Teenagers are Strange

Teenagers are strange, aren’t they? Maybe that is a serious understatement and one they may take offense to, but there is so much truth to it. Strange is an adjective meaning unusual, extraordinary, or curious, all of which describe the years between 12 and 20. I am around teens all the time, and all the time I am reminded that, if one thing is for sure, the teenage years are some of the most difficult, confusing, and formative times of our lives as human beings. The rollercoaster of emotions, chemical surges in our brains, physical changes to our bodies, and explorations of who we are at our core: all things happening in those crucial years.

Kids and adults at the same time

Perhaps the trickiest act adults who work with or parent teens must perform is balancing the fact that these people are both kids and young adults at the same time. This is hard to reconcile because we typically think of kids as kids who need guidance, assistance, and direction at almost any given moment, and adults as people who have the freedom, intellect, and capabilities to make their own decisions without much help. I’d like to explore these two paradigms separately and then try to fit them together, as they exist inside the teenage body.

First, teenagers are definitely kids. Again, this statement may offend teens, but they are also not looking to pay the electricity bill this month.  A child is someone between birth and full-grown, who needs someone else to take care of him or her. Teens, although they can do many things on their own, are still very dependent on their parents for their well-being. They need the shelter and protection of their home, the financial support of their parents’ income, and, though they can put the pb & j together themselves, they need the peanut butter and the jelly in the pantry before they can make the sandwich.

Allow them to be kids. Give them space to freak out…

Understanding that teens have a basic need to be kids, we as parents have to allow them to be kids. We cannot take them too seriously. By this, I mean we have to give them space to freak out about things that, frankly, are not a big deal, and to try new and scary things, and to make mistakes. These are all things that we as adults sometimes forget, because we live in a world where we’ve already learned from so many mistakes, and we’ve tried the scary things, and we’ve certainly freaked out about senseless things, and we’ve grown out of so many of things. We’ve forgotten the ups and downs of hormones and testosterone influxes. We don’t have to choose sides of petty arguments amongst our friends. We don’t have to deal with deliberate cruelty dealt to us from our peers. (Maybe some of these things we still have to deal with, but we deal with them in the context of adulthood and not the unstableness of being a teenager).

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Adult decisions made as a teen determine the trajectory of life

The other side of the coin is that teenagers, while still kids, are also young adults. Do you realize that you let a teenager determine the trajectory and course for your life? A seventeen or eighteen year old kid made the adult decision of where you would go after high school, the job you are in, the degree that you got, the school that you studied at. And as a seventeen or eighteen year old adult, YOU made those decisions. You were a kid, but you were also an adult.

I think we as adults forget that our teenagers are very capable of making adult decisions if we allow them to. It is our job as parents to help them transition from childish decisions that do not mean much (what to wear that semi-matches, healthy things in your body make you feel better than unhealthy things in your body, turning in your homework on time is better for you in so many ways than not turning it in, etc.), to adult decisions that truly make a difference in the course of their lives (college or technical school, a job or student loans, doctor or musician, UT or A&M, break up or stay together, etc.).

Shut up and listen.

Teenagers have a basic need to be listened to and heard. They want to be taken seriously and, for the most part, want their ideas, problems, and issues known. Of course they need guidance, but they also need to feel understood. That is where we as parents have to shut up and listen to what our kids are saying, whether they are using words or not. They have to make decisions on their own. They have to be given the freedom to try new things. They have to come to grips with realities of adulthood on their own, or else we will enable them into childish states and end up kicking them out of our basements when they are 25 (or sometimes 35).

In Luke 10, Jesus gathers seventy or so of his followers and disciples, and sent them out ahead of him to teach and preach the good news. He even says to them, “I’m sending you out like lambs among wolves.” This is a warning to them that there would be opposition and even rejection to them and their message. Then he instructs them to go without any possessions, depending totally on God’s provision for them. The crazy thing is that many of Jesus’ disciples and followers at this point were not much older than the students in my youth group; they were in their teens or twenties and ready to do anything and go anywhere for the cause they believed in.

Jesus believes in them, and so should we

We see over and over again in the gospels how the disciples missed the point completely. They made mistakes. And I’m sure that in the passages where Jesus is explaining things to them, the authors of the gospels omitted the details of his eyes rolling into the back of his skull at the ridiculousness of the disciples’ remarks. Arguing who would be the greatest disciple, failing to cast out a demon after being taught how (by Jesus himself), shutting up the kids who were causing a disturbance during a lesson, freaking out on a boat during a storm, falling asleep during prayer time: over and over the disciples made mistakes. But Jesus trusted them to take the most important message in human existence to the ends of the earth.

Teenagers are strange – unusual in that they are kids and adults at the same time, extraordinary in the uniqueness of their development and mentality, and curious in their need for both close dependence and open-armed independence. They need us to listen and hear them. They need freedom to be kids and to make mistakes. They need encouragement and support as they make big decisions. And they need us to remember that Jesus believes in them, and so should we. Perhaps our biggest calling as a parent or youth worker is to believe that these teens are capable of greatness and to cheer them into adulthood with grace, understanding, and a lot of love.