How to Guide a Budding Adolescent

Caught in the Middle

Although many parents commiserate about their children's teenage years — and often with good reason — there is a developmental stage that can be equally as daunting. It's that pivotal time when a child isn't really a child anymore, but isn't a full-fledged teenager either. One day he or she won't give his parents the time of day, and the next bashfully asks for a hug after watching a scary movie. Scientists call this period adolescence, while others refer to it as the 'tween years'. It's characterized by a greater bid for independence peppered with varying degrees of confusion and awkwardness. Some days a preteen might think she's 11 going on 47, and the next she's running to mom in tears after a disagreement with her best friend.

In some kids, this transition can begin as early as age 9, according to Psychology Today. Even if it begins later, it generally lasts until a young person is 12. Instead of focusing more on simpler things, as they did in younger grades, these fourth, fifth, sixth and even seventh-graders begin shifting their attention to their peers, their personal appearance and even the taboo of drug and alcohol use. Clearly, this is a critical time in the lives of children. Although their bodies are maturing almost more quickly than they can handle and their hormones are kicking into gear, often children don't have the wisdom to match — much less master — what's going on within and without. That's where we as parents and guardians come in.

So how do we, as moms, dads and other caregivers, stand in this breach and prevent our young from making choices that could affect them negatively? This is a question parents have been asking themselves for millennia. First, it helps to distinguish between the different needs and growth stages of girls and boys.

The Difference in Boys and Girls

Adolescent Girls. In adolescence, female children begin to experience physical changes between ages 8 and 13, according to "Helping Your Child Through Early Adolescence" by the U.S. Department of Education. Some of the primary changes include breast development and menstruation — essentially, the female body preparing for childbirth. 

Adolescent Boys. For boys, changes generally begin about two years later than in girls. Their testes begin developing in preparation for fathering children, and they can experience rapid growth and greater development of secondary sex characteristics. Some of those include body hair, widening of the shoulders and a deepening voice preceeded by changes in pitch, or squeakiness.

Clearly, as these changes are occurring, emotions tend to run high. As children are attempting to assert their individuality, they can become much more argumentative with parents, or even outright belligerent. Kids at this age also become more able to reason through abstract concepts. Whereas younger children need to be shown how things work, adolescents begin to detect nuances such as when someone is hiding feelings by pasting on a smile. In other words, adolescents are much less oblivious to the subtleties swirling around them. As is the case with babies, adolescents are much smarter than they appear. Therefore, relationships with them must be handled with care. 

These Things Will Help

The following are parenting suggestions and tips selected from the Department of Education, the American Psychological Association and several others:

Make them feel the love. Although adolescents can push parents to the verge of despair with their contrariness, it's intensely important to show love to them. So how do we do that when they continually attempt to push us away? The best method is to persist in spending time with them and showing interest in them. Communication is key. Fostering good communication about issues large and small fosters trust. And trust is essential in any relationship, but especially between parents and children.

Be supportive. Although some children's interests might seem trivial to the adults in their lives, it doesn't matter. Those interests are valid to kids and should be just as valid to their guardians. Young adolescents should be praised when they do well and should be encouraged to develop healthy, fulfilling interests and personality traits.

Set limits. Adolescents, like children of other ages and stages, need consistent structure and supervision. Whether they like it or not, kids in this age range can't be allowed to run wild. If you don't want them hanging around a certain group of people, you must follow through on the prohibition by keeping close track of children's movements. They might not thank you now, but chances are they will thank you later. The key is not to go to extremes but to be firm and predictable in following through on rules and the consequences for breaking them.

Be a good example. After all, it's pretty difficult to demand good behavior from kids when they see us acting in ways harmful to ourselves and others. If you sit on the couch swigging beer every night, it might be difficult to warn kids against drinking alcohol.

Foster a sense of responsibility. Children learn to be responsible by being entrusted with certain requirements such as completing household chores, helping prepare meals and then cleaning up afterward, and so on. It's never a bad idea to get them involved in community volunteer work and teaching them that when they make poor choices, they must own up to them and endeavor to do better in the future.

Show respect. Children, like anyone, are individuals. They have their own inclinations, interests and ideas, and as long as those things are not harmful to themselves or others, deserve to be respected. We can't expect our offspring to be rubber stamps of ourselves. Although they share our DNA, their personalities and preferences still can vary widely from our own tendencies. Showing compassion for these small individuals' feelings can go a long way toward motivating them to want to make the best possible choices.

Other Resources

Obviously, this is a topic that requires a good level of understanding in order to help your child work their way through this time in life effectively. Clearly, this article is not enough, but we hope it will be helpful as you think about your role during this period in your child’s life. In addition, we have selected three additional resources that you might helpful as you “do your homework” in this regard:

A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Teen Years
(from KidsHeath by The Nemours Foundation)

Preparing for Adolescence
(from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry) 

Tween and Teen Health
(from the Mayo Clinic)

Lastly, Be Patient

This too shall pass…well, we as parents certainly hope so.

Obviously, we at Good Choices Good Life believe that the suggestions we have made above as well as the additional resources that we have provided will help you, and other parents, transition this challenging period in your child’s life. Certainly, it’s important for you to expect your child to go through this phase. Some are longer, some shorter, but almost every child encounters this “caught in the middle” time in life. So, please don’t be surprised, or think that your child is different when all of a sudden one day it dawns on you that your child is “there.”

More importantly, we say…be patient. We have written a whole article on this subject and how to be patient with your children. You will find it in this section, titled "Practicing Patience: Focus on this Moment". Make sure you read this article about practicing patience – maybe several times – because it will serve your well as your child “passes through” this important time in their life.

Written by Lindsay Jones

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At the end of the day, the most overwhelming key to a child's success is the positive involvement of parents. Jane D. Hull