Nikki is 11 years old, and in sixth grade, but she looks more like a 16-year-old.
Nikki still loves to play with Barbie dolls. In fact, it's not uncommon for her to bring a few with her on youth group trips. The other kids tease her about itbut she's naive enough to think that they think it's fun that Barbie is in tow.
Then there was the group of guys I called the "Punk Pokémons." They were five eighth grade guysall taller than mewho were trying very hard to be tough. They never smiled. Never. They were 100 percent committed to being disinterested.
But I'd often find them gathered in the back corner of our junior high room at church trading Pokémon cards like little kids. It was hilarious to see the snarling wannabe tough guys saying things like, "I'll give you two Pikachus for one Mewtwo."
If you ask me to define the young teen years in one word, I'd have to use the word transition. Everything about the world of a young teen is rooted somewhere between where they've been and where they're headed. As parents, it's essential that we look for signs of the changes that are taking place in our children and do our best to offer loving support, reassurance, and guidance.
The transition from child to teenager impacts every area of a young teen's life, including her faith. Faith-bit by faith-bit, she begins the searchsometimes consciously and proactively, sometimes notfor a richer, more complex, more adult faith system. Much of this is accomplished through experimentation.
What often trips up the parents I work with is the seeming randomness of this experimentation. For example, your young teen might show less interest in church, but more interest in spiritual things. By spiritual things, I don't necessarily mean youth group retreats and the church children's choir. For young teens, spirituality means everything from prayer to walks in the woods to the very idea of God.
As a young teen's thinking shifts from the concrete ideas of childhood to the more abstract thoughts of adulthood, the dimensions of spiritual life begin to open up. They begin to notice depth and spirituality in music, in movies, in TV shows, in conversations with friends, even listening in on adult conversation. But because they are in transition, they'll continue to have pieces of childish faith and elements of an adult faith at the same timeand continue to provide their parents with moments of real frustration.
But just as you would never try to rush the physical growth of your child by pumping her full of hormones or steroids, resist the temptation to rush this spiritual transition. Instead, nurture the process by listening and discussing, staying open to her questions and concerns.
Help your child develop her ability to think through issues from a faith perspective by asking open-ended, non-threatening questions. Start talking openly about your own spiritual journey, your longings and doubts, your hopes and "a-ha" moments, places where you've seen God active in your life in the past week.
Most of all, be aware that this transition means your child is beginning to shed her childhood skin. So cherish this time, no matter how confusing it seems.
Mark Oestreicher is the president of Youth Specialties (www.YouthSpecialties.com), the leading provider of resources and training for Christian youth workers.