Extended Adolescence: A Teenage Trend


            The concept of adolescence is relatively new to modern culture. The term “adolescence has existed for some time, but now the term has taken on a new meaning. In 1904 G. Stanley Hall published his theory of adolescence as a response to the social changes of the early 1900’s such as the new child labor laws and public education.[1] Shortly thereafter America experienced the high school movement. Relatively few children advanced beyond the eighth grade in America at the beginning of the 20th century. At this time, high school was known as secondary school in preparation for university. The percentage of Americans in secondary school increased from nine percent to seventy-one percent between the years of 1910 to 1940.[2] By the 1970’s the enrollment of teenagers into high school reached nearly one hundred percent in America.[3]

            Hall did not have a positive view of adolescence. He believed that society needed to remove the last vestiges of childlikeness, evil, and beast-like impulses during this period.[4] The main behaviors driving this belief were moodiness, parental conflict, and risk assessment. This was the consensus until the 1950’s with the influential work of Erik Erikson’s “8 Stages of Psychological Development.”[5] In 1959, Erikson published a series of essays in Psychological Issues. He described stage V from ages twelve to nineteen as identity development. Thus, instead of the adolescent characteristics viewed as negative, they are now positive, necessary aspects of introspective development of self.

            The switch from a negative to positive perception of adolescence then allowed adolescence to flourish in western culture. The flourishment of adolescence led to problems of when does adolescence begin and end. Mark Oestreicher and Scott Rubin noted that in the early twentieth culture accepted the average age of fourteen as the onset of puberty, but by the 1970’s the age had dropped to thirteen.[6] Adolescence has also extended upward. Many people do not perceive themselves as prepared for the full responsibility of adulthood until their mid-twenties.[7] Hall originally posited adolescence to be from the ages of fourteen to nineteen has effectively extended to eleven to twenty-five. 

            Some of the major concerns for this trend have to do with people’s preparedness to live adult lives and make adult decisions in modern American culture. For example, can the culture hold a nineteen-year-old culpable for actions as an adult if that age still behaves more like a minor than an adult? For the church, how does this redefine timelines of spiritual maturity? Many pastors remember feeling the calling into ministry in their late teen years. Due to extended adolescence, should today’s Christians experience that calling later into their early twenties? Furthermore, the trend of twenty-year-old people leaving the church creates a problem for future church leadership development. If people are leaving the church before critical ages of spiritual maturity, this could mean that Christians adolescents are not fully developing in Christian adults.

Developmental and Philosophical Issues

            Adolescence has extended in both directions. This has complicated the study, because it is very diverse to study a person from age ten to age thirty. Oestreicher and Rubin have suggested that adolescence now begins as early as ten.[8]Tim Elmore has suggested that it ends somewhere near thirty.[9] Young children now have more access to data at a younger age than ever before. Furthermore, the culture is exposing them to new concepts earlier than before. Thanks to the internet and its limitless and unbridled information, children can access information previously restricted to younger ages. The result is adolescence has extended downward to younger ages.[10]

            In the late 1980’s a new term arose, “tween.” As adolescence extended downward, children from the age of nine to twelve became known as tween or preteen for market research and profitability.[11] There are now businesses designed to engage the tween as a practical market. The term refers to a person that is between, hence tween, childhood, and adolescence. A mark for these children is copious amounts of information, but they lack the ability to process that information. Elmore argued this can lead to a sense of unfounded confidence at this young age, but this leads to a low self-esteem because as they mature, they realize their information did not sufficiently prepare them for adulthood, known as “high arrogance, low self-esteem.”[12]

            Adolescence has also extended upward into the twenties. Jeffrey Arnett described a final stage of adolescence as the achieving stage because the individual has progressed from the acquisition stage of gathering information in the adolescent stage into a stage when the individual attempts to achieve in the pursuit of adult role related goals.[13]Conversely, some cultures have rites of passage to help a person understand when adulthood begins. The lack of such definable moments in American culture has resulted in different individuals progressing to adulthood in a wide spectrum. Some individuals pursue adulthood at the traditional average age of eighteen or close to it, but many individuals procrastinate in the assumption of adult roles. The end of adolescence then becomes very vague.

            There are three areas that developmental theoreticians use to define the transition of maturity from adolescence to adulthood: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.[14] Ironically, the measurements for adulthood are still the same as when Hall presented his theory in 1904. Cognitive development has changed a lot. As written earlier, children are acquiring greater levels of cognitive abilities at younger ages. However, their emotional development has lagged because of the lack of experience and responsibility associated with the cognitive development. These children are too young to fully have experienced or process the knowledge they acquire, but because they have the knowledge, they often act on it. Elmore referred to the difference as being informational knowledge versus experiential knowledge.[15] Behavioral again refers to risk and impulse control. The general argument is that children have a low ability towards impulse control while adults do.

            America is not known for clear rites of passage such as the bar-mitzvah that function as a benchmark for when a person enters adulthood. However, there have been some accepted moments of rites of passage: getting a driver’s license at age sixteen, voting at age eighteen, getting married, and having children. All of these have been some traditional markers for American teenagers in the maturation process. As a possible indicator for extending adolescence some of the rites of passage are happening at older ages such as financial independence, buying a first home, getting married, and having children. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted a rise in first-time marriages in people in their forties and fifties.[16]

            Perhaps the greatest influencer of extended adolescence is parenting styles. Safety has become the pre-eminent concern for parents. This has led to a response by parents to over protect their children from potential, unseen harm. Nevertheless, anxiety and mental health problems are on the rise in adolescents. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that the two issues are directly related because from an early age, parents taught their children fear.[17] By parents making all major decisions for their children, the children are unprepared for adulthood. When their biological age arrives at traditional adulthood, their emotional age is not ready for adult responsibility. Not being emotionally prepared by experiencing age-appropriate responsibility progressively in life has left many young people inept to manage the stresses of daily life. Thus, their response must extend adolescence, marked by irresponsibility, to an older age. Extended adolescence is a pushing from adulthood more than lingering in the teenage years.

Ministry Implications

            The extension of adolescence in both directions has major implications for discipleship strategies and ministerial structure. The spiritual benchmarks have moved. With the onset of puberty and adolescence being earlier, children are facing spiritual subjects previously not necessary for their age. Below are some thoughts for how the church can effectively respond to extended adolescence.

Some churches have now adopted a preteen approach to ministry.[18] A preteen ministry consists of the ages where children are in transition from children to teenager. This stage used to be short, but extending adolescence supplies more time in this stage. Thus, churches are developing ministries sometimes specifically for fifth and sixth grade children to better accommodate their spiritual needs.

            A result of this trend is that many churches are losing children in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade.[19] Preteens are asking questions that many churches are reserving for older teenagers, and because the church gives no answer, they assume there is no answer for their spiritual search. Patrick snow argued that preteens need their own specific ministry geared to their needs because cultural norms have changed so much.[20] Today’s preteens want a ministry that addresses topics, strategies, and events that used to appeal to middle school ages students twenty years ago.

            Elmore suggested four ideas for better education for students. His application was a traditional school room, but there are some ideas that can help with spiritual formation as well. His four ideas were problem-based learning, student-driven learning, right-brain learning, and experiential learning.[21] In problem-based learning the teacher switches from a lecture full of information to a problem that needs a solution. A disciple maker may choose to teach inductively instead of deductively to carry out this goal. Student-driven learning is when students set the pace for learning. A disciple maker may choose to give students a biblical text in advance to read then discuss what they learned during a small group class. Right-brain learning is creative in nature, and teens can learn through art and image. A disciple maker may ask a teen to draw a biblical principle from a text instead of writing it. Experiential learning is to give tangible experiences to abstract principles. A disciple maker can teach on the sanctity of human life, or she can take teenagers to a local pregnancy center to see sonograms. These tactics can be very effective with younger generations.

            Lukianoff and Haidt suggest cognitive behavior therapy as a solution for the “safety-ism” of extended adolescence.[22] An indicator of extended adolescence is an unrealistic fear or overestimating danger. This is the high arrogance, low self-esteem phenomenon. They present themselves with arrogance, but they doubt their abilities to conduct tasks in daily life. Cognitive Behavior Therapy is when a person realizes distortions of reality and reflects on them. For a ministerial application, the church should aid parents and students in this technique through discipleship and programming. For example, a youth group may go on an overnight trip. Some parents will exaggerate the dangers of an overnight trip like this. The youth pastor can help prepare parents by effectively communicating before, during, and after the trip. A cell phone policy can effectively manage a parents fear of being able to access a child. 

            With adolescence extending into the twenties for many individuals, the church should consider creating a college age ministry that acts as a finishing ground for student ministry. In the past students reached spiritual maturity by the end of their high school age. This does not appear to be the case any longer. A recent study confirms that millennials are still disengaging from Christianity well into adulthood as originally posited in the early 2000’s.[23] If the concept of extended adolescence applies to people not continuing in the faith into adulthood, then the result is the church is not developing mature disciples from its student ministry. This can have massive implications for the future of the church. If a church cannot keep students long enough to help them develop into spiritually mature adults there will be a spiritual maturity crisis in American churches if not already. 

            As a case-study, consider a recent book by Scott Pace and Shane Pruitt, Calling Out the Called. The authors noticed a trend where the median age of pastors is older than in earlier times.[24] This means that there are not enough younger people entering pastoral ministry to replace the pastors. Anecdotally, many pastors refer to their late teens for when they felt the call into pastoral ministry. With the extending of adolescence, is it possible this experience might better suit men in their young twenties? If that is the case, then churches are not sufficiently developing spiritually mature individuals to feel the call into ministry by the twenties, because they are no longer in church. 

            A possible solution is to reconsider aged ministry and develop a new paradigm for churches. Preschool would remain the same ages of birth through pre-kindergarten. Elementary ministry could split into two different age brackets depending on the church’s local context. For example, if the local community schools have a junior high model of seventh and eighth grade, then the church could separate younger elementary ministry by grades kindergarten through fourth grade. Fifth and sixth grade could be an upper elementary ministry to function as a preteen ministry. If the community has a middle school consisting of sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, then the church could split the elementary ministry by kindergarten through second grade and third though fifth grades. The church should separate the student ministry into two separate age groups according to a similar strategy with a high school as the second phase of student ministry. Churches should also consider adding college ministry as a third phase of student ministry. The college ministry becomes a finishing ground to the spiritual development in middle and high school. Furthermore, college ministry can become the fertile ground for pastors and missionaries. This paradigm gives better thought and intentionality to the spiritual needs of children in the different ages and stages of life. 

            If a church can develop such a new paradigm shift for the goals of the different ages and address the needs of each age accordingly, then perhaps, the development of spiritually mature Christians is more plausible. This means new discipleship tactics for specific ages to address topics and concerns necessary. Both the teachers and the curricula need to be working towards the four goals mentioned by Elmore. The system, programming, and curricula work in harmony to progress both the child and the child’s parent from one stage of development to the next. 


[1] “Brief History of Adolescence & Youth Development,” Mass Cultural Council, last modified April 13, 2023, accessed March 31, 2023, https://massculturalcouncil.org/creative-youth-development/boston-youth-arts-evaluation-project/brief-history-of-adolescence-youth-development/.

[2] Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F Katz, “Mass Secondary Schooling and the State: The Role of State Compulsion in the High School Movement,” in Understanding Long-Run Economic Growth: Geography, Institutions, and the Knowledge Economy (University of Chicago Press, 2008), 275–310.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Brief History of Adolescence & Youth Development.”

[5] Erik H. Erikson, Identity and the Life Cycle, Revised ed. edition. (W. W. Norton & Company, 1994).

[6] Mark Oestreicher and Scott Rubin, Middle School Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide to Working with Early Adolescents (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 63.

[7] David Pimentel, “The Widening Maturity Gap: Trying and Punishing Juveniles as Adults in an Era of Extended Adolescence,” Tex. Tech L. Rev. 46 (2013): 71.

[8] Oestreicher and Rubin, Middle School Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide to Working with Early Adolescents, 65.

[9] Tim Elmore, Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet the Challenge of Becoming Authentic Adults, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 2.

[10] Ibid, 4.

[11] Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez, “Tweens,” Oxford Bibliographies, last modified July 26, 2017, accessed March 31, 2023, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/display/document/obo-9780199791231/obo-9780199791231-0189.xml.

[12] Elmore, Artificial Maturity, 20-21.

[13] Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Susan Taber, “Adolescence Terminable and Interminable: When Does Adolescence End?,” Journal of youth and adolescence 23, no. 5 (1994): 517–537.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Elmore, Artificial Maturity, 5.

[16] Clare Ansberry, “First-Time Marriages Are on the Rise for People in Their 40s and 50s,” Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2022, sec. Life, accessed March 31, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/first-time-marriage-rise-age-40s-50s-11664925861.

[17] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York City: Penguin Books, 2019), 164-165.

[18] Sarah Flannery, 6 Secrets of Preteen Ministry (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2017), 6.

[19] Patrick Snow, Leading Preteens (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 2008), 9.

[20] Ibid, 11.

[21] Elmore, Artificial Maturity, 137-143.

[22] Lukianoff and Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, 144-146.

[23] George Barna, “Millennials in America: New Insights in the Generation of Growing Influence,” last modified October 2021, accessed April 1, 2023, https://www.arizonachristian.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/George-Barna-Millennial-Report-2021-FINAL-Web.pdf.

[24] Scott Pace and Shane Pruitt, Calling out the Called: Discipling Those Called to Ministry Leadership (Nashville: B&H Books, 2022), 2.