Here’s One Reason that Adults and Teenagers (Often) Don’t Understand Each Other

Jack and Jill had three wonderful children, ages 5, 8, and 11. They were wise parents, and seemed to have the magic touch of discipline and grace. Their three children were model citizens—a pleasure for teachers and peers alike.

(Photo by Ayla 87 at sxc.hu)

(Photo by Ayla 87 at sxc.hu)

Then something odd happened. Over the next 8 years, they lost influence with each of their children. One-by-one, their children turned a deaf ear. One of them outwardly rebelled. Another simply broke off contact. A third appeared to listen, but then didn’t do anything they said.

You’ve likely seen a similar situation play out dozens of times. Parents who seem to excel at raising younger children simply fail with teenagers. What goes wrong?

One strong possibility is that the parents fail to change at the pace of their children. Just as people grow in stages outwardly (think puberty), they grow in distinct stages inwardly.

When I was little, I didn’t understand puberty. I just assumed that as a guy, the older I got the lower my voice would go. I thought that I would gradually start growing hair on my face, and it would just get thicker and thicker until I died. I had no idea that growth would come so cataclysmically and suddenly as it did.

People go through similar stages of inward cataclysmic change and growth. The way we think changes, seemingly overnight. The way we make moral decisions is distinctly different at various ages. And it’s not simply about gathering new information. We’re actually asking different questions and starting with different assumptions at each stage. Like different floors of a department store, we’re ‘stuck on a level’ until we address and answer the unique questions and challenges of that stage.

This is a totally different perspective than just assuming teenagers are older children, or younger adults. The wise parent—and wise youth worker—must understand the unique cognitive, moral, and social questions of this age. Too often, we fail to adapt and grow with our students. We end up giving them answers that no longer satisfy, and explanations that no longer suffice.

But I’m convinced that Jesus embraced this age and stage. He saw pointed questions as unique opportunities to truly engage the heart. He saw doubt as opportunity for real faith to emerge. He saw rebellion as an energy to channel in the right direction. It’s little wonder that He filled His inner group with young people.

Perhaps with a greater understanding of the unique questions and challenges of adolescence, Jack and Jill can regain their relationships with their kids …

(PS—This is part of a series called YOUR students—An Inside Look. Next time, we’ll look at the unique way adolescents make moral decisions—and how it should revolutionize how we discipline.)

  • What do you see as the greatest challenge for communication between young people and adults?

    • Aaron Bevier

      One challenge is the “often overstated” phrase and mindset from adults toward kids, “I know what you are going through.” Some adults think they have ALL THE ANSWERS…and it frustrates kids. Do adults nowadays truly understand and “know” what teens are going through? Each one is different, and each generation has its own challenges in society.

      • Aaron, this is GOLD! I’m working on a blog post right now on “The Power of Empathy.” I think we’re often afraid to be empathetic–as if it somehow weakens our position. Of course, in reality, it does the opposite.

  • Helen

    🙂 Good word..so very true…thanks for reminding me

  • Pingback: 5 Key Questions for Understanding the Mind of a Young Person | RobTrenckmann.com()

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