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Do you remember your middle school years? No matter how far removed you may be from early adolescence, it is imperative as a disciple-maker of students that you regularly remind yourself what it’s like to live out those transitional, pivotal, and life-altering years.
A helpful way to understand and empathize with the middle school mindset is to remember that: every middle school student has 5 characters inside that they could display at any given time.
Have you witnessed the middle schooler who provides a thought-provoking answer to a question you asked but, in the very next moment, is giving the student next to him a wet willy? This dizzying whiplash is all too common when working with middle schoolers.
Developmental expert, Erik Erikson, pictures the adolescent as a trapeze artist. Like a trapeze artist, the young person in the middle of vigorous motion/change must let go of their safe hold on childhood and reach out for a firm grasp on adulthood. Yet, in the middle school years, the young trapeze artist is not prepared to let go, so they swing into adulthood for a moment and then return to the comfortable, familiar childhood—no rhyme, reason, or rhythm to this high-flying maturation process. Expect the unexpected. Adapt to the absurd. Respond with grace and patience, knowing that this is a natural God-designed development in each person, even you, once upon a time.
Think less head-covering fashion and more personal identity exploration. The BIG question early adolescents ask is, “WHO AM I?”—trying on different identities to see which one feels right, which one fits best, and which one brings comfort, connection, and community. It is common to see students switching — likes and dislikes, fashion style, friend groups, attitudes, and behaviors — to name a few hats.
Middle schoolers begin the process by removing the hat from childhood to experiment with other identities in the hope that they can discover their specific identity. Still, these identities are frequently changed out for the next. It’s a safe practice to never assume that last week’s band obsession is even in their top 10 the following week. Amid rapid hat exchange, we must find ways to demonstrate the promises and security found in the identity Jesus provides.
Imagine waking up one morning having grown wings. And everyone expects you to adjust to this abrupt and unexpected change immediately. It would take time to learn how to work your new body. You might crash. You undoubtedly would be a bit clumsy. Now imagine having this frequently happen over a 4-5 year span.
Height, weight, shoe size, body hair, acne, voice change, and everything else that puberty brings. It isn’t easy being comfortable and confident in one’s skin, but when that skin is in constant and unfamiliar change, it is understandable that one might respond with insecurity and isolation. Feeling like you are not like anyone else, that you are a creature from another planet, is universal. As a Morphing Martian, middle school students need to be reminded often that they are designed by a loving God who knows them completely.
CLANG! BANG! BOOM! Have you ever been to a band concert or watched a marching band? Shiny instruments are held by talented musicians seated neatly in rows, excited to share their gift and hard work. Then in the corner, often overlooked or camouflaged with the background, is the cymbalist. Anxious for the moment to shine, prepared to make that noise that will reverberate throughout the venue. You may not initially notice the cymbalist, but they will make their presence known.
Middle schoolers are hungry for attention, desperate to be noticed, but don’t really know how to best gain this attention. They often resort to loud and brash options. Some students may clang the cymbals softly, and even the quieter cymbals are just as hungry for connections, acceptance, and acknowledgment of existence. As a leader, it is easy to respond with annoyance and avoidance to the constant “cymbal clanging.” The next time you hear the CLANG! BANG! BOOM! of an amateur cymbalist, take a moment to pause and remember that, even though they’re not playing it well or at appropriate times, a middle school student is playing the cymbals to be seen, heard, and accepted.
Here are some typical adult responses toward middle schoolers: often overlooked, constantly marginalized, okay to be seen but not heard, or they are the future. Cue the game show buzzer…BUZZ! Incorrect answer!
Early adolescent students are NOT merely the church of the future. Rather they are the world changers of today — with a sphere of influence, dreams, passion, creativity, and a desire to make an impact. Ready and waiting to serve and looking for someone to empower them to step forward. Don’t underestimate them. Don’t limit them. Don’t hold them back.
Middle School students have so much going on inside. They are wrestling with life-altering questions, navigating constant change, and straddling the line between childhood and adulthood. Investing in their development and spiritual growth is a privilege and responsibility. Let’s begin by remembering who they are, what they’re going through, and how to best speak into their middle school years.
Share your thoughts with others in our YM360 community:
- Which of these characters do you have the easiest time relating to, and why do you think that is? If you could add a character to this list, what would it be?
- How does the information in this post help you relate better to the students in your ministry?