while I was at the Feast, a lady in our congregation had an automobile accident on her way to the Feast. And she suffered a severe concussion and was hospitalized. And her seventeen-year-old daughter was with her, but she was unharmed. And the accident occurred several hours away from the Feast site. And her father, who wasn’t a member of the church, was clear across the country on business. And he was contacted finally, and was on his way home, but he hadn’t been able to get there yet. The accident happened that day. So a chaplain, who was associated with the hospital, placed this seventeen-year-old girl from our congregation with a family that he knew near the hospital until someone could come for her. And of course, I was hard to reach, because you know how it is at the Feast when everybody is in a temporary place, but they finally got a hold of me. It was late at night, but I went down there immediately to see what could be done. I went to the house where the girl was staying with these people, and the father, the mother, the chaplain, the girl and I sat around and we had this really adult conversation about what should happen. And it was decided that this girl would stay the night, so she could see her mother in the morning. And then I was going to come back in the afternoon to see how things were going, and possibly take her to stay with somebody at the site – we didn’t know whether her dad was going to make it back right away or not. So it was still kind of up in the air. So, after we all agreed that that was the thing to do, the woman and the girl went off to make a place for her for the night, and the rest of us continued talking. I just marveled at how strong this girl was. This was a really stressful situation – alone and isolated, and her mother’s in the hospital unconscious – just survived a car accident. So, sometime later, the lady comes back and sits down. It was a few minutes later that I noticed this girl was in the hallway. And I just gave her the slightest head nod, and just like that she was in the circle, and came up and sat down beside me. She got up on the couch and just proceeded to mold herself into my side, as though she were a little child. Now, this girl was one of the fastest milers in northern California. She had stellar SAT scores. She was a real presence wherever she went, but when she was under extreme emotional duress, she very much needed to be cuddled – just like a little child.
But it doesn’t always have to be a major crisis when this need comes up for young people. There was a lady in our congregation that taught a number of the teenage girls in the church to play the flute. And when she heard that James Gallway was coming to town, she bought tickets and invited all the flute players and a couple of chaperones to come. Elaine and I got an invitation. (I think you were sick that day, but I went.) One of the girls that was in this group was just barely fourteen. And her family didn’t have a lot of money and she’d never attended a concert in her life. And I knew her quite well, because I’d been working with her on some family issues. And after the concert, we went out to an upscale restaurant, which was another thing that she never got much of a chance to do, I don’t think. And so, the adults were all sitting in a booth, and the girls were sitting several tables back, practicing being adults. After a bit I noticed this young teen standing beside me, peering about. I looked up and there she is, and she’s smiling at me. She didn’t say anything. And I said, “Hi.” And she said, “Hi.” And just continued smiling at me. And I said, “Is there something I can do to help you.” And she said, “It’s raining.” So I turned around and I looked out the window. “Yes, it is raining.” And since we’re in California, that is a bit more novel than if we were in Chicago, say, but not that much. And so I said, “Are you sure there isn’t anything I can do for you?” And she said, “Oh no, I just wanted to tell you, ‘It’s raining.’” And she went back and sat back down with her friends at her table and had a great time with the other girls. And I turned back to the adults, and I said in kind of a low voice, “Now, what in the world was that about?” And the woman looked at me with this look like, “Honestly, you men, you just don’t get it, do you?” But instead she said, “She’s feeling a little insecure, and she just wanted to know you were close by.” I see that all the time at elementary school now. I call them “cruise-bys.” You know, “Just wanted to see if you were near.”
Have you ever visited people who have a toddler? The baby crawls up in the mother’s arms when company comes, because this is something new and different – scary – and after a while, she becomes curious. And so she gets down and, after a period of cruise-bys, she winds up facing you. And you make eye contact and speak to her, and immediately, she makes a bee-line back to mother. The emotional effort required to explore and make eye contact with a stranger has drained her little emotional tank, and so she goes back to the source of emotional nurturing for refueling. And you know, we’re all nodding our heads, because we all get that about babies, right? That’s just how they are. Teenagers are very much like that, too, under certain circumstances. Now that’s a generalization. Some of them are more like that than others. And you’re thinking, “Boys aren’t like that.” Boys are very much like that, but they just do it in a completely different way than girls do it. I think that’s one of the biggest things I learned about working with kids that helped me to help them. I mean, I’ve seen this all the way up through college-age people. I guess we never really get away from it if the trauma is bad enough, right? At those times, some eye contact, a smile, a little squeeze is just so helpful to them. They’re all hard-wired to work on becoming adults, and some of them don’t like to be reminded of that, but that’s still a fact, like it or not. We would all be well-served to remember that. Emotional support helps them navigate through the tremendous changes they have to make.
Peer relationships. This is the next one. Membership in the peer group. When we become teens, that’s the next developmental area we have to work on. It’s not the next one, but it’s the next one I’m covering. It all happens all at the same time.
I can remember at fourteen, being perplexed while I was on vacation with my family, because I remembered the vacation we took just the year earlier when I was thirteen, and how happy I was to be with them on vacation. And at fourteen, all I wanted to do was get back and hang out with my friends. It was just totally boring to be with Mom and Dad. And even thinking about it at fourteen years of age, I was perplexed by the change. I recognized that I was not the same as I was a year earlier, and I didn’t know why I felt that way. In fact, I felt a little bit guilty about it. But the fact is that God has created teenagers with this drive to prepare them for adult life. So it’s important to know how to get along with people one’s own age, because those are the people you’re going to be adults with later.
Now, this change is often quite frightening to parents. And this would be a great place – a logical place – to launch into a big speech about parenting principles. But this series is going to be long enough, so I think I’ll save that discussion of parenting for another venue – probably a workshop, where we can really dig into it, and go hands on and learn some of the stuff that really works. But if parents have worked hard to build a loving relationship with their children, they really have nothing to fear. The truth is, that even though teens are driven to spend time with friends, they’re home base – both emotionally and morally – is still at home. That’s just how it is. And if they feel a part of their congregation, that, too, carries serious influence in their lives. If they can relate to people their own age at church, it’s just a natural bridge to faith development. And if they can relate to the adults in the congregation, then that’s also a huge bridge for them. So, this thing isn’t a negative. It just depends on a lot of circumstances, whether it’s positive or negative.
The last task I want to talk about of teenage is sexual relationship. There are some really sad statistics about this one. In America, most people today have sex first when they’re teenagers. That’s just an unhappy statistic. It’s a sign, in my mind, of a society that’s lost its way, and is in decline. Last year, a lady named Pam Stenzel gave a presentation about sex to a church youth audience. I wasn’t there, but I saw the video. And it was a powerful presentation. She used her experience working in a clinic as a basis, and essentially, what she talked about was all the diseases people can catch from having sex outside of marriage.
Now, disease isn’t the only problem – perhaps, not even the most damaging problem. And I hope some day soon to do a presentation to show what sex outside of marriage does to the emotion, to the heart, to the spirit and to the relationship that people have.
In psychology, when they talk about sexual relationships, they’re generally talking about any kind of relationship between people of the opposite sex. Okay? So, the way this term is used in the textbook, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are having sex. It just means that there’s new hormones in the human body at this age, and so they start to relate to people of the opposite sex in a different way. And that difference is sexual, because those are sex hormones floating around in the bloodstream. God made it this way. It’s very important. And it is a sexual difference. So, that’s why they talk about it in those terms.
Now, once a child enters puberty, there’s this new element that’s added to his or her relationships with the opposite sex, and that’s another huge change. And it takes time for kids to sort through all of the new feelings that come along with that. It’s not unreasonable to expect them to be confused about these feelings, and to wonder about how to navigate this new dimension that’s suddenly been added to themselves. And that’s even more true if a child has been sexually abused. The natural boundaries that are in place with most people just naturally get distorted through that kind of mistreatment. And in the past I worked with a number of young boys and girls who have been exploited in this way. And men, especially, have to be careful in this case, because in some of these girls – and this would be the worst case – they can tend to interpret any kind of male attention as sexual attention, when that’s the last thing on the man’s mind. And at the least, it can sometimes cause them to be confused about the whole issue. Though I’ve found a really great way to help with that. When I’ve had to work with little girls that I’ve known have been sexually mistreated, I have to be really careful, but the thing that really helps them is, if I talk about my wife. That helps them understand that while their relationship with me is indeed male/female, it’s not going to be any other kind of relationship, but psychotherapeutic, or mentoring, or friendship, because I’m already attached. Now, do you sense how awkward it is to put this into words? It’s clumsy. It’s embarrassing. Talking about my wife is a gentle, graceful way of delivering the message without all that clumsiness. You don’t have to talk about it, but the message still gets delivered. And once that message is in place, then it is possible to have a caring, supportive relationship with the child that has been abused sexually. And I’ll just say this. Unless a girl knows she’s safe – beyond any doubt – there’s not going to be any helping her, because the help is in the relationship. So, if she can feel safe, then a relationship with an adult male can be very therapeutic for her.
Now, again, that’s not something we deal with every day, though very important knowledge nonetheless. 25% of all the females in America have been, at some time in their lives, sexually mistreated. That’s the statistic and when I had a congregation with twenty girls in it, four of them disclosed about that kind of situation in their lives. So, even in the church, that 25% – from my personal experience – holds true.
Okay, moving on. Those are the five developmental tasks of early adolescence – twelve to eighteen. We’re now going to talk about the psychosocial crisis of that age group. It is the crisis between group identity versus alienation. And the idea here is that we’re infants, the task is to develop a healthy sense of “I.” “I am loved. I am cared for. And because of that, I can trust, and I can attach to mother safely.” And that happens when we’re allowed to develop a secure attachment, first to our mother, and then to our father – or other care-givers, in some cases.
So this teenage group identity phase comes out of that same place – that same deep desire for attachment – to be connected. And God built this into us so that we would be motivated to learn to love other people, and to be loved by them – a vital component of spiritual life. What if we went into the Kingdom of God with no motivation to love others? This is a huge blessing for us.
So the focus on the minds of most teens is to connect with people their own age, however peer attachment does not replace family attachment at this age. Teens benefit from, or seek out, or welcome attachment with people of other ages as well as those their own age. And they seek attachment to other groups besides just groups of people their own age. And one of those groups – if the environment is right – is the church, provided the church can hold out the hope of connection for them. So God has provided an open door for the church, built in to each child’s mind. It’s amazing how that works. They just are naturally looking for an authoritative community to which they can belong. And all we have to do is provide it for them. And they’ll just naturally be attracted to it.
The other side of the coin is the alienation side. For many teens the congregation presents such a formidable challenge that they get discouraged and go elsewhere to fulfill their group-belonging need. Sometimes they’re not even able to successfully attach to other kids in the congregation. And the sense that comes with that kind of failure is spiritual alienation.
For a few years I managed a national youth program for a large Sabbatarian church, and I frequently traveled, speaking in congregations about youth issues around the country. And several days after I returned from one of these trips, a teenage girl called me from a city I had just visited. And she told me that her high school graduation was coming, and her grandfather would be there. He had molested her when she was a little girl, and she was extremely anxious about it. And of course, the big question in my mind, as I’m listening to this horrific tale, “Why is this girl calling me – a complete stranger? She’s heard me speak one time at church.” And I asked her if she’d talked to her parents about it, and she said they just told her to ignore it. And I said, “Well, is there any adult you can talk to about this?” And she said, “No.” That was such an amazing statement to me, I guess I just didn’t believe it. So I said, “Well, how about your pastor?” And she said, “Well, he’s good friends with my parents.” Now it takes so much courage and trust for a teen to talk to an adult who’s good friends with their parents. People who work closely with kids need to be able to keep confidences. And I said, “How about your youth coordinator?” And she said, “Well, he couldn’t handle it.” And, “Well, how about one of your friends’ mothers?” “No.” “How about a teacher or a school counselor?” And as I posed these possibilities to her one by one, I began to realize that in a congregation of 500 people, in a city of several million, there was not a single adult active in the life of this child – not a single person that she could go to for help with this horrible problem. The invisible girl. Her isolation was complete. I’m sure that if I went to her church and told all the adults that story, they would have been mortified. And they would have all wanted to rush to her rescue. But, you see, they hadn’t done their work, and there was no relationship in place. She did not know the people there that cared about her, because no one had expressed care. And it was spiritually devastating to her.
And I tell you this story to make one point. Every time you hear of a teen suicide, every time another drifts away from us, it’s always, in some way, about a lack of human connectedness. Children are hardwired to connect to God and His church – they’re predisposed to it. Every cell in their brain craves it. And if those longings are to be fulfilled, we have to first be available to them, because we are the connecting point. If we want to stop the bleeding of the body of Christ, we’re going to have to learn how to connect lovingly and authentically to the children around us. And until we do that, that hemorrhage is going to continue. Do you remember what Jesus said about those people who offend little ones who believe in Him? One of the strongest statements He ever made.
Okay, let’s move on to the central process – the central process to resolve this psychosocial crisis between group identity and alienation is peer pressure. And as noted earlier, when you put the words teenager, peer and pressure together in one sentence, it scares the living daylights out of adults – especially the ones that are way too controlling. They think of all the bad influences that their teenagers could be susceptible to if they choose the wrong peer group. And you know, that is a legitimate concern in some situations. However, peer pressure can also be very positive and incredibly supportive for teenagers – if we work to make it that way.
I received a phone call one night from a boy. And he was worried about one of the girls in our church group. He had heard her say that she wished she were dead. And I asked him if he thought she was thinking of suicide, and he said she was really unhappy, and really emotional, and he didn’t know for sure, but he didn’t think she would really go through with it, but he was still very frightened. And he was frightened enough to know he was frightened and to tell me that he was frightened. And he also told me that the other kids had heard her say it, and they were all praying for her and really worried. And as a group, they had selected him to call me. So they already had a plan and they were working on behalf of their friend. That’s positive peer activity, isn’t it? That’s good. Well, I did two things. I made a beeline for her house, because you never assume it’s not a crisis until you know it’s not a crisis. And in a crisis, there are no lone rangers. You have to immediately involve more people. So the plan this group formulated was a good one. I don’t think they knew suicide protocol, but they were already starting to involve other people to get help for this girl. And the second thing I did was set up a meeting with all her friends who heard it, and after volleyball practice the next weekend, we processed the feelings that came up, and we developed a deeper support plan for her. And you know, I can tell you that those young people felt deeply committed to their friend, and deeply committed to each other, and deeply committed to the church that they were a part of. And it was also unifying to know that there was an adult that they could go to together who would help their friend and help them. So that’s another way that peer pressure can work positively.
When I moved into that church, the kids there felt invisible. The adults, like typical Western people, tended to ignore teenagers. So I made it a point to speak to all of them, and to get to know them. There were some who wouldn’t let me speak to them. They’d been contaminated by adult baggage – is what that was all about, really. But the ones that would let me speak to them and get to know them, I did. And after awhile, I started inviting them to do things with me socially – fun things. And ever so slowly and subtly, that became a peer thing. They would gather up front after services where Elaine and I sat – after church – and they would come for a bit of conversation, or some eye contact, or smile, or maybe even a hug. The feeling that was there was that we are all together loved by our minister – as a group. And some on the periphery of that wondered if they could be included in that love, too. And so that drew them into it. It’s such a powerful thing when that happens.
I’m only going to say one more thing about peer pressure. When you get a group of teens together who have the love of some significant person in common, and you engage them in peer-group discussions on any topic, they’re going to process the subject and come up with an opinion together. And that opinion will be not only the opinion of all those teens, it will be the opinion of each of those teenagers. And at the same time, one of their primary concerns is, what does the one who loves us believe about this? That’s always factored in. When you think about how Jesus worked with the disciples, there were times when He sat down and He formally taught them. The Sermon on the Mount: point one, point two, point three. But more often, they followed Him around as a group and listened to Him talk to crowds. And more often, it seems, He processed their issues with them – like, who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom? They were a peer group. And His thoughts on the matter carried huge weight with them, because they knew that He loved them. He loved all of them. Our kids need formal training and they need informal real-life training. But for teenagers, all of that effort that we expend in both of those things can be ramped way up if it’s done in the context of a loving, positive peer group with a respected and loving leader.
You know what we’re talking about right now? We’re talking about – right now – the nuts and bolts of how to transmit our faith from one generation to the next. That’s how it happens. It flows out of a relationship of love, respect and trust. And when that happens in a group setting, it’s even more powerful for this age group, because that is the central process by which they resolve the crisis of identity and alienation. When I pastored that church I soon didn’t have to do any disciplining or rule enforcement. These kids would come up to me and ask me if it was okay to do this or that. I remember Sue came up to me at the dance, and she said, “How’s my dress?” And I put on my most corny voice, and said, “You’re always beautiful to me.” And she gave me that “Yeah, right” smile, and she said, “I mean is it long enough?” And you know, did my idea of modesty match hers. She wanted to know, because I was important to her. She was the same one who asked me why she could understand my sermons. She was genuinely perplexed. In her young life she’d heard a few ministers, and she couldn’t understand their sermons, and now here I am, and she can understand mine. And so again, I put on my most serious look, and said, “Well, Sue, don’t you know it’s because I’m the greatest speaker in the world?” And she gives me the “Yeah, right” look again, you know. And I said, “We’ve spent a lot of time together, we’ve talked a lot, you’ve learned that what you say to me is important to me, so it just naturally follows that what I say to you is also important to you. You understand my sermons because we love each other.” And she blinked a couple of times and smiled, hugged me, and went off to be with her friends. Values transmission from one generation to another by sharing, by connecting, by time spent, by respectful listening.