While many assume that the most taxing years for mothers are when their children are infants, new research has found that the middle school years are far more challenging.
Aside from puberty, this is a time when the school environment becomes more impersonal, academic grades are much more public, being popular is sought after, and efforts to separate from parents start in earnest.
All of this adds up to a tumultuous time for children — as well as the mothers who must nurture and guide them through this trying period, according to researchers at Arizona State University.
“From the perspective of mothers, there’s a great deal of truth to the saying, ‘Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems,’” said Arizona State University (ASU) Foundation Professor Suniya Luthar. “Taking care of infants and toddlers is physically exhausting. But as the kids approach puberty, the challenges of parenting are far more complex, and the stakes of things going wrong are far greater.”
Luthar and her colleague Lucia Cicolla studied more than 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers with children ranging from infants to adults. They examined multiple aspects of mothers’ personal well-being, parenting, and perceptions of their children.
When considering disturbances in the mothers’ own adjustment, the study showed “an inverted V shape in feelings of stress and depression, with mothers of middle school children (aged 12 to 14 years) consistently faring the most poorly and mothers of infants and adult children doing the best,” Luthar said.
Why are the early teen years so tumultuous?
“Several factors come together in a perfect storm,” Luthar said. “One, the kids are dealing with puberty and all that this implies — hormones, acne, and changing bodies. Two, they are drawn toward experimenting with alcohol, drugs, or sex.
“They are also coping with the transition to a relatively impersonal school environment, with large buildings and different teachers for each class, as opposed to the relative safety of smaller elementary schools with the same teacher all year,” she continued.
“Their academic performance is now evaluated in a much more public way than before, as are their extracurricular talents. Finally, as they strive to separate from their parents, the peer group takes on enormous significance. Early adolescents are very invested in being popular, desperately wanting to fit in, and be admired by their peers. That is a lot to deal with simultaneously.”
As the children struggle to negotiate these challenges, so do their mothers as their primary care givers.
“Moms are essentially the first responders to the children’s distress, and now they must figure out how best to offer comfort and reassurance, as the old ways — hugs, loving words and bedtime stories — no longer work,” Luthar explained.
“They also have to walk a very fine line in setting limits. On the one hand, moms want their children to be open in sharing what they do with their friends, and on the other hand, there is the real concern that such honest exchanges might seem like they are tacitly condoning risky behaviors, if disclosed.
“Decisions about what to allow, where to draw the line, how to effectively draw the line — all of these bring confusion and even fearfulness,” she continued. “And then, of course, there is the hurt, from the eye-rolling, distancing, and even blatant scornfulness, from the same child who was unequivocally adoring just a few years earlier. That rejection hurts — it can hurt deeply.”
Luthar and Cicolla also cite other studies showing mothers of early adolescents are likely experiencing their own developmental challenges as they begin to recognize declines in physical abilities, cognitive functioning, and increased awareness of mortality. It also is a period when martial satisfaction is the lowest and strife the highest.
All of this adds up to stressed-out moms of middle school children, according to the researchers.
Luthar suggests two interventions that can minimize mothers’ stress. One is information dissemination not just when the child enters middle school, but in earlier years so they know what is in store for them. The second is providing ongoing support for mothers once their children start middle school and continuing through high school graduation.
“It is not enough simply to educate the mothers about the teen years, they must be refueled themselves as they shepherd their children through this often tumultuous time,” Luthar said.
“We have learned that if mothers are to retain their equanimity as parents and as individuals, they need to receive nurturance and tending themselves,” she added. “This new study shows it is during the hectic middle and high school years — perhaps more than ever — that mothers must deliberately prioritize the regular receipt of authentic connections in their everyday lives.”
The study was published in Developmental Psychology.
Source: Arizona State University
PHOTO: http://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/107265.php”> ASU Foundation Professor Suniya Luthar’s research has found that as middle school children go through the ups and downs of their early adolescent years, so do their moms. Credit: ASU photo.