As an incentive for our school’s fundraising campaign, we had a “human hamster ball” for the assembly. Once inside, you can move it all over the room, but you’re insulated from everything outside; voices are muffled, and things look blurry. You become focused on the sound of your own breathing as you concentrate on just keeping the thing upright.
Teens grow their very own version of this when they hit adolescence. The hamster ball – or “bubble,” as I call it – is a major source of frustration for parents, because it narrows the teens’ view to about two feet away from themselves. In other words, they’re oblivious to anything that doesn’t directly concern them.
To parents, this looks like self-centeredness in the extreme, and many fear they’ve raised the World Champion of the Me Generation. “It’s like he doesn’t even know the rest of the family exists!” they cry, as they stumble over his backpack in the middle of the room or face another accusation of, “You never told me that!”
The good news is that it’s a normal stage in development, and there’s a good reason for it. The bad news is, it’s going to be around for awhile (we’re talking YEARS, not months).
Just as the hamster ball occupant concentrates on his immediate surroundings, so teen-agers focus on what’s going on inside themselves. Between the ages of 11 and 16, they will grow several inches taller, their body shapes will change dramatically, they will sprout hair in places they don’t want to tell you about, and their faces will lose their childish roundness – and those are only the VISIBLE changes!
Mentally, they’re able to think in more abstract ways, and they can lie awake long into the night pondering things like infinity or “what would happen if the earth were turned inside out?” Emotionally, they’re all over the place: hyper and silly one moment, and raging in anger the next. They’re as confused by it as you are! Spiritually, they’re no longer accepting what they’ve been taught just because they’re told to. They’re searching for answers that make sense to them.
Teens will spend hours looking in the bathroom mirror – not so much out of vanity, but out of fascination at how different they look from just a few weeks ago. They’re also comparing themselves to their peers, and many times they’re not happy at how they measure up. Meanwhile, they’ve forgotten there’s anyone outside the door, waiting for a turn in the bathroom. Self-absorption has become a means of survival.
This is why one of my students wanted to pray for his mom this week because she’s traveling, but he couldn’t tell me where she’d gone. Or when she’d be back. He did know she’d be leaving again on another trip. Soon. To somewhere.
Most teens don’t mean to be inconsiderate; they’re just unaware that there are people outside their bubbles. It takes a lot of reminding – and sticking your head inside their bubbles – to get them to look beyond themselves and see the dirty dishes in the sink, or the people waiting to walk through the doorway they’re blocking, or the annoyed looks on people’s faces because their voices are too loud.
The bubble isn’t an excuse for rude behavior, but adults who understand and acknowledge its presence may have a little more patience as they deal with its consequences. Teens are often embarrassed to discover they’ve ignored someone else’s needs. If they’re gently reminded, they’re likely to apologize and make things right.
For just a few minutes, the bubble will have thinned, letting light inside. Just don’t get too used to it. . .