When was the last time you really learned something new? I’m sure most of us can’t actually remember our first steps but we may have witnessed a child’s trial and error, stumbling, awkward, but triumphant progression into the walking world. Maybe you recently took up golf. Maybe you decided to learn to play a musical instrument for the first time or a maybe a foreign language; or maybe getting tech-savvy and trying out thESource was REALLY new. As adults, when we are faced with a new skill, we have the use of reasoning and logic, observation, life experience, – a fully developed brain – to help us adapt and learn. Kids in the preteen years (10-14) have long mastered walking and may seem pretty comfortable in school, even confident, especially around the younger peers; but what is happening in their brains (and bodies) is so new, such a change, it is hard to even compare with the challenge we adults experience as we attempt to master even the newest skills. Young adolescents are moving away from simple concrete thinking and are entering the world of abstract ideas, hypothetical situations and formal logic. Just as a parent watches carefully, reaches out to prevent a fall, picks up and comforts, and provides a safe and encouraging environment for a toddler learning to walk, so young adolescents need adults around them who are ON THEIR TOES, ready to adjust to their fluctuating intellectual abilities, levels of understanding and the influence these have on their spiritual development.
Although exciting, early adolescence is filled with so many questions and new kinds of thought, it can shake up the young adolescent’s world. Pre-teens are gaining the ability to understand abstract ideas like fairness in a new way. An 8-year-old may say fairness is “every one gets a turn.” Adolescents know that fairness cannot always be measured. Biblical stories and principles that help expand and explain God’s perfect “fairness” in an “unfair world” will be thought-provoking and pertinent. To a child, being religious means going to church every week and behaving properly, but for an adolescent it involves not just what you do but what you believe. As they look at their lives and the world they don’t just look at what is, but what it should be. To children, you are who you are: Identity is given. To adolescents, who you are may be only one of many possibilities. In my counseling work with pre teens, problems they may have faced and dealt with as younger children such as divorce, death of a loved one, a move to a different area are suddenly magnified by their new abilities: How do I know my parents really love me? Am I like everyone else? What does it mean to be a child of God especially when I don’t act like one?
That they have a purpose, an identity in the body of Christ is a truth that pre-teens need. As they struggle between childhood and more adult responsibilities and expectations, their worth is shaken. Their search for love and acceptance becomes more centered on their peers. Hurt and letdowns are inevitable. Pre-teens may not completely understand this, but will have many opportunities to see the ways others and they themselves can’t measure up. Only God’s acceptance of us and sacrifice for us in Jesus Christ can provide real worth and perfect love.
Pre-teens exercise their new powers of logic (arguing and persuading) one minute but fail to apply logic to their own behaviors (playing Play Station for three hours instead of doing their math homework) the next. Logical thinking causes them to begin to understand that there may be more possibilities and different answers than they ever considered before. Accepted concepts in childhood such as, “God is real, and the Bible is God’s Word to us” come into question just as parents’ rules and values are challenged. My 11-year-old recently asked me, “How do we know that what we believe is right when all the other religions think they have the real god?” Kids need an opportunity to test what they’ve been taught about God. Using real life examples in devotions, giving kids the chance to live their faith in service projects, “life challenges” to practice the key message (making it a point to avoid cliques and include others at school) lets them see for themselves how God is alive and real. Because pre-teens are only beginning to develop these intellectual powers, they have a “now-you-see-it now-you-don’t” quality about them.
In the same way, a pre-teen’s faith, understanding of spiritual matters, even interest in Bible study fluctuates. They may be able to contemplate deep things but revert back to simpler logic at the drop of a hat. The ability to then take those thoughts and turn them into action is even shakier. Just as walking and running follow scooting, crawling, and cruising, application follows changes in thinking, often by several years. What pre-teens know does not necessarily equal what they do.
All of this changing and growing can be EXHAUSTING! Pre-teens need faithful, spiritual leaders to give them safe, real opportunities to practice and hone their developing intellectual powers, explore answers to some of their new questions and ideas, and reassure them that their God is still the same unchanging loving God. They need guidance in discovering who they want to and can be and how their decisions influence their peers. They need time to rest, just as toddlers do; to be the kids that they still are even when they may look and sound increasingly like adults. Physical activities and games give their brains a much-needed break. Youth leaders looking to minister to the spiritual needs and encourage the growth and understanding of pre-teen kids will benefit from extra doses of flexibility, patience, perception (into the current state of many kids at once). What seems like a perfect devotion or activity might bomb one week but be a hit the next or might grab some of the kids but seem to completely miss others. Helping a group develop a deeper level of Bible study may seem to be going no where and then come upon a major “ah hah moment.” This is normal. This is what it is like to live with the brain of a pre-teen.
The spiritual development of pre-teens closely follows their intellectual and physical development. It is a time of change, exploring ideas, fluctuating thoughts and feelings. What an opportunity! God has the answers to all the new questions. The childlike faith and trust may seem less secure at times, but because of their new capabilities pre teens can grow to understand aspects of the Christian walk and the ways of God that a child does not. The Holy Spirit gives us the gift of faith, which He fans into flame without any work on our part. God also created our bodies and minds to grow and change, learn and adapt. Throughout our lives, He gives us wisdom and understanding in HIS timing; just look at the disciples’ growth curve! As youth leaders, it is not up to you to “get” a pre-teen through these years or create in them a deeper faith. That is God’s work and certainly His desire, and it happens in His time. Knowing what to expect in the development of a young adolescent – intellectually, physically, and socially – helps anticipate “teachable moments,” explains common frustrations and dilemmas, and hopefully lets you relax and use what God has given you in wisdom, problem solving, and life experience to guide the pre-teen toward REAL answers and give them the opportunities to practice their new thinking skills in areas that matter the MOST.