Any parent who has shepherded a child through early adolescence knows this scene: My 12-year-old had a meltdown over the weekend. Tearfully, she crawled into my lap. “Everything is changing since I got into 7th grade. Some days my friends are my friends and some days they’re not. School is harder. It’s all so confusing. I hate my life!”
It would be easy to minimize her distress. It would be easy to give her a hug and a pep talk and let that be that. It would be easy so very much easier than the alternatives to just figure that she needed a good cry and that everything will be all right tomorrow.
But parenting well isn’t about what is easy. Pooh-poohing her concerns, giving her a pep talk, or attributing her distress to newly erupting hormones does her a disservice, deprives her of information that she doesn’t know that she wants, and cheats us both of an opportunity to be closer. Parenting well takes thought, and time, and (here’s the impossible part) experience we often don’t have. Parenting well through adolescence takes everything we’ve got.
Here’s What I’ve Learned
I wish I could say I’ve always handled this stage perfectly. I haven’t. But I’m now on Child No. 4. Thanks to Kids 1, 2, and 3 (and the hundreds of other parents I’ve talked to both professionally and personally), I’ve learned a few things. Our youngest gets the benefit of those multiple runs through the early teens. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Listen. Listen hard. Listen in a way that lets your child know that you are, in fact, really, truly listening. Every kid experiences the entry into teens differently. But what they share is the need to know that their parents care enough to take the time to understand what really is bothering them. Resist the temptation to offer suggestions and advice. Ask a few questions that show your teen that you are interested in understanding what is upsetting her.
- Stay calm, even if you aren’t feeling that way. A young teen in distress can be impressive indeed. If you add your distress to his distress, the emotional temperature can get much too high for any useful problem solving to follow. Focus on providing comfort. Keep your own talk to a minimum. Breathe. Your child needs you to model that there is a difference between a problem to solve and a catastrophe. Even events that feel catastrophic usually aren’t once you’ve teased out the issues involved, that is. Calming down is the first step in figuring out what is really happening and what to do.
- Don’t do too much. The teen years are important years for learning to handle life. Your child doesn’t need a rescuer as much as she needs the self-confidence that comes from handling a difficulty by herself. Don’t immediately get on the phone to the mother of the child who called your child a name. Don’t immediately go see a teacher about how unfair she was to give your child a B instead of an A. Don’t, please don’t, confront the other children at the bus stop and tell them not to be mean to your child. Tactics like these only embarrass your child, and deprive both of you of an important learning opportunity.
Instead of weighing in to solve the problem yourself, help your child figure out what she wants to do. Help her examine the consequences of each of the choices available to her so she can choose wisely. She’s smart. You raised her. She will usually come up with a good suggestion or two if you comfort her, help her calm down, and lend her some support.
- Don’t do too little. There are times when your early teen really and truly is over his head. There really are bullies in the world. There really are unfair teachers or coaches. There really are situations that are too dangerous to ignore. Your teen needs to feel that you are there as a caring back-up when he can’t manage a problem despite all that the two of you have been able to come up with as ways for him to advocate for himself. If you do decide that the situation warrants your involvement, keep your child in the loop so he feels that you are working with him, not for him.
- Share stories. Kids at this age are super-sensitive about being told outright what to do. But they love to hear stories about situations from their parents’ childhoods. Story telling is an ancient and time-proven teaching technique. If we think about it, we can usually come up with a good anecdote that either shows what we did right or what we did wrong and wish we didn’t (the latter are especially welcome). By the way, it’s okay to bend the stories just a bit. The point is to use stories as a non-threatening way to teach information, not to be a 100 percent accurate historian.
From Authority to Consultant
The elementary school years are a golden time. Kids generally become more and more independent about things like getting dressed, remembering homework, and taking care of lots of the little details of life. At the same time, they still look to us as authorities on just about everything and usually accept that we have the last word when they disagree with us.
Then comes seventh grade. Just when you think you maybe can let up a little, just when you think maybe you can have a little time for yourself, just when you think the kid can be even more independent, you find that there are yet more labor-intensive years ahead.
Parenting well during the teen years requires a deft combination of a renewed commitment to active involvement and willingness to readjust our own parenting style. As we gradually move toward becoming “consultants” instead of “authorities,” our teens can become increasingly independent. When we make it through, a new adult relationship with a wonderful young person is our reward. It’s one of those miracles that only takes about 10 years!