By Nicholas Borovich, Franciscan University of Steubenville
Some of the most spiritually on fire individuals you will ever meet are those working in youth ministry and evangelization. They have a burning desire to bring young people into a close relationship with Christ that many of themselves have. Their enthusiasm and dedication is awe-inspiring. But if this is the case, then why are their efforts not reaching more adolescents in an intimate way that creates lifelong disciples of Jesus?
The problem is that, although youth ministers are often enthusiastic and well-intentioned in their ministry, many lack the foundational understanding of what is occurring during adolescent development.
There are a multitude of changes occurring within these children both internally and externally. Internally, they are maturing emotionally, cognitively, and morally. However, although the adolescent is maturing, when aspects of these areas are made manifest by the adolescent through their outward behavior, adults may not perceive them as actually “being mature.” In
addition, externally they are growing physically and socially. These areas of development are more apparent to outside observers as the child’s appearance and peer groups change. By understanding each of these intricate transformations occurring within the adolescent, one will be able to more efficiently and effectively evangelize young people, and provide them with robust opportunities to grow in their faith.
This article will cover the five areas of adolescent development (i.e physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and moral) in both younger adolescents (ages 10-15 years) and older adolescents (ages 15-19 years), as well as provide some tips on basic intervention and pastoral care for young people.
Likely the most notable changes in adolescents to outside observers are their physical characteristics and qualities. One thing that often occurs in younger adolescents are growth spurts1. During growth spurts, an adolescent may grow several inches in several months followed by a period of very slow growth, only to be followed again by another growth spurt2.
However, not all parts of the body grow at the same time or at the same rate. For males in particular, the hands, feet, arms, and legs will grow faster than the rest of their body, thereby causing them to experience a time of clumsiness2. Additionally, males experience more pronounced voice changes where their voices become deeper, but is sometimes prone to “cracking2.” As for younger adolescent females, they experience similar growth spurts, but with more body fat developing along their upper arms, thighs, and upper back3. All of these changes occurring so rapidly can easily make the adolescent feel awkward.
Along with the physical changes of younger adolescents comes an unevenness in their energy levels and behavior, which could be likened to pendulums1. “Pendulum” physical behavior could be a younger adolescent being full of energy one minute and exhausted the next, and vice versa. It is important to remember that these pendulums are a natural part of adolescence and it is best for the adults to work with the pendulums, rather than attempt to stop them.
As for the physical development of older adolescents, they are more settled, but are still getting adjusted4. Most often in this stage of adolescent physical development the adolescent is searching for their own “look” or identity4. While it is not a physical development, it is nonetheless an overt change in their physical, outward presence. . Over short periods of time, these adolescents may rapidly change their clothing style, music preferences, hair color, interests, etc… Many of these are temporary and it is best that adults do not criticize the adolescent’s choices unreasonably because the adolescent during this period has developed the internal “I4.” Therefore, when an adult is critical of the adolescent’s choices, the adolescent feels personally attacked.
Like that of the physical development, the social development of adolescents is also oftentimes very noticeable to the outside observer. The foremost social question for younger adolescents is “Whose am I1?” Essentially, it is asking “to what group or unit do I belong to?” During this time of social development, adolescents tend to distance themselves from their parents and gravitate towards their peers1. Their identity comes from being part of a group and to be different is painful for them1.
In comparison, the premier social question for older adolescents is “Who am I4?” Rather than attempting to discover what group they identify with, these adolescents seek to determine who they themselves identify as by reflecting upon their own personal values, beliefs, qualities, talents, etc… For this reason, older adolescents typically emphasize intimacy over that of community4. Having a few intimate relationships allows each individual to understand the other more personally, in contrast with simply being casual acquaintances with many people in a larger community.
Thus, when it comes to youth ministry and evangelization for younger adolescents it is advisable to create group programming that broadly incorporates members of this age group. However, in regards to older adolescents it is wise to strive to create environments where individuals can form intimate relationships with one another, one-on-one or in small groups that suit each individual’s interests and personalities.
Younger adolescents that are emotionally developing go through similar pendulums like those occurring as part of their physical development. Emotionally, these pendulums could manifest as the adolescent being very happy one moment and quickly becoming very upset or angry the next, and vice versa. These are often known as “mood swings1.”
Also, in younger adolescence, the adolescent tends to be very narcissistic, viewing themselves as being the most important and lacking the capacity to take the perspective of another5. For these reasons, younger adolescents and their parents often experience conflict because they can not see an issue from the perspective of their parents and are unwilling to shift their position5.
However, older adolescents experience a time of maturity growth4. During this stage of adolescence, the individual develops the ability to see the perspective of the other, and although they may not always agree with the other person, they are more willing to accept differences5.
The ability to take the perspective of the other, while contributing to the emotional development of adolescents, is rooted in their cognitive development. To fully grasp what is changing cognitively inside the mind of the adolescent, it is best to start by understanding Piaget’s Four Stages of Cognitive Development.
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist whose research on cognitive development, especially his Four Stages of Cognitive Development theory, has greatly contributed to the way in which children are educated today. The four stages are the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational6. For the purposes of better understanding adolescent development, this article will focus on the concrete and formal operational stages.
Starting with the concrete, this stage generally lasts between ages 7-11 years, the beginning of younger adolescents6. During this stage, children begin to show logical, concrete reasoning, but lack the capacity for abstract or hypothetical thinking6. This is why they cannot see the perspective of others. Furthermore, because children in this stage think concretely, and not abstractly, it is best to teach by allowing them to do things themselves, rather than by simply lecturing6.
As for formal operational, this stage typically begins around 12 years-old and lasts through adulthood6. In this stage, children begin to think abstractly, and consider long-term outcomes and possibilities6. Therefore, they can understand subjects such as algebra and it allows them to finally take the perspective of another6.
Continuing on the topic of cognitive development, another thing that is exhibited during younger adolescence is the use of statements as questions1. For example, a younger adolescent may say “I’m too fat,” but they are really asking “Am I too fat1?” When these kinds of questions are presented to adults, it is best that the adult reaffirms the “normalness” of the adolescent, so that the adolescent feels good with who they are1.
In addition with the cognitive development of older adolescents, comes the commitment to ideals4. This can be seen in things such as an increased participation in political spheres and social issues, however these adolescents often have no real knowledge or answers surrounding the issues they are fighting for4. This likely stems from the notion of them wanting to be “something bigger than themselves” and also from a sense of loneliness4. Loneliness in adolescence can easily occur, especially when the adolescent lacks the intimate relationships that are sought as part of their social development. Even if they are part of a broader community, the more personal, intimate relationships are still incredibly important for their overall well-being.
Lastly, the final area to cover concerning adolescent development is that of moral development. Moral development involves behaving in a way that is more closely aligned with one’s values and beliefs, as well as, the creation of guiding principles and the application of them in daily life7.
During childhood, moral influence is generally derived from an individual’s family7. However, during younger adolescence peers have a much greater influence on one’s moral judgements and peer pressure can have a significant effect in the adolescent’s decision-making process and perception of the world around them7.
Oftentimes a younger adolescent’s morality is based on punishment or result, and they usually lack the foresight to anticipate consequences1. This can prove troublesome because it is also during this stage of development that an adolescent begins to recognize that many rules are simply created by people and they therefore start to question authority7.
As for older adolescents, they become more individualistic during this time of their lives and, as a result, their moral outlook is largely based around this factor4. In many instances, older adolescents will choose to participate in activities that demonstrate their moral convictions, such as protests, rallies, etc…7 often revolving around larger moral and social issues4. This results in them being experience rich, yet language poor4. In other words, they know what they themselves believe, but they lack the ability to adequately explain what they believe to others.
Overall though, when it comes to the moral development of older adolescents, things continue to become more complex and questions are generally more “gray,” but at the same time they gain a deeper understanding of many principles, virtues, and values to help them get to the root of the issue4.
Sources (listed in the order in which they first appear in the article):
- Witte, Kristin. “Adolescent Development (Younger).”
- “Puberty: Adolescent Male.” Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, https://www.chop.edu/conditions-diseases/puberty-adolescent-male
- “Stages of puberty: what happens to boys and girls.” National Health Service, https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/stages-of-puberty-what-happens-to-boys-and-girls/
- Witte, Kristin. “Adolescent Development (Older).”
- “Social development in adolescence.” The Department of Health, https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/drugtreat-pubs-front2-wk-toc~drugtreat-pubs-front2-wk-secb~drugtreat-pubs-front2-wk-secb-3~drugtreat-pubs-front2-wk-secb-3-3
- Ansorge, Rick. “Piaget Stages of Development.” WebMD, 17 Aug. 2020, https://www.webmd.com/children/piaget-stages-of-development
- “Adolescent Moral Development.” MentalHelp.net, https://www.mentalhelp.net/adolescent-development/morality/