Developmental Issues in Youth Catechesis
Youth and Young Adult Catechesis
By Bob Rice
Working with teenagers is a challenge. Many adults ‘don’t get’ them. Part of the difficulty is a misunderstanding of what is going on in the period of adolescence. Catechists often wonder if they should approach them as big children or little adults. Clark, in Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, gives us a different perspective: ‘Developmental theorists have acknowledged for decades what the general populace has yet to comprehend, much less embrace: adolescence is not a blend of both child and adult, nor is it an expanded phase of either. Adolescence is a unique phase of life that must be understood and dealt with on its own merits.’ (p.27)
As catechists, we need to understand the specific developmental needs of teenagers. Behavioural psychologist John Santrock writes: ‘[Adolescence is]the period of life between childhood and adulthood… [The process] lasts roughly from 10-13 years of age and ends at 18-22 years of age. [However,] defining when adolescence ends is not an easy task. It has been said that adolescence begins in biology and ends in culture.’ (see Clark p.28)
Within this stretch of time, different developmental levels appear. The General Directory of Catechesis tells us, ‘Experience suggests that it is useful in catechesis to distinguish between pre-adolescence, adolescence and young adulthood.’ (GDC 181)
Pre-adolescence (10/11 years to 14/15 years)
Pre-adolescence constitutes one of the biggest developmental challenges for catechists. ‘Sufficient account is not taken of the difficulties, of the needs and of the human and spiritual resources of pre-adolescents, to the extent of defining them a negated age-group.’ (GDC 181) Pre-adolescents typically deal with extreme emotional mood swings, dramatic physical change, and inconsistent levels of intellectual activity. They yearn to be like everyone else - not so much asking the question, ‘Who am I?’ but ‘Whose am I?’ When you get them one on one, they can seem to behave completely differently from the way they behave in a group.
It is no wonder that many catechists are challenged by them, but we can’t let these difficulties get in the way of presenting them with the Gospel truths. Kristin Witte, Director of Pastoral Care for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, says of pre-adolescence: ‘It is the period of greatest growth for a person, second only to infancy. We must be careful not to say, “Don’t worry, they may be 14 now, but they’re going to be 17 and then we can talk to them…” This is the formative time!’
In this stage, the teenager is searching for, and asserting, his or her independence. Adolescents ask the question, ‘Who am I?’ and seek more intimate relationships then pre-adolescents do, desiring quality of friendships over quantity. They are also more developed in their capacity for abstract thought and are starting to look ahead in life. Whereas the pre-adolescent is usually unable to comprehend the consequences of his or her actions, the adolescent starts to see how things are connected, how one thing leads to another, and starts to make plans for his or her future.
But independence and foresight come at a cost. Adolescents often feel a great sense of loneliness. And if they see nothing positive to look ahead to, they can fall into despair. Adolescents can feel a great sense of disillusionment about life, and this can lead them to experiment with many unhealthy behaviours in a search for meaning or satisfaction. This attitude is best expressed from the lead character in the movie Fight Club: ‘Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very upspet.’
Young Adulthood (18/19 to mid 20s)
If it is true that ‘adolescence begins in biology and ends in culture’, those catechizing young adults must be keenly aware of their unique culture, and find ways to reach them through it. A great example of this is the highly successful program Theology on Tap, which invites young adults to meet at a bar to talk about the faith. Young adults have the capacity for ‘adult’ thought and reasoning, but this capacity can be addled by a culture lacking adult guidance or role models. Because of this, many don’t ‘grow up’ until much later in life, usually a few years after college.
Each level presents different challenges but also incredible opportunities for catechists. The Church can offer a wonderful community to the pre-adolescent, a sense of hope and identity for the adolescent, and a model of responsible adult participation for the young adult. But we have to learn to speak their ‘languages’, shaping our message based on who they are, not just thinking about what we want to say.
Bob Rice is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where he teaches classes on Biblical Catechetics, Evangelization, and Youth Ministry. He is also an author, musician, and internationally sought-after speaker for youth and young adults. You can find out more about him at bob-rice.com.