I’m the first to admit it wasn’t easy for me when my girls became teenagers. “The change” was not gradual for our kids. Our loving, affectionate, obedient girls suddenly copped attitudes, danced with danger, said and did outrageous things, and weren’t very fun to be with some of the time. When I would hear about their antics, my usual response to Cathy was, “Are you kidding me? What were they thinking? I can’t believe they did that!” Most of the time it really wasn’t horrible stuff, but it floored me how they could be so dangerous, outlandish, or frankly, plain stupid.
These new teens caused me to lose all my confidence as a parent. On top of that, it was clear they didn’t like me all that much, and I found I could be mad or disappointed at them 24/7/365. I was the dad who lived on the other side of the generation gap. My kids teased me about my music, my clothes, and thought my ideas about movies and other media influences were totally out of step with their new teenage reality.
Some of this behavior and attitude is absolutely normal for teens on the road toward adulthood. Everything is changing around them. Their bodies are doing things and growing in ways that surprise them. Their minds are changing. Their emotions at times seem to run loose. They are becoming aware of sex and peer pressure and mood swings and rebellion, and they really aren’t sure what to do with it all. On top of that, in their saner moments even they wonder why they act the way they do.
The word that might describe the teen years best is change. It wasn’t long ago they were children with childlike minds and bodies, and now they have suddenly morphed into something else. Their bodies might look adult, but their actions are somewhere between child and adult. I’ve found that the parents who take the time to learn about this time of change, known as adolescence, seem to have a better handle on what is going on with their cherished children. Let’s look at some of the key changes from a developmental standpoint.
Physical Change. Teens strongly desire their physical appearance to measure up to the cultural norm. Their bodies are getting extreme makeovers, and many feel as if they are wearing a sign around their neck that reads, “Caution: New Body Under Construction.” Both young men and young women are extremely aware of the changes, but the girls seem to be more vocal about it. Hair is growing where only skin once lived. Sexual organs are growing or not growing fast enough. Acne seems to feed on the teenage skin and often puts adolescents in an awkward-looking stage. Even muscles and bones are growing, sometimes at an uneven rate. Some kids become very uncoordinated when their body grows three inches over summer vacation, or they become more lethargic because the other aspects of their physical growth haven’t caught up with their bodily growth spurt.
All the physical changes often come with awkwardness and comparison. You could have two best girlfriends the exact same age, and one is wearing a training bra and the other looks like she is a young adult. Some guys in their early teens have a mustache and hair on their chest, while other guys are staring daily in the mirror for something to grow out of their chest or armpits. Both tend to be insecure and self-conscious.
Parents need to know that even if the words go unspoken, most kids are painfully aware of their changing appearance. Kids will play the comparison game and always lose. Our job as parents is to never tease them about their appearance and to reassure them that eventually they will catch up with everyone else—or everyone else will catch up with them. But don’t underestimate the pressure of physical appearance and change in your teenager.
Social Change. Many parents find themselves totally caught off guard by the power of friends and social development in the teen years. What happened to the child that would rather cuddle with Mom and play with Daddy than anything else in the world? Now their innocent wonder and childlike simplicity is being transformed by a new (more adult-like) view of the world, all through the eyes of their social development.
Adolescence is a time when they move from a relatively safe environment of a neighborhood and nearby school to a much larger and more impersonal middle school and high school. Teens start making important relationships outside of their family. Hopefully those relationships are healthy, but of course, teens can also make poor decisions about friends as well as other things. The power of peer pressure can sidetrack even really good kids.
Relationships and peer pressure are much more confusing and complicated these days than when we were growing up. Basically, we had fairly well defined social groups who influenced us. Our parents could keep pretty good track of who our friends were and how they were influencing us. Today, with the world of smartphones, texting, and social media, it is very possible for a parent who is not being proactive to have no idea who their child’s closest friends and greatest influences are in real life. Today’s teens still say to their parents the same words we said to our parents, “Everybody is doing it.” It is our job as parents to do the important work of figuring out who “everybody” is and how “everybody” is influencing our kids.
Despite the broader influences available to our kids today through technology and social media, they still socialize in primary friendship clusters. I vote for parents using almost any way possible to get to know the peers in your teen’s primary cluster of influence without becoming a snoop. One proven way to accomplish this is to make your home a preferred place for your kids and their friends to hang out. Another is to be the parent who is willing to drive the sports team or dance squad. When you gain more exposure to your teen’s primary friends, you will learn more about who is influencing her or him.
Emotional Change. Few people come out of adolescence without experiencing intense emotional releases. One dad told me, “I felt like it happened overnight. One day she was my sweet little girl and the next day she was a moody, morose, angry teenager.” I would imagine that father will still see glimpses of that sweet girl and she will probably move back to that person as she gets older, but until then, anxiety, worry, anger, self-doubt, passion, and fear can occur with ferocious intensity. There is just too much change going on not to affect the emotions.
On this roller coaster of emotional ups and downs, you can be your teen’s solid ground. When I was a teen, my mom was my safe place. I knew she loved me. She was my biggest cheerleader and a great listener. She took me seriously and did not let the shifting waves of my struggles shock her. She modeled emotional stability in my seasons of instability. The art of listening to our children, especially through their emotional extremes, gives our kids the safe place they need. They don’t want Mom and Dad to always rescue them, and they definitely don’t want a lecture. Instead, they crave acceptance and approval, dialog, and care.
Spiritual Change. One of the main reasons I remain focused on young people in my ministry is because it is such an important time for developing a relationship with God. Most people will make a commitment to Jesus Christ before age eighteen or they never will. It’s exciting to see teens explore their spirituality, but it’s also a bit scary for us parents. As they move from a concrete faith—one largely based upon their parents’ faith and the faith community they were raised in—to a more abstract way of thinking, they may say and do some things that reflect differences from their parents’ faith, or sometimes go against their parents’ views. While in college, our daughter Christy felt she had to disown her faith to eventually claim her own faith. Interestingly enough, her faith today looks quite similar to ours.
This is a stage in a teen’s faith development where they may not want to go to church, or they might say things about God just to push your buttons. It is a time of passionate belief and passionate doubt. One morning they may sincerely feel called to be a missionary to help starving children, and later in the day they will tell you they don’t believe in God anymore and they want nothing to do with church. Both feelings are real, and frankly, for the time being, both feelings are a normal part of their faith development. The worst things a parent can do are to freak out and panic or say mean things during this time of adolescent searching and sifting. Most young people are on a spiritual quest, and we can’t mistake skepticism or doubt as a sign that they are not interested.
Parents must avoid smothering their kids with their own faith. Sure, you can set boundaries (“If you live in our home, we expect you to attend church”), but don’t spend much time preaching at them. This will make them run from whatever you are pushing on them. Allow and affirm the difficult questions. A healthy faith has room for questions. And whenever possible, empower them to put their faith into action. Teens today are very experiential; so, they need times to work out their faith through their actions. Give kids opportunities to serve in hands-on ministry where they will learn that the call to Christ is the call to serve.
Intellectual Change. The intellectual changes that adolescents undergo are at least as big as the physical changes, but in some homes they go less noticed. At some point in early adolescence, kids move from a concrete approach to thinking (where they think in terms of “black or white”) to a more abstract way of thinking (where they begin to see the possibilities of “gray areas”). You can tell your elementary child what to do most of the time. With teens, they need dialog more than monolog. They need to express their thoughts. They need to be heard. Although it might drive a parent crazy, adolescents who are always asking “why?” (or become argumentative) are typically testing their new intellectual development in the world of abstract thinking.
This new period of intellectual development has important implications for parents because kids are beginning to ask themselves the questions, Who am I?, Who do I want to be?, What is true and real in life?, and What is life all about, anyway? In childhood, parents find it easier to tell their kids what to do without explanation or to convey their view of the world or of morality or of truth without discussion. However, in the adolescent years, discussion and explanation become a necessity for good learning. The wise parent will realize that adolescence is a time when kids learn best by discussion and discovery rather than giving them easy answers or resorting to responses like “because I told you so.”
Intellectually, your teen will change his opinion of you. When he was younger, you could most likely do little wrong. You were the most wonderful mom in the world or the smartest and strongest dad. But when kids reach their teen years, parents are no longer all-powerful and all-knowing. Kids begin to view the world with adult-like eyes, seeing things more realistically and will feel let down by people who lack integrity. My advice to parents is to be as patient as possible and freely admit it when your teen discovers your weaknesses and failures. Hang in there. Your teen will likely rediscover your awesomeness as they pass through adolescence and grow into adulthood.
Adolescence in Perspective. As kids move through the process of adolescence and shift their way of thinking and acting, so must parents. Parents have to shift parenting styles to keep up with what is going on in the life of their adolescent. Today, adolescence can be divided into four stages, and at each stage parents should reassess and adjust their parenting style. As you read the following summary of the stages, keep in mind that the age ranges are somewhat arbitrary. Each teen is unique and develops at a different rate physically, socially, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.
Pre-Adolescence (ages 9 to 11)—This is a time of preparation for adolescence. Typically your kids are asking lots of questions, and you may even see the first physiological changes take place.
Early Adolescence (ages 11 to 14)—Puberty has set in. This time is characterized with lots of change and newness. Emotions are all over the place, and kids are searching for identity.
Mid-Adolescence (ages 14 to 18)—Experimentation is usually a major part of this period. You may see these kids as a bit cynical about authority, and they can be described as egocentric and self-absorbed. Friends are very influential. For some kids, by the later mid-adolescence years you are beginning to see the light of adulthood dawning on them.
Late-Adolescence or Emerging Adulthood (ages 18 to mid-20s)—In other generations this was considered adulthood. Most people got married and perhaps were already starting a family. Today, parents are seeing their emerging adult children move back home and take longer to live independently. In our time, the issues that make up the adolescent years rarely are completed until the mid-twenties.
Parenting an adolescent is not easy. If you are the parent of an adolescent and you are having an easy time, either something’s wrong—or you just need to wait a little longer because a challenge IS coming!
In the end, some parents will simply not experience the severe challenges of parenting an adolescent that others will. Like adolescence itself, there are few certainties of experience in parenting an adolescent. What is certain is that God has given parents an important task—to help daughters and sons make the transition from childhood to adulthood—as a functioning, independent person. Understanding the areas of adolescent development can be important tools for helping parents guide their kids through this critical time of life.