Understanding Teenagers?


June, 2002

Dear Ministry Friends,

It has been attributed to Mark Twain that he said when a boy turned about 14, he should be put in a barrel and fed through the knot hole. In elaborating on this, he reflected on his own life and said, "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in 7 years." Obviously, it wasn't Mark Twain's father who learned so much during those years, it was Twain that grew in understanding to see the wisdom his father possessed.

Contrast the typical American teenager with Jesus at age 12. Jesus could live on his own successfully for 3 days, He could sit with adults and carry on intelligent conversation, He was spiritually mature, and He was responsible enough that His parents weren't concerned with where He was or what He was doing the entire first day they were traveling from Jerusalem (Luke 2:40-49). And Jesus was not that much different from other 12 year old Hebrews!

Most American adults say they don't understand modern teenagers. Many current teenagers use their own strange language with other teenagers, dress in ways that only other teenagers dress, listen to their own brand of music, and generally don't act like adults. I once heard an experienced youth pastor explain why most teenagers do this: they aren't ready for adult life and inside they know it. So they feel insecure about talking like an adult and entering the world of adults — so they don't. They try to hang back and stay "kids" as long as they possibly can. But they want to look like adults, so they smoke and drink and cuss. And they want the benefits adults have, so they engage in immoral behavior and stay out at night until they want to come home — demanding to be treated like they were adults, without assuming the responsibilities of adults. But this causes more of their teenage problems than they realize — because intoxication, drug induced altered states of consciousness, any form of immoral sexual copulation or pornography, and even some forms of "rock music" and un-Godly movies can all open the door for transference of spirits which "messes up the teenager." And most teenagers usually don't even realize the noticeable change which others can see, much less get deliverance from the problems they introduced into their lives (spirits of rebellion, rejection, anger and rage, bitterness, doubt and unbelief, immorality and lust, addictions, laziness, depression, low self-image, fear, greed, lying, stealing, etc.).

The reasons they don't feel ready to be an adult are varied. One of the big reasons is that in modern America, many parents don't actively teach their children how to be adults — that is, the various skills necessary for independent living. This can be everything from how to cook, clean, wash clothes, and shop, to managing money, balancing a checkbook, handling credit, landing a job, managing a career, and having successful relationships. Most parents sort of hope the kids will get it by "osmosis". Or they hand off their kids to the public schools hoping they get it there. But what they usually "get there" in the public schools is worse than if they had been kept in Mark Twain's barrel! And the last thing you should do if you want your 10 or 12 year old to become like an adult is to keep him or her around 10 and 12 year olds — which is what the public school setting does. So they become peer dependent, and are strangers to the world of adults.

One valuable thing that parents (or grandparents) can do is to help their teenagers discover the adult vocations which they are most suited for. Every person needs to be aware of and pursuing the "vision" or "mission" that God has created them for. In Proverbs, we are told "without a vision, the people perish." One good tool for this was developed by Larry Burkett and is available through Crown Financial Ministries (www.crown.org). It is a questionnaire purchased on CD that is worked through in less than 2 hours on a home computer, and gives the teenager great understanding about what his or her interests and talents are, and the vocations which match in order to work toward through schooling or jobs. This gives a teenager purpose and motivation to enter and move forward in the "world of adults".

Another American problem is the mixed signals we have communicated about when a person actually is an adult. Which of the following ages is a person "an adult": age 11 when he no longer qualifies for the children's price at the restaurant, about age 13 when puberty occurs, age 16 when he gets a driver's license and can hold a regular job, age 18 when he can vote and be tried for crimes as an adult, age 21 when he can drink in bars, age 22 when he can graduate from college, or age 25 when he gets adult car insurance rates? The answer to this adulthood question is that a person is an adult as soon as he or she demonstrates mature decision making while accepting responsibility and fulfilling it. I have known people who were in their 40's who were not "adults" based on their immature behavior and avoidance of personal responsibility, and they should lose privileges of an adult until they demonstrate they will be responsible. But if a young person is trained in decision making and acceptance of responsibility, he or she can enjoy the benefits of adulthood younger than the rest of his or her peer group.

In the Hebrew culture, a boy was trained to be an adult by the time he was a teenager. The Bar-Mitzvah (Bat Mitzvah for girls) was a recognition that at the age of 13, the Jewish young man could lead religious services, enter into binding contracts, and be held solely responsible for his actions. The Hebrew children spent considerable time next to their parents in all responsibilities of life so that they would learn first-hand how to be an adult. He or she had independent living skills by their teenage years. An important aspect of this was that the Hebrew teenager knew he would have full, serious consequences for his actions. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 tells us, "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city... Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear." That took care of their teenage rebellion problems! Under a dispensation of grace, I am not encouraging the wholesale killing of rebellious teenagers, but I think that previous passage of scripture says something about what God thinks of teenage rebellion. Pretty sobering, isn't it.

In our society, we have tried to prevent teenagers from having consequences for sins — from removing corporal punishment in schools, to not trying them as adults in court, to not even requiring respect for those in authority around them. As a result, we have "given them license" to sin and disobey until they got really good at it by the age of 18. Then we said they were no longer protected from punishment — but they were so good at disobedience it was hard to catch them!

Instead of trying to "get away with sin" or justify it, teenagers need to repent of sins (and not be angry at the adults who catch them). One problem is that teenagers become aware of hypocrisy around them, and think that justifies their own sinning. (A teenager is no more justified in compromising or sinning because he sees a 40 year old sin, than a 40 year old is justified because he sees an 60 year old sin!) This disillusionment that comes with the discovery of adult hypocrisy is a major roadblock to a teenager maturing. As they progress in their teenage years, they see that they are no longer protected and they are entering a fallen world. They need to have trustworthy adult mentors (for example, good parents or youth pastors) who have already had measurable success at navigating that fallen world. If they don't personally know examples of adults who have made it into a reasonable level of success, joy, and peace in most areas of life, then the teenagers may want to "check out" which results in numbing their mind with substance abuse, or even refusing to go on which results in high teenage suicide rates.

Adults need to ask rebellious teenagers the question, "Who hurt you?" They will usually give you an honest answer, which may give you the opportunity to explain to them the importance of forgiving others (or else be continually "tormented" as Jesus promised in Matthew 18:21-35).

Teenagers also need to recognize the comparatively vast experience and wisdom that adults have, and actively learn from it. This will propel them into adulthood faster and with real preparation. One minister said adults have lived long enough to have hindsight, which gives them insight, which produces foresight! This enables a wise teenager to skip "the school of hard knocks", because he or she can learn from adults who have already "been there" through the hard knocks. (And besides, every adult in the world was a teenager already, so they understand.)

The biggest challenge to dealing with modern American teenagers is to respond in love. I know of a well-meaning former Marine combat veteran who confronted some "Goth" teenagers in a restaurant. They had a firm exchange of words, but the angry young Goth was not changed. There is an old saying that people don't care how much we know, until they know how much we care. Ephesians 5:2 says, "And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us." Remember that most young people spell love "T-I-M-E". Take your children places they want to go just so you can be with them and communicate with them. We need to love them as Christ loved us, unconditionally, while still not allowing them to behave inappropriately in our households. This may seem hard, but "we can do all things through Christ." And the results will be worth it in this life and eternity.

Rescuing families,

Dale & Judi Leander


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