Parenting tweens and teens may seem a bit mystifying, but they can also be incredibly fun. We all know there arechallenges during this phase of life. Mary Crimmins, a 23-year teaching veteran, as well as mother of two grown sons, shares insights for parents.
Perhaps the number one thing that parents need to keep in mind is to do what we already know in our hearts: be consistent role models and be available to our children. This is especially important during the middle school years because of the tremendous changes occurring in a child’s life. They’ve gone from one teacher to several. Their bodies are becoming strangers. And then there arebrain changes, which can lead to some perplexing behavior. While the reasoning part of their brain is still trying to get its act together, the emotion part is operating in full force. (Keep in mind that the reasoning part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for rational decision making, setting priorities, making goals, and organizing tasks.)
What are They Thinking?
These changes in the brain lead to many of the traits that are common during adolescence. One common example is for an adolescent to make a comment, and then have no recollection of what was said the next moment. Middle school teachers experience this with some students and I also experienced it with my oldest son, Peter. My husband and I would joke that we needed to walk around with a tape recorder so we could replay what was actually said. It is also very common for adolescents to mishear what a parent or teacher has said, or to misinterpret tone of voice or facial expressions. Sometimes communication can be exasperating for the parent, child or both.
In his book Why Do They Act That Way?, Dr. David Walsh shares a personal example. When he calmly asked his daughter to clean up a mess she left in the car, her response was to get defensive and claim that he was yelling at her. She demanded to know why he was so angry with her. Both he and his wife were in agreement that he had been polite and calm. When a parent experiences such erratic behavior, it is important to stay calm while making it clear that the reaction is unacceptable. My youngest child Matthew resisted compound spoken requests. For example, “after you’re done with your homework, take out the trash and feed the dog.” We finally discovered what worked best for all involved, which was to post a list with deadlines. After Matthew reviewed the list, he was free to let us know if too much was required so we could readjust the expectations or deadlines.
Communication is Key
All of the influences and changes make it even more important to clearly communicate with your child. If you absolutely have to have your child make the bed, then be consistent. If it is a negotiable, then simply shut the door to the room. Some parents highly value certain electives; P.E. for example. But children may be resistant to choosing the elective. Talk with your child about the reasons for their resistance, even if some reasons may be rational and some seem quite irrational. Once you have a clearer idea of your child’s point-of-view, a decision can be made as to whether this is a negotiable situation. But, as often as possible, require your child to step outside of their comfort zone. Also, know that at times compromise is wise. For example, with the elective, perhaps the parent can allow the child to choose their own elective for the first half of the year and require the child to take the uncomfortable choice the second half.
Try to think ahead about what will be non-negotiable regarding habits for you as parents, such as going to church, school work, joining a sports team, using a cell phone, choosing friends, driving a car. Then, communicate the expectations to your child ahead of time. For example, the first time my son Peter drove by himself, he was specifically instructed not to touch his cell phone while driving. I tested this by calling him while he was driving, and he answered his phone. He was then instructed to come home immediately because a non-negotiable rule had been violated. (Every now and then my husband still brings up the incident because he thought it was funny.) Peter stormed into the house and bee-lined straight to his room as my husband called after him ‘‘Mom told you not to answer the phone.”
Each of my children, just as each of yours, is different. They experienced adolescence differently and had different needs. As for my younger son, there was a certain Advanced Placement class that he did not want to take. He rationalized that his older brother didn’t have to take the class, but the decision for him to take the class was another non-negotiable for us. Thankfully, we were firm, because in that specific class, Matthew met his future wife. Sometimes Mom and Dad do know best.
Keep in mind that we are parenting in real time, so situations will come up that require conversation, negotiation and plenty of prayer. The “heart of the matter” often needs to be considered when deciding when to compromise and when to stand firm. As parents, we must be very aware of these windows of opportunity. One trait both my boys had in common was to pick very inconvenient times for heavy discussions. During those times when your child seeks you out, drop everything. At the same time, fight the desire to try to make everything right for them. Most of the time they simply need a listening ear. It may be difficult, but avoid the impulse to rescue your child. I once heard this said at a professional conference and believe it is outstanding advice: “Prepare your child for the path. Don’t prepare the path for your child.”
Parenting is a Balancing Act
Another trait that is common during adolescence is for children to begin to see themselves through the eyes of their peers, which manifests itself in many different ways. Perhaps the most obvious way is that friends and socializing become a high priority. Friends may have a strong influence; consequently, it is important that you help your child make wise choices when selecting friends. As Proverbs 27:17 states, “Iron sharpens iron.”
Even though your child’s peers become more important during the middle school years, it doesn’t diminish your role in their lives. I love an analogy we middle school teachers at The Christ School share with parents: think of your relationship as a rubber band. Your child will need to stretch away from you at times. If you stand still and let them pull away from you, they will bounce back. If you hover too closely, the rubber band won’t stretch and they will struggle harder to pull away. If you hover, there will be no tension, which is necessary for your child’s growth.
Another way peer influence is evident with middle school-age children is in attaching their identity to how they think others perceive them. Labels become pandemic: “nerds,” “cool kids,” “brains.” But it is important that parents avoid using these labels to describe their child or their child’s peers. We must help our children understand that there is more to each person’s story than what we see.
The “herd” mentality is another obvious attachment to peers. For girls this may emerge as cliques, and for boys it is physically evident in the way they move down the hallway in packs. This herd mentality, along with being prone to mishear or misinterpret, can sometimes affect classroom interactions. Students may tend to side with one another even though they do not have a clear idea of what the situation is. For parents, the implication is that while it is important to listen, it is often equally important to choose not to act on what is shared.
One more trait to be aware of is that adolescents often speak in hyperbole: “everyone has the newest phone,” “I’m always the only one who...” You can fill in the blank with a long list of perceived injustices. When my oldest son was in middle school, wearing extremely baggy pants was the fashion and boxer shorts were no longer “underwear.” Like everyone else, he wanted a pair of baggy pants, so his father and I took him to the store to try some on. As we had him look in the mirror, we shared our family values regarding personal appearance. The baggy pants did not fit our values; therefore, wearing them was not an option. The compromise was that we could care less if he wore his ball cap backwards. Ironically, in their later teen years, one argument with both my sons was the length of their hair. Both refused to grow it longer to please me.
Every child is unique so their journey through adolescence will look different. Some display the traits more dramatically than others. Nevertheless, adolescence is sometimes a roller coaster ride for the child and parent. There will be times when you are left wondering “What just happened?” Then literally the next moment, the sweet child returns. But I can attest that one of the best parts of working with middle school students is seeing the beautiful, poised and accomplished young adults they become.