I got to visit with a friend and my godson this past week. Since I last saw him two months ago, I noticed some typical changes for a seven-month-old: emotive facial expressions including smiles and grumpy faces; babble vocab of high pitched shrieks and blowing raspberries; and the ability to roll over both his right and left sides.
I understand that there are general milestones every couple of weeks throughout infancy. Despite the general benchmarks, I think that we can agree that each baby grows at his or her own pace. Where one baby goes from crawling to running in a matter of weeks, another may experience a delay in speech.
Similar to the “two-nager,” a tweenager, the middle school student (aged 11 to 14), develops similarly. Think about it. It is almost as if they have to learn how to walk again with the disproportionate growth of their limbs. Their brains recalibrate with their bodies as they trip over the ground or run into doors. They need to re-learn how to use words to accurately express how they feel, or else give up on words altogether instead resorting to the ambiguous shoulder shrug or grunt at your attempt at a civilized conversation. Second to infancy, we undergo the most physical, emotional, and cognitive changes in early adolescence. In all seriousness, when interacting with your middle schooler, dig up the patient understanding that you had when they were toddlers.
The challenge to understand this brand of our species is real. I’ve had seventh-grade boys on retreat flush chicken tenders down a toilet. Then there was the sixth-grade girl I had to remind about not touching her face with her gloved hands because we just finished cleaning out a chicken coop.
I also had an eighth-grade girl who called out satan’s temptation to doubt during Eucharistic adoration. There was also the seventh-grade boy who sacrificed his kneeler at Mass as an offering of prayer for a prayer partner.
There are a plethora of resources for younger children and teenagers, such as faith formation resources. In my opinion, content directed towards those demographics is easier to generalize and more accurately reach a concentrated median. When it comes to middle schoolers, the wide spectrum of students in varying stages of development makes it harder to hit the mark.
Regardless of the curriculum you decide to use, here are some developmental benchmarks to consider with your willingness to patiently engage with your tweenager.
Socially and emotionally, your teen is becoming more cognizant of his or her individuality, an identity that can exist apart from you as a parent. Your teen will test the sense of security they feel with you against the support of their peer systems. This pulling away is necessary to assert personal uniqueness and value.
With this in mind, assure your teen that the domestic church of your home is a safe environment for honest conversation. Welcome curiosity. Exhibit care with clear, firm, and consistent boundaries. Be present. Practice ordering their thoughts and emotions with reason and logic towards the Ultimate Good.
Cognitively, your teen is testing boundaries and evaluating personal competence. There is a shift from thinking concretely to thinking abstractly. You probably notice that their curriculum shifts from facts, figures, and vocabulary words to asking thoughtful questions for comprehension and application. Connect new ideas with concepts they already know. Reinforce a point in different ways to engage different parts of the brain. First, confirm their understanding of the concrete before testing your teen’s mental ability to stretch to the theoretical. Reinforce your trustworthiness by explaining the “why” behind the “what” and demonstrate connectedness and meaning, speaking to the organic unity of the faith.
Though they are beginning to think like adults, they still struggle to consider things beyond the present moment. Combining social and cognitive functioning, Pope Francis brings up that “[s]o often in life we waste time asking ourselves: ‘Who am I?’ You can keep asking, ‘Who am I?’ for the rest of your lives.
But the real question is: ‘For whom am I?” Of course, you are for God. But He has decided that you should also be for others, and He has given you many qualities, inclinations, gifts, and charisms that are not for you but to share with those around you” (Christus Vivit 286). Challenge them to relate everything to identity and mission. What does this teaching have to do with who you are? What does this teaching have to do with what you are called to do?
Pope Francis passed on some useful insights into what young people look for in a mentor and guide. “The qualities of such a mentor include: being a faithful Christian who engages with the Church and the world; someone who constantly seeks holiness; someone who is a confidant without judging. Similarly, someone who actively listens to the needs of young people and responds in kind; someone deeply loving and self-aware; someone who recognizes his or her limits and knows the joys and sorrows of the spiritual journey. An especially important quality in mentors is the acknowledgment of their own humanity – the fact that they are human beings who make mistakes: not perfect people but forgiven sinners. Sometimes mentors are put on a pedestal, and when they fall, it may have a devastating impact on young people’s ability to continue to engage with the Church. Mentors should not lead young people as passive followers, but walk alongside them, allowing them to be active participants in the journey. They should respect the freedom that comes with a young person’s process of discernment and equip them with tools to do so well. A mentor should believe wholeheartedly in a young person’s ability to participate in the life of the Church. A mentor should, therefore, nurture the seeds of faith in young people, without expecting to immediately see the fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit. This role is not and cannot be limited to priests and consecrated life, but the laity should also be empowered to take on such a role. All such mentors should benefit from being well-formed, and engage in ongoing formation”(Christus Vivit 246).
Your tween is growing in maturity and will soon discover your deep, dark secret. You are not perfect. You do not know everything. So own it. Show your tween that you’re accompanying them in this crazy path of faith. You’re no wise sage, but a caring companion, willing to walk in the messiness of the tweenage years and proof of hope that middle school, too, shall pass.
“For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal”(2 Corinthians 4: 17-18).