The Middle School Brain (a primer)

I love youth ministry.  In what other field do you get to work with a group of young people ranged all the way from 6th grade through college and watch as they grow into mature Christians?  There’s no other job quite like it.  One minute, I’m participating with our college students in a deep conversation about a famously difficult passage of Scripture; the next, I find myself planning retreats and worship services with our high schoolers; and before the hour is up, I’m refereeing a game for our middle schoolers.  Each age group under our church’s care presents its joys and challenges, and while I’ve found I don’t really have a favorite, there’s one group that faces a rather unique set of issues: middle school.

Now, I don’t want to undersell the extreme developmental transitions of high school and college, but middle school really is where some of the most radical change takes place.  Let’s look at four areas where it’s most apparent:

 

source: Michael Elins, Newsweek

1) Development of Self-Sufficiency

This may be a crass way of putting it, but children are needy.  What are the first things a child says?  Want mommy.  Want daddy.  Hungry.  Potty.  Etc.  A child is abundantly aware of his/her needs and requires an adult’s help to survive.  It’s not a bad thing; that’s just how childhood works.  There are so many things that children can’t do on their own, so they need us.

On the other hand, teenagers are notoriously independent.  If a parent tries to help a teen in the same way they helped a child, we use the label of “helicopter parent.”  By the same token, if teens cling to parents in the same way as when they were children, they get called a baby, momma’s boy, daddy’s girl, etc.  There are few things more threatening to a high schooler or college student’s reputation than being perceived as overly dependent on a parent.

Middle school lies squarely in the middle of this extreme divide.  It’s the time when independence is coming into the picture, but there is still a lot that a middle schooler simply cannot do on his/her own.  Time management, hygiene, food preparation, cleaning up after themselves– a little grace has to be shown in a lot of areas.  And this time is especially tough on parents: finding the balance between protecting your preteen and granting them independence is no easy matter, and there’s no one answer for how to do this best.

 

source: kidshealth.org

2) Boundless Energy, Raging Hormones

Through the mercy of time, most of us have forgotten what it was like, but try to imagine how it felt to be in middle school: your brain suddenly has increased processing power, your body is suddenly taller and capable of greater athleticism, and the opposite sex suddenly isn’t so icky anymore.  Your metabolism spikes, your appetite skyrockets, your energy is through the roof, and somehow, you’re expected to pay attention to your teachers and ministers?  Yeah right.  I recently heard Les Christie describe middle schoolers this way: “Imagine a vehicle with a racecar engine and bicycle brakes.  That is a preteen brain!”  For this reason, parents and teachers just have to be more patient with this age group, and that is not an easy task!  This group gets excited more easily and takes much longer to calm down, but we shouldn’t take this as a challenge to our authority or a sign of disrespect; it’s biology.

 

source: wikimedia commons

3) Making Connections

I wasn’t kidding about the “increased processing power” bit earlier.  The process of brain development is ongoing throughout adolescence and into early adulthood, but middle school is where the real quantum leap occurs.  Very seldom do you meet an elementary school student who is already capable of deep abstract thought, but middle schoolers are starting to make connections on a very deep level.  While children need things to be very concrete, preteens are starting to grapple with more abstract concepts like love, justice, and God.  Think of it this way: elementary aged kids will enjoy a good story, but it’s typically middle school and older who can tell you what that story means.  My volunteers who work with middle schoolers often report extreme satisfaction from watching these students comprehend a deeper concept for the very first time, and that’s one reason we don’t shy away from deep topics with our younger youth.

 

source: bullyingpreventionnow.com

4) Bigger Consequences but Brutal Honesty

When does “having a circle of best friends” evolve into “being part of a clique”?  When does a little playground roughhousing or name-calling start to escalate into life-threatening bullying situations?  When does self-esteem become a high-stakes battle rather than a phrase your teacher and guidance counselor repeat ad nauseam?

Middle school.  That’s when.

By high school, most youth are somewhat jaded to these issues, but for middle schoolers, this is all new territory, and the really astonishing thing is how open they all are about it!  By high school, most people have learned to “keep up appearances” or “put on a brave face”, but for preteens, that skill is still developing.  One of the big challenges of working with adults and older teens is figuring out what they’re not telling you (what secret sin they’re wrestling with, what’s really going on at home, etc.), but that’s seldom a problem with middle school.  In all but the most unusual cases, middle schoolers tend to be a fount of information, so the bigger challenge is digging through all of it to get to the thing that’s bugging them most.  Middle schoolers are just starting to grasp the gravity of the things happening around them, and helping them navigate that is a demanding process.  Thankfully, most are still so fresh out of childhood that they’re willing to ask for help.

 

By this point, you’re hopefully saying to yourself, “Wow, what a tough age,” and you’re right!  As adults or late teens or whoever is reading this article, we have usually forgotten what it was like to be in middle school, but there are still ways we can help.  In fact, I’ve written this article for two main reasons:

1) To bring a little attention to our middle school volunteers.  It takes a special kind of individual to work with this age group, and that’s why our adult volunteers and high school mentors are near and dear to my heart.  Our volunteers show remarkable patience and dedication, but they’d also be the first to tell you about the joys of working with this age group.

2) To ask for a little patience from us all.  I know it’s tough not to be frustrated when we see younger youth running around or talking incessantly.  I know it’s tough not to take it personally when a preteen’s attention wanders while we’re talking.  But still, that’s part of ministering to this age group.  As a church, we have a different influence on young people; in addition to being parents or teachers or mentors, we’re also called on to be the presence of Christ to them, and that means an extra measure of patience from all of us.

 

I hope these musings have helped you get a little more into the head of a middle schooler, and I’ll make sure to post similar pieces about high school and college life in the near future.  If you’d like to learn more, I strongly recommend the blog of my friend and colleague Amber Johansen, but one of the best ways to learn is to come and join us on Wednesday nights or Sunday mornings in the LOFT.  After all, the real experts on middle school are middle schoolers themselves, so who better to learn from?

Lastly, whether you offer prayers, presence, or financial support, know that your contributions are helping to shape these youth as they mature through a particularly difficult phase of life, so please, keep that support coming!

 

Grace and Peace,

Tom

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