Parenting Help

The Radical Shift in the Experience of Being a Young Teen 

Dynamic ImageThe middle school years (11 to 14 years old) are one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated developmental periods of human life. Young teens are misunderstood by adults in general, to be sure; and they’re misunderstood by churches more often than not. In my experience most conflict between parents and middle schoolers can be traced, after pulling back the onion-layers of behavior and tension, to a lack of understanding.

In most homes (whether Christian or not), middle schoolers are viewed either as children or as suddenly ready-for-the-world mini-adults. Of course, neither is fully true. We need a new and deeper understanding of the uniqueness of these transitionary years.

Culturally, there’s been a massive shift in the last 20 years. As the age of puberty drops and youth culture becomes the dominant culture in our world, young teenagers are no longer living the waning years of an innocent childhood.

Decisions that used to be the stuff of high school—decisions that have enormous implications for the rest of life—are now played out daily in the lives of 12- and 13-year-olds. This has dramatically changed the nature of parenting young teens.

Not long ago most youth workers would have agreed that the high school years were the make-or-break space for the critical formation of youth. My contention (and I realize I’m biased by my calling and love for middle schoolers) is that this is no longer the case. These days, as a church youth worker, I often see high school ministry as being “corrective” in nature, while middle school ministry is now the make-or-break space (or “preventive” in nature). In the world of parenting teenagers, the middle school years set the direction, and parenting a high schooler—more often than not—is about (or, should be about) staying the course and moving teenagers toward independence.

There’s a complicated and messy intersection of realities playing out in the world of young teens. It’s the penultimate period of change in the lifespan of a human being, combined with two other factors:


  • A culture that obsesses about everything “youth”—teenagers (including young teens) are marketed to more than ever and have a greater influence on adults than ever before (an influence we’ve granted them).


  • A culture flooded with information—anything and everything is readily available at the click of a mouse (and often thrust upon youth even without mouse-clicking).

It’s unprecedented, really, how—in a shockingly short span of years—the middle school years have become such an epicenter for activity with lifelong implications. Normally this kind of human developmental change takes place over centuries.

This article is an excerpt from Mark Oestreicher’s book, Understanding Your Young Teen(Zondervan, 2011).

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Mark Oestreicher

Mark Oestreicher (Marko) is a veteran youth worker and founding partner in The Youth Cartel, providing resources, training and coaching for church youth workers. The author of dozens of books, including Understanding Your Young Teen, and Youth Ministry 3.0, Marko is a sought after speaker, writer and consultant. Marko lives in San Diego with his wife Jeannie and two teenage children, Liesl and Max. Marko’s blog:

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