A new study shows that parents can act as social coaches to their children as they transition to middle school, offering support and advice as kids face a number of challenges such as peer rejection, bullying, and conflicts with friends.
However, researchers at the University of Illinois found that the type of coaching that works depends on the kid. Some want parents to offer specific suggestions, while others want to be more autonomous and figure it out on their own.
In the recent study, researchers report on the connection between how mothers advise their children to respond to specific peer stress scenarios and youth stress responses during conversations about real peer experiences. They also identify what mothers do or say that is particularly helpful in helping their children with this stressful time.
“As we’re thinking about the transition to middle school, we’re looking at the extent to which mothers are encouraging their child to use active, engaged coping strategies, such as problem solving, help-seeking, or reframing or thinking about the situation in less threatening or negative ways,” said Dr. Kelly Tu, an assistant professor of human development and family studies.
The study also looks at how mothers can recognize that their children are transitioning into adolescence and looking for more autonomy and independence.
“We wanted to examine the extent to which mothers are taking a step back, saying, ‘I’m going to let you handle this in your own way — what you think is best or what works for you,'” Tu said.
Mothers and their children participated in the study during the transition from fifth grade to sixth grade.
Mothers were given hypothetical peer stress scenarios, such as peer exclusion, peer victimization or bullying, and anxiety about meeting new peers, as well as a variety of coping suggestions. Mothers were asked to report on how they would typically advise their child to respond.
Researchers also observed conversations between the kids and their moms about real peer stress situations. Common topics that were discussed included being around kids who are rude, having problems with a friend, and being bullied, teased, or hassled by other kids.
During the conversations, researchers measured skin conductance level — the electrical activity happening in the skin as part of the physiological “fight or flight” stress response system — from the kids’ hands.
“We assessed youths’ physiological arousal during these problem-solving discussions to examine how the different levels of reactivity may indicate different needs of the adolescent,” Tu said.
For instance, greater reactivity during the conversations may reflect higher levels of physiological arousal or anxiety in recalling that stressful experience and talking it through with their mother. Less reactivity might serve as an indicator of youths’ insensitivity to the stressful experience.
And these different response patterns may require different parenting approaches, according to the researchers.
“We found that mothers’ active, engaged coping suggestions were more beneficial for low reactive youth,” Tu said. “Low reactive youth may not be attending to cues in these conversations about stressful or challenging peer experiences, and so they may behave in ways that are unexpected, non-normative, or inappropriate. But when parents give them specific advice for how to manage challenging peer situations, this appears to be helpful.”
However, the same active, engaged approached predicted worse adjustment for kids exhibiting higher arousal.
“Instead, self-reliant suggestions actually predicted better adjustment for these kids,” Tu said.
“These findings are interesting because this suggests that a multi-step process might work best for kids who are exhibiting high physiological arousal related to peer problems. If you’re anxious or stressed, and your parent is telling you to face the problem head on, that might actually create more anxiety,” Tu continued.
“But when a parent gives a highly aroused youth more autonomy about how to cope with the peer stressor, this seems to be more beneficial because parents are giving them more space and time to work through the situation in their own way.”
The study was published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.