Parenting 'tweens' and young teenagers
As our children grow up our relationship with them changes, as does the way we parent them. Some children move with relative ease through the ‘tween’ stage and into teenage years, others have a rockier ride. How, as parents, can we help our children negotiate these transition years as smoothly as possible?
The most protective factor for teenagers is a warm, loving relationship with parents who are able to remain firm about their values. While teenagers are trying to find their own way in the world they still rely on the security of home and family as their base from which to venture out. Despite what some teenagers may say, they thrive on positive attention and time spent with their parents and it is important to ensure this still happens on a very regular basis. Focusing on maintaining a warm, caring relationship, talking with your teen and showing a genuine interest in their life will help them see that you are on their side.
As children move towards the teenage years they are influenced more and more by their peers. Friendships are everything to teenagers and most are far more concerned about what their friends think than their parents. However, this doesn’t mean that parents lose all their influence and during these years, in many ways, teenagers need their parents more than ever. Peer pressure can be extreme and when your child is telling you that “everyone else is allowed to” do something it can feel difficult to know where to set the bar. Decisions about when a child can have their own phone, walk to a friend’s house on their own or stay out in the evening don’t have to be made suddenly. Trust your instincts, check out rules with other parents (it’s rare that everyone is actually allowed to do whatever is being asked for) and, when possible, make a decision jointly as parents to minimise inconsistency. Teenagers need firm boundaries to help them stay safe but also to feel safe. Blaming your parents for not being able to do something can also give kids a useful and face saving way out if they feel pressured by peers. Tweens and teens may argue about curfews and other important boundaries but paradoxically they are likely to feel uncared for if their parents do not take charge and insist on them. Think through a consequence for being late in advance, to ensure it is reasonable, and let your teenager know what it is before they leave the house. This avoids future arguments and also overly harsh consequences being meted out in the heat of the moment by an angry or worried parent.
Teenagers are adept at drawing their parents into arguments and trying to have the last word. Holding your tongue is tricky under severe provocation but refusing to take part in an angry debate can be powerful – it’s impossible to have a one sided argument with someone who won’t participate. Waiting to talk about the issue, or make a decision, until you are both calm means you are more likely to be able to listen carefully to your teenager’s point of view. While the ultimate decision still rests with parents, it is important to recognise that as children get older they do need more autonomy and to be included in decisions that affect them. Teenagers are often more sensible than they are given credit for and asking them to come up with a plan that you would find acceptable can put the ball in their court. As this is the stage when children are engaged in the process of trying to replace parental attitudes and values with their own, they need opportunities to manage dilemmas and tricky situations, but also to be held accountable for their actions.
Managing societal influences
Many parents struggle with how to introduce talking about puberty, sex and body image but it is important not to ignore it and just hope for the best. Online pornography is now so prevalent that most children stumble upon it or are shown it by friends long before they reach adolescence and it is often used as a main source of sex education for teenagers. Talking early on about what they might see online, how they might feel about it and the positives of sex within a caring relationship will set them up to better manage this. In addition, a good book for helping children understand changes in puberty is “What is happening to me?” in the Usborne range. Other useful topics to discuss at this age include online safety and body image issues. Digital Parenting magazine has a lot of useful information about online safety and a good, if slightly punchy, video to start discussions with tweens embarking on social media, or with those who already have an online presence is http://ow.ly/rBYdB. Regarding body image, googling pictures of Katy Perry without makeup can be an eye opener for young people used to seeing her usual, digitally enhanced pictures and a good video which highlights the extent of digital enhancement in the media is http://ow.ly/rBYit.
Minimise Parental Pressure
Finally, in addition to the physical, hormonal and emotional changes going on for young teenagers, the pressure to succeed academically also increases. This may start with entrance exams, increased workload once at secondary school or with talk of GCSEs. Parents generally want their children to do well academically to give them greater options for the future. However, focusing on academic performance and putting on pressure to succeed can backfire, leaving teenagers feeling burnt out and depressed if they feel they can’t live up to expectations. When parents place excessively high value on outstanding performance, children often come to see anything less than perfection as failure. Ultimately, children need to learn to take pleasure from their successes but also to tolerate their limitations. Praising the process of learning rather than results, showing appreciation for their “softer skills” such as putting in effort, paying attention to detail, concentrating well and persevering will encourage the self-management skills that are necessary for psychological and academic development.