You know the scene: the gaggle of middle schoolers – the leader girl in hot pink sweat pants, the geeky guy trying to be a part of the crowd. I was kicking with my kick board in the lap pool at the YMCA which has big open windows looking into the hallway that connects the Y to the middle school. It was right after school got out so those adolescents were being as most are à please, notice me; help shape my identity; I’m cool, right!?!
As I thought back on my 11th through 14th years and remember those questions and longings and associated wounds, I wondered “How can I help parent my children through that rough season?” “What is it that makes or breaks kids at that stage in life?”
As I pondered, the LORD brought some thoughts to mind. As a psychology major I like to think about these things. What came out ended up being four needs that God has wired into all of us, I believe. There are surely more researched conclusions with PhD behind them, but this is what I’m working with for now:
1 1) Feel secure in relationship of love with those important and consistent in my life (parent, siblings, God, friends, other family members)
2) Feel valued: Who I am is good, I am liked. This is accomplished by being listened to, understood, cared about, having thoughts & feelings & best interest considered
3) Feel connected to a community, a sense of belonging (with family, friend, church, extra- curricular group)
4) Feel a sense of worth: I can be successful at something; I am an asset somewhere; I have something to offer God’s economy.
Each need is based on feeling. I have heard that “children are great observers, but poor interpreters.” I understand that children begin life interpreting through their feelings so whether they are loved or not isn’t as important as whether they feel loved. Maybe Uncle Joe is a consistent person in their life but they don’t feel secure love in that relationship; that may be affecting the child more than anyone is aware. Maybe they know God is supposed to be an important part of life, but they don’t feel that. A child may need help navigating through these parts of life and need to have a secure relationship of love to assist in that. That first need is so foundational to how the others will unfold. Needs #1 and #2 are primarily being fostered in the elementary years. In those middle school years is when needs #2 and #3 need more nurturing, but needs #1 and #2 best already be well established. As the child is growing into an adult in the high school and college years, there is the greater need for needs #3 and #4 to be experienced. Much of what they have already determined about themselves and the world they live in and how they are going to go about getting them met from here on out is largely based on how the needs have be met or unmet thus far.
As those needs go unfulfilled, children (actually we all) seek in desperate ways to have those legitimate, God-given needs met. Unless those needs are met in the ways that God intends, the seeking will lead to unhealthy lifestyle patterns – whether it be private habits such as eating disorders, cutting, depression or group activities in hopes to find that community to belong to and have something in common with in the form of drugs, gangs, or other unhealthy relationships. With the backdrop of these needs unmet, it is easier for me to see and sympathize with those who stumble into such situations. To take it a step further, even patterns such as people pleasing, performance based acceptance, fashion, athletics, pride…are unhealthy (meaning ways God did not ordain) sources of striving to have needs met. I think this is related to when God said in Jeremiah "They have forsaken me as the spring of living water and have made for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that do not hold water." We try to gain love, value, community, & worth in means that God intended to be the only one to fill with the never-ending spring of love, value, community, & worth found in Him and His God-given gifts. (James 1:17)
If the foundation of a secure relationship is missing, it is going to be harder for that child to feel valued. If the community of family is broken or dysfunctional, that need is going to be sought elsewhere (sometimes to the dismay of the parent(s)). If there are not safe relationships and community where the child feels valued, where are they going to receive the affirmation and encouragement needed to pursue talents, skills, strengths, interests in order to begin developing as productive citizen who feels like they are an asset with something to offer (whether that be a positive personality trait (your compassion would make a great nurse) or a specific skill (you have great writing/math/teaching/athletic skills)). I would argue that the more solidly and in a healthy, God-given manner these needs are nourished, the more emotionally healthy and mature we become; on the contrary, emotional stagnation occurs as these needs go unmet and seek unhealthy fulfillment.
So how do we play a part in loving, proclaiming value, fostering community, and investing in the assets of the young people (or really anyone) in our lives or who cross our paths? To those in close/consistent relationship to you: confirm a secure relationship of love. To anyone(the checkout cashier, the janitor, the homeless person you give a sack of food to): communicate their God-given value and need to be validated by listening, caring, being considerate of them, seeking to understand them, expressing evidence that you like them, they are ‘very good.’ To those is your community (your family, church, any group you’re a part of): extend Christian hospitality, a sense of belonging (none of that clichy stuff that causes feelings of exclusion!) To those you are working with in a setting of ‘skills’(physical or characteristics): Teacher (Sunday School or otherwise), parent, boss, etc. – Praising work/attitude done in excellence (not perfection, but someone working to the best of their abilities – you can praise an elementary student or a handicapped child for their efforts of excellence, even if it’s not a ‘perfect’ presentation; affirming talents/strengths you witness; acknowledging gifts of God and His kingdom, as appropriate.