9 Insights Parents of Adolescents Need to Understand, pt 1

In the midst of this unprecedented time in our country, parents are having to deal with kids being at home more than ever. When we have adolescents, that can present some challenges, which is why I decided to do the series 9 Insights Parents Need to Know When They are Raising Adolescents.

Insight 1: Adolescence starts earlier than we think

Adolescence starts earlier than we might think. In fact, it starts 18 months prior to puberty, as early as 8 for girls and 9 for boys. If you’ve been noticing changes in your kids’ behavior, they’ve been forgetting things, questioning things, or pushing back more than ever before, this series will give you some insights and help you understand what is going on. So, whether you have a 9, 10, 11-year-old or a 16, 17, 18-year-old at home, this series is for you.

Where did these 9 insights come from? They came from the time I spent talking with over 4,000 preteen and teen students. The kids opened up, were brutally honest, and it was incredibly eye opening, sometimes shocking, and often really challenging for me as a father.

As we begin this series, I would like to pause and ask you some questions. I have found that understanding what we really think about adolescence impacts how we approach it. How we interact with our adolescent kids can have a positive or negative effect on our relationship with them. Think of a 1 to 5 scale where 1 is strongly agree and 5 is strongly disagree. Write down a number between 1 and 5 for each question.

  • Question 1: Is the adolescent brain fully developed and able to make responsible decisions?
  • Question 2: Do adolescents want to experiment?
  • Question 3: Will adolescents test our boundaries?
  • Question 4: Do adolescents need to distance themselves from their parents?
  • Question 5: Will adolescents turn to friends?
  • Question 6: Do adolescents require strong boundaries?

Now reflect on your answers. Have we come to believe that adolescence equals issues? I believe we have. When adults see a group of kids walking down the street, invariably their minds go to, “Oh, there’s trouble,” not “Wow, I bet they’re up to something amazing!” This is so important for us as parents. If we view adolescence in a negative light, it means we have some fear as our kids approach that time of life. We generally expect negative things, influencing how we communicate, interact, and approach our kids. I believe it sometimes becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is why I have to ask, “What if our belief’s are wrong?”

What if all the things we have heard about adolescence are not based on fact. What if the problem isn’t adolescence but the way we view, approach, and handle our kids during those years? If we have come to the conclusion that there are going to be problems during adolescence, believe that our kids can’t be responsible, that they will experiment, that they will test boundaries, that they will turn away from us and turn to their friends (often the wrong friends) we have to stop and wrestle with this belief. Is this a predetermined outcome or is there something we can do to change it? I believe there are things we can do to change it.

Why do I believe that? Mary was 13 or 14 when she had Jesus and she handled it very maturely. In colonial times George Washington was out surveying the wild by himself when he was 13 years old. Fred DeLuca opened his first subway restaurant at the age of 17. Over time we see examples of kids that handle challenging things, new things, scary things very well and responsibly. So, to say that our kids should be less developed or less capable I think would be a wrong conclusion. I think it’s the way they were viewed and approached by their parents.

My research with 4,000 kids found 1 in 15 kids did things amazingly well, made great decisions, and were incredibly responsible. Every time I found that 1 kid, they had a very different relationship with their parents. One of the questions we really need to wrestle with as parents is, “Does the world have more influence than I do?” You hear it all the time; it’s the schools, movies, media, social media, and video games that take our kids away. Outside influences are taking our kids away from us. If that’s true, if we really believe the world has more influence than we do, then we have a problem.

The truth is we have been granted far more influence in our kids’ lives by God than the world has been given. But we have been losing and squandering that influence, which is why these 9 insights are so important for parents to understand. I have found that adolescents are actually yearning to be closer to their parents. I know many parents are saying, “Why do they talk back? Why do they give one-word answers? Why do they hide in their rooms? Why do they react and get angry? Why do they push back? Why do they seem to push us out of their lives?” As we go through these 9 insights, all will become clear.

Here are some short answers to those questions. We will dig deeper as we get into the remaining insights.

Why Do They Talk back?

I have found it is a result of strong internal negativity within the kid and the reality of the adolescent brain, which I will talk more about later. Internal negativity, once it piles up, can make someone incredibly sensitive. When someone is negative with them, it kicks off their strong sensitivity, which results in defensiveness, over reactions or even anger. I have worked with kids who are over reacting, being defensive, and pushing their parents away. When I get them past that and start talking to them about what they desire deep inside, they want to be close to their parents. They’re just confused and don’t know how to get there.

Why Do They Give One Word Answers?

Kids are often avoiding interaction because they don’t want to be questioned, corrected, lectured, or fixed. When we ask, “How was your day,” they say, “good.” “How’s it going with your friends?” “Fine.” This is how they protect themselves from getting into conversations in which their parents will want to teach them something or question the type of friends that are hanging out with.

Why do they hide in Their Rooms?

The most common reason I get is that they are afraid of themselves and afraid of conflict with their parents. They are not happy with themselves and how they are reacting. They don’t understand why they are over reacting, and they are tired of the conflict just like their parents are. If there’s been even mild conflict, kids will often retreat to their room.

They have a deep yearning to be close to their parents.

They miss the closeness they once had with them. They are confused. They don’t understand what changed in the relationship and they have no clue how to fix it. I have found they often believe that it’s entirely their fault and therefore there must be something wrong with them. They believe there’s something wrong with them because they know what they’re doing isn’t right and they haven’t been able to make themselves stop in spite of the conflict and consequences that their parents might be giving. It gets really frustrating for them and they come to the conclusion, “I must be messed up.” In this place, they are longing to feel their parents love, approval and trust again. This is where we find rebellious, depressed and even unmotivated kids. If they stay in this place too long, they move towards depression or rejection. They become rebellious and angry because of their intense feelings. Unfortunately, I believe we miss the changes that are happening in them and as a result, we are not adjusting our approach to avoid these beliefs from being formed in our kids.

Insight 2: The adolescence brain shift

I have found that during the adolescence years huge misunderstandings between parents and kids develop. When the hormones that lead to puberty begin, it actually kicks off a development cycle in the brain. It’s already reached its maximum size, but synapses start to get created between different areas of the brain. This is why all of a sudden kid lose their childlike faith, have doubts, have questions, and start to question their parents. They are able to put new abstract thoughts together, which creates questions and doubt that we parents have not seen before.

As a result, the brain shifts electrical activity away from the front of the brain to the back of the brain. Development occurs as a result of this shift. The activity in the front of the brain does not totally disappear, but it does decrease by a significant amount. It’s important to note that the front of the brain is where our short-term memory, planning, emotional regulation, and consequence of valuation lives. If you ask your child, “Hey, would you take out the trash?” and a few minutes later you come back and say, “Did you take the trash out?” When they say, “No, I forgot,” we get frustrated and upset with them. Understanding the brain may help us choose to believe them and go, “Wow, you forgot. Well, could you please get it done now?” Maybe this is why our kids forgot to turn in their homework assignments as well.

They also say things that they would never have said to us before because their emotional regulation is down. Emotions are hitting them harder because their valuation of the consequences is also decreased. Do boundaries and consequences really work with adolescents? They are not going to consider the consequences before they act.

Understanding the adolescent brain and remembering that it has shifted is very important so that when you see it, it doesn’t frustrate you. Learn to handle them differently. When we keep getting frustrated with their lack of memory, follow through, or the way they are talking to us, we cause them to go lower, believing more and more that there’s something wrong with them. They don’t understand what’s changed with them either and it frustrates them. When I host “It’s your life” with public school students, 7th, 8th and 9th graders. I explain the adolescent brain and kids say to me, “You mean there’s nothing wrong with me, this is normal? I wish my parents knew this.”

Insight 3: Dual Lives

70% to 90% of Christian kids are leading dual lives even as young as age 12. As we review all the data that’s available on the different behaviors that adolescents participate in, we estimate that there are 26.5 million adolescents exhibiting some form of escape behavior.

What’s escape behavior? It is anything that they can retreat to, to make themselves feel better. This can include social media, video games, YouTube, Netflix or more serious things like early relationships, sex, marijuana and alcohol. It’s fascinating that parents get down on their kids for their cell phone use, but a study shows that 70% of adolescents actually worry that they’re spending too much time on their phone. What we’re finding when we go into Christian schools, churches, whether we are in the inner city, a small town or the suburbs of major cities, we’re finding that the dual life is alive and well and way more prevalent than parents and even youth pastors think.

We met with the youth group at a mega church whose youth pastor believed only 35% of his kids were leading dual lives. They were in the suburb filled with middle to upper class families outside of a large city. We held the Reboot retreat with the kids. The kids got really honest with everyone in the youth group, including the leaders and parent volunteers. Over 90% were leading a dual life and the church, parents and youth pastor were stunned, but they were even more stunned by the response after the kids walked in the light from Reboot. Their hearts came back to life. Parents, if you’re thinking, “Not my kid,” please stop thinking that way.

If you have an 8, 9 or 10-year-old, you can prevent the dual life outcome. If you have a 12, 13 or 14-year-old, it’s time to change your approach so your kids stop hiding things from you and start being honest with you. It’s the only way you are going to have access to see God really transform their lives. Some parents might think, “Well doesn’t this dual life prove that the world has more influence?” That is not what we found when we did our research. What we found was that kids feared their parents’ reactions, lectures and or consequences. In fact, I’ve had parents tell me in my parent conferences that, “Fear keeps my kids in line.” Yet we see in Psalm 34:4 “I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” Fear is not a biblical motive. So, instilling fear in our kids with consequences may not be as biblical as we think. Given that valuation of consequence has diminished because of the shift in the brain, it’s not as effective as we think. Kids learn by age 7 or 8 that it’s safer and easier to hide things from mom and dad. This is the birthplace of the dual life. It starts with little things that aren’t a big deal, but it grows over time when we don’t change our approach. In I John 1, it says, “but if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, His son cleanses us from all sin.” When we instill fear of our consequences in our kids, they don’t walk in the light with us. We are not having real fellowship with them. They lead a dual life at some level. Somehow that impacts the Son’s ability to cleanse them from their sin, probably because they’re walking in darkness and lies. So, we have to ask ourselves the question, “Does fear prevent bad behavior or cause it?”

In I John 4:18 it says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear for fear has to do with punishment and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” This goes against so much of what we’ve been raised to believe, so much of what we’ve been taught in parenting, psychology and with behavioral therapists. If we really think about it, would we be following God and seeking to see our lives changed, if every time we had a wrong thought, said something wrong, did something wrong, we were punished by God? Or, is it His love, grace and forgiveness of past, present, and future sins that draws us closer and gives us the desire to want to change?

I’ve seen this to be true with my kids. Kids desire to please their parents, but it’s fragile and can easily become an act. I’m coaching three different adolescents ages 14 to 17 who are so tired of acting, acting to keep their parents happy, to not have conflict, to try and meet their expectations while they are leading dual lives behind the curtain of school and friends. It’s exhausting and has led them to doubt and be negative about themselves, to be depressed and anxious. I think we see how fragile this actually is. When we look at Matthew 15:7-9 Jesus says, “You pretenders, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, he said. ‘These people honor me by what they say. But their hearts are far away from me. Their worship doesn’t mean anything to me. They teach nothing but human rules.’” And boy did I see this in the research and my coaching.

When I work with families and adolescents, the kids are doing and saying the right things to their parents, but how they really feel, what they really think and say about their parents when their parents aren’t around is very different. They honor their parents with their lips, but their hearts are far from them. When kids hearts are far from their parents and their parents believe in God, the kids’ hearts grow far from God as well. This is why it’s so important for us to change our approach as our kids grow older. At about the age of three or four is when we need to make significant changes in how we interact, communicate and what we do to draw them out and create a safe place where they can walk in the light with us and not fear us. Yes, we may be able to get cooperation by ramping up consequences, but does it change their hearts? Does it draw them closer or push them away?

Insight 4: Discipline does not mean what we think it means.

Last week I was talking to a mom that called us after our radio program. We had a great conversation about what she was struggling with, with her five-year-old. At one point in the conversation she said, “Well what about the verse spare the rod, spoil the child?” When I laughed, she said, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “I once believed that verse as well.” In fact, I put it in my book, Going, Going, Gone, about why kids were leaving the faith and church. I tried to cite it but couldn’t find the verse. So, I sent it to NavPress believing their editors would find it. They contacted me back stating “Jeff, we know this is a verse, but we can’t find it. Can you please fill in the verse reference?” At which point I broadened my search and discovered it was actually a quote from Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin is not noted as a parenting expert. He’s noted as a scientist who worked with electricity.

We will continue this conversation about discipline and what it really means in next week’s program as we continue in this series, 9 Insights Parents Need to Know When They are Raising Adolescents. Look for the next part to this series next week.

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