5 Key Questions for Understanding the Mind of a Young Person

What if my whole family were Mormon? Would I still believe my version of Christianity is the only way to God?
Why would a good God let my friend’s dad die?
How do you know that is true?
You say God is loving, and you also say that He severely punishes sin. How does that fit together?
I know who you think I am. I know who my parents think I am. But, who am I, really?

(Photo by nasrulekram at Creative Commons)

(Photo by nasrulekram at Creative Commons)

These are all questions I was asking in High School. You probably were too. We’ve all heard these questions from teenagers, sometimes delivered with a bit of venom and the quickness of a snake strike. The adolescent heart seems to brim with questions that are aching to be asked. What is the source of this fountain of questions? And what is the best strategy for navigating this minefield?

We’ve talked about how people develop in stages, and about how young people make decisions. Today, we want to begin to understand how their entire thinking process changes—and the implications for us.

I’m sure you’ve noticed it. Major things happen in a person’s life around age 12. Prior to age 12, little Veronica is the ‘poster child’ of church life. She brings her Bible each week. She memorizes her verses. She knows how to behave in children’s church. She helps out with the younger kids. She’s a model citizen. Her mental ‘home’ is in order, and she knows the solution, explanation, and behavior for everything.

If you ask, “Why did God flood the earth?” she’ll answer, “Because people sinned.” If you ask, “Where do people go when they die?” she’ll answer, “Some to heaven, and some to hell.” She knows the answers, and is confident in them.

And then she learns a new skill that changes everything.

It’s like a total remodel of her mental ‘home.’ She takes out a sledgehammer and begins to demolish her entire framework of thinking. She knocks out a wall here. She crashes through a door there. There’s cement dust and broken pieces everywhere. It’s total, cataclysmic, wholesale change. Nothing will ever be the same.

But it’s not really just a new skill. It’s not just a new habit. Her entire way of thinking changes, nearly all at once. And it revolutionizes everything around her.

What is it?

She develops the ability to imagine. Not like she did as a child, where she imagined unicorns and fairies and dinosaurs and friends. No, this is a different type of imagining. This is the ability to use abstract thought for the very first time. To imagine hypothetical situations. To imagine what life would/could/should be like if things were different. And with it, comes a set of questions and possibilities that she has never considered before. Jean Piaget calls this the move from Concrete Operational Thought to Formal Operational Thought.

She moves from solutions, explanations, and behaviors to questions:

  • Why?—This isn’t the incessant ‘why?’ of a three-year-old, but the deep ‘why?’ of an emerging adult thinker. The child answered, “Where do people go when they die?” with “Some to heaven, and some to hell.” The adolescent wonders, “Why do people die? Where is heaven? How can a good God send people to hell?”
  • What if?—As in, “What if I had different parents? Would I believe different things? What if everything I trust is false? What if I were different?”
  • How will this effect my relationships?—“If I choose this behavior, how will it affect that situation?”
  • Who am I?—“I could be anyone I imagine, so who should I be? Who do my friends think I am? Who do my parents think I am? Who do I think I am?”
  • How does it all fit together?—“If God is good, how could He send a flood to kill the entire population of the earth? How can God choose those who are saved, but hold everyone accountable? God is loving, but He doesn’t want me to have any fun—why is that?”

Can you feel the deep questions of the adolescent soul? Teenagers are asking these questions for the first time in their lives. What are the implications for us, as leaders and parents? How do we help them walk through this cataclysmic time?

We’ll talk about that next time. Check back tomorrow for part 2 …

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