Rather than run from uncomfortable topics with preteens, they need you to set everything aside—and engage in a fearless conversation.
- “If God is on our side, why did my friend’s mom die? My friend says if there was a God, he wouldn’t have let this happen.”
- “If God loves me so much, how come the kids at school hate me?”
- “I don’t want my body to change. It feels like everyone’s looking at me.”
- “I don’t feel normal.”
- “Why do my friends act one way to my face and then talk about me when I’m not around?”
- “Bad things are happening everywhere to kids, and I’m scared something bad will happen to me. Why doesn’t God protect kids?”
If you can relate to any of these questions, there’s a strong change you spend time with preteens. There’s also a change you’ve felt overwhelmed or stumped by their questions and been tempted to find a quick escape.
Preteens’ brains and bodies are undergoing significant developmental change—an often-bumpy shift for kids. During this life stage, kids emotionally and physically begin to move from childhood into their teenage years. It’s a phase fraught with emotions, doubts, and problems. That’s why it’s also a crucial time for children’s ministers to be ready, willing, and able to engage in fearless conversation with kids.
Here are just a handful of some of the changes preteens are experiencing.
- Their reasoning abilities are sharpening and developing rapidly. Preteens begin to see the world around them more clearly and gain a deeper understanding of events happening outside their immediate world.
- Preteens are especially adept at learning new skills. It’s a great time to let them explore interests and try new, positive experiences.
- While younger children move from concrete to abstract thinking as their brains develop, preteens are moving to more complex abstract thinking and reasoning. As a result, preteens begin to interpret, compare, and judge what adults say—and sometimes find it lacking when considered alongside their personal desires. Adults may view this preteen pushback as sass or attitude.
- Preteens are heading for independence. They begin to pull away from adult hovering and strive to prove their ability—often before they’re ready. When preteens feel they’re being treated like “babies,” they’ll rebel and ignore the adults who do it.
- Friendships take on ever-deeper importance, especially for girls. Preteens are not as reliant on their parents, and friends often begin to slide into place as the relationships they’re most attentive to.
- Typically, boys’ and girls’ behavior patterns diverge further apart. Girls tend to become more focused on complex interpersonal relationships. Boys’ focus tends to turn to activities—regardless of who’s participating.
- For preteens, the Internet is their domain. It’s their private world where things can go well—or horribly—depending on social media interaction that particular day.
How to be Fearless
Fearless conversation happens when adults are willing to sit down with preteens and grapple with tough, uncomfortable, or even unanswerable topics honestly and openly. We may not know the answers to their questions. We may not be able to give a rational reason for why bad things happen. But we can talk through issues together and guide them to Jesus for help in all situations.
Fearless conversation shows kids you’re truly interested in what they have to say. It tells them you’re willing to talk— and listen—about hard things. Preteens learn most when they interact verbally and are part of a conversation rather than listening to a lecture. This doesn’t mean preteens merely answer an adult’s fact-based questions. “Fearless” means we aren’t afraid to discuss things that children wonder about and would benefit from discussing. Don’t be afraid to talk about difficult things; your preteens are already wondering about the tough stuff and need to know that God is with them throughout it. Fearless conversation is being real. It’s being authentic. It’s let- ting God’s Holy Spirit guide you.
“There’s nothing more powerful than authentic sharing of everyday stories of how faith and questions intersect our own lives as adults,” says Joani Schultz, co-author of Why Nobody Wants to Be Around Christians Anymore (Group). “Kids need that. They need to hear our real-life struggles too. They need to hear how Jesus matters to us. And giving them a respected voice—in no matter what they wonder—is, well, priceless.” These tips will help you walk through some of the tough things preteens need to talk about.
A Frightening World
Preteens live in a digital world where the online news cycle is 24/7— and crammed with terrifying headlines. They’ve grown up practicing active-shooter drills and hearing threats of nuclear war and coverage of natural disasters. They also have a front-row seat to the breakups of families all around them, and maybe their own. It’s no wonder today’s kids are the most stressed ever. They have no way out when it comes to exposure to very adult topics. When preteens wonder where God is in a world so filled with heartbreak, how will you answer?
Fearless Conversation is inviting preteens to express their fears and worries in a safe environment.
You may discover that kids have overblown or unrealistic fears that you can allay. Don’t diminish a preteen’s worry, but do help him or her reason through the likelihood of such an event. For instance: “I’m worried there’ll be a tornado that destroys my house.” You might respond with: “Tornadoes are frightening. But we live in the mountains, and we don’t have tornadoes in this region. So we can be grateful that we don’t have to worry about tornadoes.”
Whenever a preteen’s worry is founded, take it seriously: “I’m sorry you have to worry about your school going into lockdown. Even when it’s just a drill, it can be scary. Let’s talk through ways you can remember to stay calm in case a lockdown happens. That will help you feel more in control.”
Take these opportunities to remind kids that in every situation, even scary or confusing ones, talking to God helps.
The preteen years are difficult to navigate for kids and their parents. Parents witness their children rapidly evolving toward teenagers, their bodies, and minds going through enormous changes. Kids experience mental, emotional, and physical changes that can be unsettling and embarrassing. They’re often petrified of being under a perceived “magnifying glass” where others constantly judge them. Their clothing choice, shoes, hairstyle, and body shape all matter more now. You’ll likely have preteens who are mortified by the thought of talking about such personal things—and others who talk freely. Some need to process the physical changes they’re experiencing—even the uncomfortable ones.
Fearless Conversation is letting kids be themselves in a safe place without pressure.
It’s letting them express themselves, even when their concerns make you stammer or blush. (“Why didn’t God give boys a period?”)
Body talk can be a source of humor, embarrassment, or fear for preteens, and it’s a touchy subject. Parents must take the lead on the personal stuff, but you can provide supportive backup.
Don’t shame kids for their questions: “We don’t talk about that.” Instead, take the attitude that kids ask embarrassing questions from a place of innocence— and often confusion. Without going into gory detail, you can engage with kids about how they’re feeling, reminding them that everyone grows and changes at their own pace and that God has designed each of them perfectly. If kids ask a question that throws you, promise to find out more and follow up—then do so. Let parents know if kids’ concerns seem serious or if a preteen seems depressed. Consider offering training for kids and parents on puberty. Encourage preteens that God’s plans for them are good, and that includes the way their bodies and minds are developing. And regularly remind them their changing body is normal and everyone goes through it.
Peer pressure in the preteen years moves beyond wanting to fit in and hoping for invites to birthday parties. Today’s kids live with pressure surrounding everything from dabbling in drugs, vaping, drinking, sex, lying, pornography, and cheating in school to positive forms of peer pressure such as participating in sports, school achievement, and extracurricular activities. All pressure can take a toll on kids. When we openly talk about pressure, we equip kids to better respond to it and remind them God wants to be the One to guide our choices.
Fearless Conversation is listening as kids tell you about the pressure they face—even if they aren’t overtly articulating it.
You may not hear, “My friends want me to try alcohol with them,” or “The cute boy in my class always keeps copying off my tests. I want him to like me, so I just let him.”
Instead, you may hear things like: “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.” “My head hurts.” “I didn’t sleep good last night.” “My stomach hurts.” “I’m tired.” “I wish the school year was over.”
These statements are often telltale signs of anxiety. Pressure from friends, school, sports, and parents can be one of the tough- est things to alleviate in preteens.
Offer preteens understanding by letting them know the pressure they feel is real. Discuss how physical symptoms can result when we feel stress. Talk through methods for coping, even if it’s just acknowledging where the pressure comes from. (“You mentioned your friends lying to your teacher and calling you stupid when you wouldn’t lie. Do you think that might be why you’re dreading school?”) Help kids talk through how they could approach a situation if it comes up again. Talk with them about how God guides us in the Bible to make choices that honor him. Talk about your own moments of being pressured. How did you respond? What happened? Relate to kids by talking about what you have in common and by openly sharing how you rely on God in those moments.
Additionally, talk with kids about ways they can respond to pressure from others, such as, “No thanks. I’m not interested,” or “I like you a lot, but you’ll have to do the work yourself.”
Preteen friendships, especially those among girls, can be volatile and painful. How do adults explain why friend groups turn on one another? How can kids be best friends one day and enemies the next? Why do kids gang up on each other? Why do they tell lies and spread gossip about each other?
The social pecking order is a constant struggle among preteens. While boys tend to exhibit more physical aggression, girls are much more likely to participate in relational aggression.
Fearless conversation in this often-devastating area is acknowledging a child’s pain.
It’s not telling the child: “You shouldn’t feel sad about that. What do you care what they think?” That’s because, for preteens, other kids’ esteem is of key importance. When we tell kids how they should or shouldn’t feel, we devalue their emotions and experiences.
Instead, acknowledge how a preteen feels by helping them find words for their emotions: “What
I hear you say is that you feel frustrated and betrayed by your friends. I’m sorry you’re going through this, and I’m hear if you want to talk.”
Ask preteens how you can help, even if it’s just to listen. When preteens want to know why God allows others to do mean things, grapple with the question together. When they need to express the depth of their pain, let them. Guide your preteens to God in their dark and lonely moments. Remind them God is for them and you are for them. Demonstrate that they can talk to you and you will always listen, be their friend, and help them through a situation.
Have the Fearless Conversations
Your time with preteens today will have echoes into their future. When you take the time and energy to reach their hearts and minds, you’ll not only deepen your relationship with them, you’ll help position their hearts closer to God.
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