In one year he grew six inches taller and his voice dropped an octave lower. Welcome to the exciting – yet terrifying – experience of adolescence! The summer before he started 7th grade, I wrote my son a letter to give him a heads up on some of the changes he could expect in the coming years, challenges he would likely face, and insight into how to navigate them from one who’s been down that road. Honestly, I don’t think any of it sunk in at the time because it all seemed so far away, but a year-and-a-half later, some of Mom’s predictions have shown up in daily life. So I decided to print off the letter for him to read again as a way of reassuring him that while the challenges he’s facing are normal and to be expected – because I “called it” 2 years ago – he does not have to respond to these challenges like a “normal” teenager. The world expects very little of teenagers, but why waste these years by sinking to everyone’s low expectations? (For more on this subject, I highly recommend having your teen read, Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. It has motivated my now 14-year-old to see this time in his life as a gift not to be squandered.)
I decided to share this letter with you today with the hope that my adolescence survival guide could be used as an instrument of grace, as I acknowledge the unique challenges of the teen years, and a launching pad for discussion with your teen on how we can rise above them to be more than just followers of the crowd. There is another way; the way of following Christ.
As your journey through childhood comes to an end and the journey through adolescence begins, I want to first tell you how proud I am to be your mother and how fiercely I love you. (You know I would give my life for you, right?) I’ve watched you grow into a thoughtful, compassionate, creative, funny, talented young man who loves God with all his heart, and I am so thankful God gave you to me. We’ve faced some challenges together over the last 12 years, and God has been faithful to help us through them. Now, as I look ahead to some of the challenges you’ll likely face in adolescence, I want to share a few insights with you based on my own experience as a teenager (as you’re fond of saying, “waaaay back in the 1900s”).
Embrace Who God Created You To Be
The central focus of adolescence is often the pursuit of acceptance and approval by peers. Kids will do anything to be popular, changing themselves to become who they think others want them to be. Some kids get so good at being chameleons, fitting in with the crowd at all costs, that they reach their 20s having no idea who they really are. With the added pressures of presenting a perfect image on social media (like Facebook), teens fall into the trap of believing that image is everything. That is a lie. The truth is, you are uniquely created by God to fulfill a purpose uniquely suited to you, for “You are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for you to do” (Eph. 2:10). How can you fulfill your unique purpose if you’re putting all your energy into trying to be someone else, just to please others? Don’t fall into this trap.
You cannot please everyone, nor will everyone like or accept you. If you make popularity the goal of adolescence, you will enter adulthood feeling empty and uncertain of your purpose, because popularity may prop up your self-esteem temporarily, but once the whims of “the group” change, you will once again have to reinvent yourself. Instead of the exhausting pursuit of acceptance by peers, I challenge you to focus instead on loving God, loving others – whether they return your love or not – and developing the gifts God has given you. The world doesn’t need more sheep to follow the crowd. The world needs innovators and problem solvers who think outside the box, like you do. Hang onto who you are, and when you are uncertain of who you are, hang onto Jesus. He’ll remind you that you are His creation, His treasure, His beloved worth dying for.
Own Your Strengths and Weaknesses
During your teen years you will be tempted to compare yourself to others. There will always be someone who is smarter, more talented in a particular area, more popular, more athletic. If you attempt to define yourself as “The Best (fill in the blank),” you will try to cover up or make excuses for your weaknesses, suffer the rise and fall of your self-esteem depending on how you feel you compare to those around you, and continually live in fear of failure. I don’t have to tell you that the above scenario will bring you nothing but misery. Trust me, I’ve been there. Remember that it’s not usually the struggling kids in your dad’s college classes who cheat, it’s the top students who are so afraid of failure that they will do anything to keep from losing their status as “the best.”
The truth is, our weaknesses are a gift from God because it is in our areas of weakness that we most recognize our need for him and invite God to demonstrate his power in us. It’s better to learn to lean on God and discover that he is able to help us in our weaknesses, than to cling to the false belief that our worth is defined by our accomplishments. (If you don’t think you’re worth anything because of your weaknesses, read the gospels and see for yourself how much you’re worth. Jesus died for you while you were still a sinner.) So don’t fall into the comparison trap. Accept that you – along with everyone else – have weaknesses.
Don’t be afraid of failure. Learn from your mistakes and keep your sense of humor when they happen. If you can acknowledge your weaknesses freely and learn to laugh at yourself in a healthy way, it disarms those who would use your weaknesses as a weapon against you. Not only that, it lets others know they are safe to be themselves around you when embarrassing situations are funny rather than a death blow. (Just be careful with your sarcasm and don’t use it to humiliate others or get laughs at someone else’s expense. EVER.) Own who you are and don’t let accomplishments become your god. Learn now to turn to God to help you when you are weak, and you’ll be in a better position to face life’s disappointments than the kid for whom everything has come easily, because that kid will likely fall to pieces when he is dethroned by someone who is more talented than him someday.
Your Brain May Betray You at Times – And It’s Okay
There will be times when it seems like all the adults in your life, including me, are being too hard on you or expecting more from you than you feel like you can deliver. Please forgive us. You see, your body is about to go through some amazing changes, and you will soon begin to look like an adult. This can sometimes lead adults to believe that you are like us, but the truth is that your brain will not fully develop until you’re in your 20s. So there will be times when you exercise poor judgment and make stupid mistakes because your frontal lobe – the part that weighs consequences before acting on impulses – is the last part to develop. Your dad and I will try to remember to show you grace, but we will also allow you to experience the consequences of your poor decisions because part of growing up involves taking responsibility for your actions.
So when you have the urge to do something dangerous or just plain wrong, remember that you can always talk to us and we will do our best not to overreact. But if we do discipline you, it’s because we love you and want you to grow into a responsible adult. That’s our job. While we look forward to relating to you as an adult, we’re not your buddies. We’re your parents, and we’re responsible to God to train you to do what’s right. So when it seems like we’re being tough on you, we’re just trying our best to do our job (and there’s no “How to Raise a Teenager” manual). We’ll make mistakes and so will you. Hopefully, we’ll show each other grace on this journey.
Your Body May Also Make Life Difficult
Unfortunately, it’s not just your developing brain that will make life tough for you at times, it’s your developing body and a whole host of hormones. Your growth spurts may not happen in all areas at the same time, so you may suddenly get bigger feet before the rest of you catches up, and feel awkward and uncoordinated for a time. Hang in there and it’ll pass. There will also be days when you just feel rotten for no good reason because of hormone surges. These feelings may make you overreact to little things or just want to be left alone. I want you to know that it’s okay to acknowledge these feelings, even if they’re not justifiable. But I wish someone had told me when I was a teenager that you don’t have to give in to these feelings or let them be your master. You can say, “Mom, I just feel down today,” and I will do my best to honor what’s happening inside you. However, I’m also going to encourage you to set a time limit on wallowing in your emotions, and then brainstorm some ways to redirect your thoughts (like reading a book, going for a walk, listening to upbeat music with positive lyrics, working on a favorite project, etc.). The sooner you learn to recognize negative thought patterns and emotions and take steps to turn them around, the happier and more successful you will be in your life and relationships. It takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it. I didn’t learn this valuable life skill until I was in my 30s, and my life would have been so different had I learned how to interrupt negative thought patterns in my teen years.
Everyone Around You Is Also Going Through These Changes
It’s important to remember, too, that all your friends will be going through these same changes. Their brains and bodies may cause them to say and do stupid or unkind things. (I don’t know any adults who have no regrets from their teenage years. We ALL did stupid stuff – just ask your dad…) In addition, your friends are trying to deal with their own desires to be accepted and liked by their peers. This strong desire to fit in often leads kids to reject anyone who doesn’t fit in because they don’t want to be associated with someone who isn’t like the crowd, for fear that they too would be rejected by association.
Listen carefully, son: If you follow God’s path for you instead of living to please others, you will likely face rejection because kids who don’t follow the crowd or stick to the status quo are dangerous. Be dangerous anyway! Friends may walk away from you simply because you’re different. Love them and pray for those who persecute you. It won’t make the pain of rejection go away, but the God who came to earth to die for you knows very well the sting of rejection and pain of betrayal. He will use these experiences to strengthen your character and develop within you deep compassion for those who are rejected.
If you follow Jesus through the narrow gate, it may lead to suffering and rejection at times, but it is the only way to become like Christ. And if there is one desire I have for you, it is to be like Christ. I don’t care how popular you are, how many awards you win, or how financially successful you are someday. I just want you to know how much God loves you – no matter what you do – and walk with him all the days of your life. I promise you that the time you devote to developing your relationship with God will never be wasted. He will always accept you, so look to him for your purpose. Find your self-image in the shadow of the cross, focusing on who God says you are, not on who other teens say you are. Listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, follow him, and you will emerge from adolescence as a confident, secure adult because you’ve found your security in the only One who can fill your heart’s desire for acceptance.
Be a Friend
The best thing you can do to navigate through the murky waters of teenage relationships is to just focus on being a friend. Be a good listener and do your best to take an interest in others. Look for the person who most needs a friend and be a friend to that person. You don’t have to be BFFs, but God will bless you when you make loving the “least of these” a priority. If your love is not returned, see all the stuff above. And speaking of love…
At some point, you’re going to start noticing girls and want them to notice you. Again, just focus on being a friend (and maybe wearing something a little nicer than sweats every day – just sayin’). Dating while your brain and emotions are developing can be dangerous because you will likely be more focused on how the other person makes you feel than on doing what is best for the other person. Real love is not making out with someone or giving in to lustful desires. Real love is not what you see in the movies that would lead you to believe that love is a feeling or physical expression. Real love is about self-sacrifice and doing what is best for the other person. However, when your hormones are raging throughout adolescence, your feelings and physical desires will be hard to override (see above section on the adolescent brain). Since a high school sweetheart may not become your wife, how you treat her will affect her self-image and, potentially, her marriage to someone else someday. (Think about how you would want other guys to treat the girl you’re going to marry.) It’s a huge responsibility, and one that shouldn’t be rushed into.
So have lots of friends who are girls and learn how to be a good friend. Go out with groups and make memories with them. That’s how your dad and I came to fall in love. We went out with groups of friends for 3 years in college and have wonderful shared memories together, even though we didn’t date until our senior year. Our relationship is still strong to this day because it was founded in friendship. So don’t worry about finding Miss Right. Just be a good friend and enjoy life as it unfolds. There are blessings in relationships and blessings in singleness. Choose to live for God in whichever circumstance you’re in and you will be blessed.
No matter what, remember that your dad and I love you. There is nothing you can do that will make us love you more, and nothing you can do that will make us love you less. We look forward to watching you continue to grow into the wonderful man God created you to be. Welcome to adolescence!