*This article is based on “The Adolescent Brain and the Atonement: Meant for Each Other, Part 2: The Rescue” by Mark Butler and Genevieve L. Smith in Religious Educator Vol. 17, No. 2, 2016
Why are the teen years so hard?
Why do teenagers sometimes make decisions that even they realize (later, of course) are totally dumb?
And why, even though they know who they want to be, do they not live up to their own ideals?
Last week we talked about 5 specific influences on teens that run the risk of separating them from the gospel and from God.
There are five parts to this problem:
- Teenagers’ brains aren’t fully wired yet. Everything’s in place but not completely connected. This is why a teenager will make rash and sometimes completely ridiculous decisions even though they know better.
- Sexual maturation. Even though the brain isn’t ready to handle it yet, the body decides it’s time to go through puberty. With this comes sexual curiosity and sexual drive. This is why teenage boys are so susceptible to pornography!
- Their hyper-sexualized environment. Teens today live in a sex saturated environment where pornography, sexting, and more are available to them with the touch of a button. Unlike our generation, teens today don’t have to go out looking for opportunities to sin, the opportunities come to them!
- Their spiritual development. In the middle of all of this, teens are spiritually awakening and gaining their own testimonies. As teens come to know God for themselves, the gospel standards become theirs. And yet their best intentions to live by their standards are hampered by their brain, body, and society. This creates a serious dilemma for teenagers.
- Parents and leaders’ responses. Teens are exceptionally hard on themselves for not living up to their own ideals. They frequently define themselves by their behavior. They haven’t done something bad- they ARE bad. When they perceive that their parents and/or leaders seem to be thinking the same thing, they take that especially hard.
Is it any wonder that teens sometimes make bad decisions?
Think back to your own teen years. Did you ever do something that you KNEW you shouldn’t do, but you did it anyway?
Did you do that on a regular basis?
Chances are, it was because of one of these 5 outside influences.
And if you really think back on it, you’ll probably remember how absolutely overwhelming it felt to try to do the things you knew you should do.
It felt practically impossible.
Well, it honestly wasn’t your fault.
And it’s not completely our teens’ faults either.
It’s the effect of their brains, their bodies, their environment, their spiritual awakening, and adults’ responses to their failures.
Teens Are Just as Overwhelmed as Parents
My guess is that you know a teenager who was previously a happy kid. But once puberty started they seemed to pull away from everyone: their family, their ward, and even from God.
This kid went from being helpful, kind, and engaged to being surly and solitary.
While this behavior might drive parents and Church leaders crazy, chances are this teen is being bombarded with these 5 outside influences and they don’t know what to do about it.
They don’t want to feel and act the way they do, but they are overwhelmed by their personal experiences.
Teenagers are going through a spiritual awakening that brings with it a desire to do and be better. But even though teens want to do better, their brains, bodies, and society just won’t seem to let them.
With repeated failures to live up to their own high ideals, teens become more and more disappointed in themselves. And with repeated, significant disappointment can come avoidance.
If living the gospel means feeling bad about yourself, then what’s the point?
Missing the Point
Most teens and parents don’t realize though, that the teen years are actually full of spiritual opportunity.
God designed life to be this way on purpose.
God didn’t come across His first teenager and think, “Oh no! He’s starting puberty before his brain is fully developed!”
God is not surprised by this situation- He planned it.
Just at the time when teens are facing the collision of an underdeveloped brain and a suddenly sex-driven body, they are also experiencing their spiritual awakening- their turning to God.
Could it be that God put teens in this position of helplessness- of an inability to spiritually survive alone- right at the time they’re coming to know Him?
Latter-day Saint teenagers who are unable to live up to their spiritual ideals have two options:
- Turn to God for help
- Turn away in despair
Paul shared his own experience of turning from despair to God in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.
Paul, though not a teenager when he wrote these words, seemed to perfectly understand the teenage dilemma (and really the dilemma we all face) of wanting to be one thing, but doing something different.
Speaking of his own thorn in the flesh and how he had asked the Lord to simply take it away, Paul says, “And he [the Lord] said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Christ’s strength is able to be shown in its most perfect form when we are at our weakest. When we finally hit our personal rock bottom, His strength becomes perfectly clear as the only thing that can help us out.
Paul’s reply to the Lord’s words are beautiful. He says, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then am I strong.”
Paul recognized that His relationship with Christ, His personal power through Christ, became the strongest when He was struggling with personal weakness.
And so he welcomed it!
And so can our teens.
I believe that the teenage problem is actually the greatest opportunity God could give them- the chance to start out their personal spiritual journey with Him as their partner, with an absolute assurance that He is the only way they can make it through.
How Leaders and Parents Can Help
So what is our job as parents and leaders of teens?
#1: Teach That Guilt is an Invitation from God
First, we need to teach our teens that when they do something wrong and they feel guilt, it is not punishment or recrimination, it is an invitation. It is the Savior saying, “I’ve been through this before. I know the way out. Let Me help.”
Guilt is actually a fantastic sign that God knows we can do better and He wants us to keep on going. It is His way of saying that we are worth a second (and third, and fourth…) try.
Our guilt means God is not giving up on us and wants us to have a “change of heart.”
#2: Teach That Shame is an Invitation from Satan
Second, we need to teach teens that Satan’s counterfeit of guilt is shame. We need to teach teens how to, as Neal A. Maxwell said, “distinguish more clearly between divine discontent and the devil’s dissonance, between dissatisfaction with self and disdain for self.”
Teens have a tendency to define themselves by their behavior. In other words, “If I do something bad, I am bad.”
We need to teach our teens that this is not how God speaks; this is Satan’s voice.
God wants our teens to feel dissatisfied with their behavior, while Satan wants them to feel disdain for themselves.
As Elder Uchtdorf put it, “Worldly sorrow pulls us down, extinguishes hope, and persuades us to give in to further temptation. Godly sorrow leads to conversion and a change of heart.”
Satan would love for every teenager in the world to become a spiritual hermit- to hide under a rock, refuse to talk to anyone, and never come out. He tells them, “Hide your sins and weaknesses at all costs- especially from God!!”
If he can get our teens to do that, he wins! Cutting off our communication with God is his ultimate goal, and shame is one of his most powerful tools to do that.
Satan has used shame to lead countless teens to deny the spirit they feel, to spiritually harden their hearts, and to avoid the God-sent guilt calling them to repentance.
“Toxic shame” leads to disaffection from God and the gospel.
#3: Teach the Power of the Atonement More Freely
Third, we need to teach our teens the power and scope of the Atonement. We need to teach them how very personal the Atonement is- that Christ didn’t just feel all of our pains and sufferings, He felt each of them.
Individually and independently He felt your sins and He felt mine.
In the words of Elder Merrill J. Bateman, “Instead of an impersonal mass of sin, there was a long line of people, as Jesus felt ‘our infirmities’, ‘[bore] our griefs,….carried our sorrows…[and] was bruised for our iniquities.’ The Atonement was an intimate personal experience in which Jesus came to know how to help each of us.”
We also need to teach our teens that the Atonement is the power not just to be cleansed of sin but to have peace and hope during the process of becoming the type of person who doesn’t want to commit sin.
Personally, I worry that in our efforts not to condone sin, we hold back in teaching how very powerful and available the Atonement of Jesus Christ is and how ready Christ is to forgive and help us.
However, the Savior has never hidden His Atoning power from anyone. He shared and continues to share it freely.
And so should we.
#4: Help Teens See Their Divine Potential
Fourth, we need to help our teens see their own divine potential.
One of my personal goals is to become a great rock climber. Currently I’m an okay rock climber, but I’d love to improve.
Every time I go rock climbing I fail. I try difficult climbs that I just can’t do without stopping for a rest. Or I fall off the rock repeatedly when I attempt a difficult move.
And yet I keep on trying and keep on going. In other words, I continue to be motivated.
Because I watch great climbers.
I watch climbing competitions online, I keep my eyes on the best climbers at the gym, and I get the help of great coaches.
I have in my mind a vision of who I can become as a climber, and I believe I can get there.
Our teens need the same thing. They need a vision of who they can become and they need mentors to help them get there.
An ability to see themselves as God sees them will give our teens spiritual grit- a willingness and ability to keep on fighting when the odds seem impossible.
My vision for the kind of climber I can become helps me to keep going when my forearms are screaming for me to stop.
Our teens need that same kind of vision so that when they fail (and we all do!) they’ll want to get up and keep going because they know who they are on the way to becoming.
One of the greatest ways our teens can see their potential is in their patriarchal blessing. This is direct revelation from God who sees and knows them perfectly.
As our teens read their patriarchal blessings regularly, and with the purpose of catching the vision of their lives, they can be motivated to keep going even in the face of failure.
#5: Teach Teens That Success is in the Effort
Fifth, we need our teens to know and believe that President Nelson’s words are true: “The Lord loves effort.”
Our teens will try and fail many times to improve and change- that’s part of the human experience. Everyone, not just teens, fails repeatedly.
However, teenagers have a tendency to see their failures as signs that they’re a hypocrite, because surely if they were true disciples of Christ, they wouldn’t keep messing up.
But in the words of Elder Holland, “With the gift of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the strength of heaven to help us, we can improve, and the great thing about the gospel is we get credit for trying, even if we don’t always succeed.”
Our jobs as parents and leaders is to encourage our youth to know that God knows their hearts. He knows that they are trying, and that they will fail, but He wants them to get back up over and over again.
Success is in the effort!
The Parable of the Spotter
A helpful lesson on why the Lord loves effort is found in what I call “The Parable of the Spotter” shared by Mark Butler and Genevieve L. Smith.
It goes like this, “A spiritually motivated teen wants to ‘bulk up’ and ‘get strong.’ Christ is his or her ‘spotter.’ A spotter doesn’t lift the weight for you; you would never build strength that way. Imagine if we simply reclined on the weight bench while our spotter, from above, took care of all the strengthening reps and sets. This is not the way weightlifting, or grace, works. Rather, a spotter requires all that you can do the whole way through. Throughout the ‘lift,’ the spotter is always there encouraging and helping us just enough as we strain against our weakness and gradually turn weakness into strength. When all our strength is still not enough, we are met by God’s rescuing reach and lift. That is how we overcome our weakness and become as He is.”
Did you notice in this analogy – the spotter is always there, cheering the teen on?
He never walks away, glances over at the clock, or checks his phone.
The spotter is always available to help.
But because our teen’s best efforts make them stronger, the spotter doesn’t help with the weight until they truly need it.
The spotter will strengthen the teen with encouragement, with a vision of who they can be, with persistence to keep going when they’re tired, with hope, and the peace of knowing he’s there to catch the weight when their strength fails… but he’ll let them work as hard as they can so they can muscle up.
Christ will strike up the same bargain with our teens.
He says, “I’ll stand right here next to you. I’ll cheer you on, I’ll help you see how strong you can be, I’ll help you keep going when you want to stop. You lift what you can, I’ll help when you fail, and over time- a long time- you’ll be as strong as Me.”
Practicing What We Preach
This brings me to my last point. The most important things that we as parents and leaders can do is something we won’t teach or say.
It is how we will behave.
We will help the youth in our lives feel that we, like the Savior, are always available to “succor” them.
I have always loved the word “succor”- especially one particular meaning of it: “to run to.” Regarding this specific definition of “succor”, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “I testify that Christ will run to us, and is running even now, if we will but receive the extended arm of His mercy.”
Isn’t that a beautiful image? The Lord runs to us, eager to help and lift us up.
Our teens need to feel safe, knowing that if and when they mess up, they can come to us and we will run to them, with our own arms of mercy extended.
Our teens need to see us celebrating the goodness and mercy and availability of our Savior, and they need to see us offering that same goodness, mercy, and availability to them when they need it.
So is the Atonement for teenagers?
In God’s grand design he created the teenage years to be a period of specific and temporary weakness in which our teens can learn to rely wholly upon the merits of Him who is mighty to save. (2 Nephi 31:19)
As we more readily teach our teens the power and scope of the Atonement, and of God’s desire to draw them to Him, they (and we) can learn to rejoice in the inevitable weaknesses of adolescence.
*If you enjoyed this article please share it with the teens, parents, and youth leaders in your life!