How high is your bar for teens?
Written by Al Hewetson
If there's one thing we're all good at, it's taking pressure off our teenagers.
I'm serious - we are often careful about 'loading' them up too much with adult expectations or with duties - because it's simply not the done thing. But some recent cutting-edge research is challenging the way western white folks like us put teens into a special holding tank called "adolescence." Dr. Robert Epstein, a renowned neurobiologist only recently in Australia, believes his research reveals that the "adolescent" is a cultural invention, not a stage of human life at all.
By comparing the brains of teens with children, and young adults slightly past their teenage years, were our unique young teenagers much different? Nope. Their brains differ from kids and older adults about as much as ANY person differs from someone older than them. Why does this matter to you? What if you're a teenage guy or girl? A youth leader trying to love, guide & teach them?
The good doc is telling you to stop falling for the cultural invention of adolescent turmoil, and ask: "Is there a responsible adult trapped inside your teenager?" The changes in their brains seem to be brought on most powerfully by the INFLUENCES that are exerted on them when in this period of openness & great transition. While teens DO behave in unique ways in these years (take risks, sleep a lot, challenge authorities & get grumpy more often...) there is NO hard evidence that they are in some specialised 'state of mind' at this time of their lives. NOR is there evidence that the turmoil they do experience must stop them from moving swiftly into adulthood or mature faith. But our culture often says different.
"Our view of teens is so distorted by what we see around us, by media stories, by the movies. We can't seem to think outside of that box." (Dr. Epstein) I wholeheartedly agree with the doctor - I hear those faulty assumptions about teens every week - in church and out of it. "He's totally lost - I can't reach him" or "She doesn't listen to me anymore - I'm just her mother", or "I'm not familiar with their world - where would I start?" I'm not trying to belittle the struggles of relating into the world of teenagers - it takes work and brings us set-backs & perplexity at times.
What I AM against is the helplessness so many of us adults learn in shaping teens lives. It prevents us taking stronger guiding roles in their lives, at a time when evidence and God's word say they will be ABLE to adapt and change. This does not require any gifts with 'teen lingo' or fashion sense or advanced youth ministry training, or even a "strong personality" (which is the easiest excuse.)
I am also against teenage guys & girls saying "I'm just a kid, so why would I trust myself to do anything big?" It's just not necessary, and will hold you back from the challenge of growing into the young man or woman you've almost become. Us grown-ups who care about you, want to help guide you to become a person shaped like Jesus. Sorry, but your times of being a little kid ended when you walked out the gate of your primary school for the last time.
This wisdom we need dates way back past brain scans and science nerds - to the godly wisdom of the Old Testament era. Solomon taught us the godly mindset to have around our young teenagers, and there's no "leave them be" softness about it:
The book begins: "The proverbs of Solomon son of David...for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young..." (Proverbs 1:1,4)
We are to direct youngsters actively, to teach them how to live life God's way:
"Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die." (Proverbs 23:13) AND our plan as adults should be aligned with this:
"Train a child in the way he/she should go, and when he/she is old they will not turn from it." (Proverbs 22:6)
The good news for an adult parent or youth leader, is that the kids in your life need you mostly for your relevance to your own message and life in Christ. They are ready for reality and are crying out "teach me, guide me, mould me, discipline me." Many more of us could be doing do those simple things with at least one teen in a regular pattern.
What's the good news for teenage guys and girls? If you can find one of these adults who'll agree to invest in your faith and maturity, you'll FIND OUT how grown up you already are. And with the brain you have, when someone you can trust treats you like an adult, you'll be amazed at how you rise to the challenge. Ask any mature Christian how they got that way - they'll tell you that God used any number of important "someones" at the right time, to coach them into a stronger faith in Christ.
And the best part is, that when you are old (like me) you will not depart from it.