What’s Going On In There…Understanding the Mind of Your Middle Schooler

Written by: David Ake, Pastor of Junior High Ministry, Stonebriar Community Church

I was standing by the door of an SUV, a new middle school minister, trying to reassure a dad twice my age that he did not have to worry, his precious daughter/princess would not be in any danger. You see, in our small junior high youth group, we had decided to go clean up the lawn of a sick member of the church that night during our weekly meeting time. As the daughter in question entered the youth room, she cast one more exasperated glance over her shoulder at her dad. You know the look–you get it when you ask your six year old to eat something he doesn’t like, or when you ask your fifteen year old to do anything that requires actual physical effort. The daughter hadn’t been in the room for more than a minute, and just as I said, “She’ll be perfectly safe,” we heard a scream, and she came running out while being chased by a red-haired seventh grade boy who was so excited to do lawn work that he had made himself his own Batman-style utility belt with a machete, saw, and pruning shears….with which he was chasing her while laughing maniacally and having a grand old time. I turned and looked at the dad and said, “I’ll be right back.”

This was my gentle introduction to the world of junior high/middle school ministry, and after almost 20 years of hanging out in teens’ lives and with their families, I have a few interesting observations that can help us understand their world of controlled (but joyful) chaos. So join me and take a minute, relax, grab a cup of Sanka (just to show you how old I am), and let me give you a quick tour inside the life of a middle schooler (grades 5-8).

Luke 2:41-52 gives us a great snapshot of the joy, pain, and chaos that middle school can be. Ironically, this is the only reference to Jesus during this period of His life. Even the Gospel writers were wise enough to jump ahead to adulthood. But we learn from Jesus’s own life that some middle school realities are:

41 & 42 Jesus Grew: Change is inevitable.

What a great opportunity to move into adult activities!  Jesus finally had the opportunity to go and worship with His parents as an adult, to engage in the adult rituals and behaviors. However, He was changing, too. He was beginning to move into His own purpose, life, and mission.  Middle schoolers are consumed with change during this season of their life. Many times it can look like an albatross trying to take flight.  As they are beginning to understand themselves in light of their experience of moving into adult expectations and responsibilities, you may be surprised that change can create a crisis of belief.  You’ve spent years lovingly showing them what to believe, how to behave, and what to value. It’s like the childhood toy Mr. Potato Head; you’ve shown them for years where the eyes, ears, and mouth go, but now it’s their turn to begin trying it out in earnest to see if the pieces all fit like you’ve shown them.

Parenting Pro Tip:  Be on the lookout for when your middle schoolers try something radically new or announce they are struggling with a belief in which they’ve been strongly rooted in the past. Most of the work is to take the “Mr. Potato Head” of their beliefs and put it together in a way that makes sense, brings reward, or doesn’t fall apart. It may look crazy at first, but over time, they’ll see that God, wisdom, and grace are faithful and consistent (as you are graceful, wise, and consistent, as well).

43-45 The boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem: Middle schoolers want to make decisions.

Jesus made a decision…it just didn’t quite sync up with His parents’ travel itinerary, and it created quite a bit of chaos over the next few days. If you were to ask any middle schoolers what they like, they’ll have a list a mile long with brand names, styles, and stores. But as you reach to move your wallet to a safer place, take a minute to understand the dynamic tension that they are experiencing. They know a lot of data, trivia, and information. They are not always aware of the cost and sacrifice, as well as the ripple effects and consequences, that come from achieving their goals and getting what they want. But they do want to walk in “adult shoes” and are willing to work hard for that privilege, so build on that momentum.

Parenting Pro Tip:  Have this conversation…over and over and over again. What are you looking for? What is it going to take to get it? Who will you become if you take that journey? How will this affect (both positively and negatively) you and others if you succeed? What are the natural consequences? Is this the best thing for you to pursue right now?

This is significant, in particular, to boys in their journey of masculinity. If one of the purposes in being a man is to be a protector and provider to those around him, selfish pursuit of even a good thing will have long-term effects on a future spouse and children. Encouraging your middle school son to discipline himself to achieve something and to understand the results of his actions is a great way to give purpose to his passion.

46-48 They found him sitting and asking questions…and his mother said, “Why have you treated us this way?”: Middle schoolers’ patterns don’t always make sense.

And that can be frustrating for you. For middle schoolers, their friends and their search for information and independence are a SIGNIFICANT part of their lives and priorities. BUT! Be encouraged, they really do want your presence and perspective during this season. However, the internal schedule in how they process and reflect is a little different than when they were children. They need time and space to process their lives, perspectives, and experiences but also need to own the priority of communication and connection with others. Setting up a new foundation (i.e. time and place) to have your voice valued and heard through this season is a task that you’ll want to focus on.

Parenting Pro Tip:  Take a two-step approach to building your voice in their lives in this season:

  1. Remember how the Holy Spirit works in your life:  He’s PRESENT, ENCOURAGING, CONVICTING, ILLUMINATING, and EMPOWERING.  These are great ways to be in their lives and keep your voice significant as they move to adulthood. Ask questions, give your opinions, and empower them to make decisions and own their consequences.
  2. Listen and talk after hours. The best conversations happen after bed time. (I sigh as I write this because I value my sleep). But don’t disregard this one. Some of the best conversations happen when they’ve had a chance to reflect on what happened, what they did, and who they are in light of it.   Taco Bell, IHOP, and Whataburger are open late! Figure out the rhythm of their heart expression and set up camp there to pop in and commune deeply with them.

47 & 49 “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”: Middle schoolers can make significant spiritual commitments.

Fast forward a few years after that red-headed junior high boy almost cost me my job. Sure, he was that kid that laughed loud and awkward at all the wrong times. Sure, he was that kid who ate jalapeños in the back of the van on the way to a retreat and passed obnoxious gas the rest of the weekend. And sure, he was the kid who just couldn’t seem to get it right socially on the way through high school. But what did happen over his season in middle school is that he cultivated a passion to be “in his Father’s house.” He also learned how to be about his Father’s mission wherever he went. So it would make sense one night years later when I got a call from his former junior high small group leader (we still kept in touch) who said, “Hey I just got an e-mail from Aaron and it says ‘Bill, tomorrow I’m doing my last jump to earn my Airborne wings. The guys in my unit are scared, and so am I. But will you please pray for me? They’ve asked me to pray for us together before we jump tomorrow, and I really want share Jesus with them when I do.’”

In the end, your greatest hope for your middle school students isn’t that they necessarily act like adults or make zero mistakes. We really desire for them to live for something bigger than and beyond themselves.  Ideally, we want them to know and love Jesus in a selfless way and make their lives about the Father’s business. You’re in for a long journey, but as you prepare, look at the list below for a few simple quests and adventures that you can do together that will help you as you invest in your middle schoolers and help them be about their Father’s business.

Sometime between grades 5-8…

  • Go BUILD something together. Something significant that benefits someone else. The success of accomplishment will inspire your middle schoolers’ hearts, impart the value of hard work, and give them the understanding of resourcefulness and the importance of trade.
  • Go BREAK something down that needs to change or has reached the end of its usefulness. The journey of identifying, deconstructing, cleaning up, and creating space for new life and growth will help them understand the value of gently taking care of things and people.
  • Go BURN something together. Teach them the process and steps to build a fire. It’ll build their sense of resourcefulness, and sitting around a fire late at night will be some of the best conversation you will ever have with your teenager.
  • Go BATTLE something together. When your teenagers pony up to a significant fight against the forces and effects of sin, evil, and injustice, it will help them know that they can be part of God’s work to rescue, redeem, and restore people and that the Gospel really changes lives. Whether it’s standing up to bullies or being part of a group that cares for wounded hearts, souls, and bodies, they will begin to value the dignity and worth of God’s creation and people.
  • Go chase BEAUTY. What I mean to say is go find the people and things in this world that take your breath away. Mountain tops at sunrise, gentle and old souls, caring people, the genius and expression of talent, and the ups and downs of committed love in a godly marriage. Sneak up on beauty, watch it, and enjoy the journey to find it. It will give depth to their own soul, make them richer people, and prepare them for the day that they take someone up to a mountain top to ask them to do life together or the day they take their own middle schooler on the same journey.
The graphic in this post was excerpted from the blog of Teachers Pay Teachers, where you can also find additional ideas and resources: https://blog.teacherspayteachers.com/take-a-peek-inside-the-mind-of-a-middle-schooler-part-1/

David Ake joined the Stonebriar team in 2007 as part of our student ministry teams and pastor to seventh- and eighth-graders. He brings with him years of experience in youth ministry, a master’s degree in biblical studies from Dallas Theological Seminary, and a passion for mentoring young men to authentically know and love Christ. David has a rich spiritual heritage. His father, a full-blooded Mayan Indian from the Yucatan Peninsula, and his mother, a native of Chile, were missionaries and church planters along the Texas-Mexico border. David walks through life with his wife, Jamie, and they share their journey with  two amazing daughters.



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