When Sarah's son was small, the two of them used to play a little game when she picked him up from school. "What was the bestest thing that happened today?" she would ask. Mark would reply enthusiastically with a long list of best things, from making an A on a science test to playing kickball at recess.
Since Mark turned 13, however, his usual answer to the question is now "Nothing," followed by a stony silence as he listens to his iPod and stares out the car window.
Have aliens kidnapped this once-happy and bubbly child and replaced him with a silent avatar? Not quite. It's a perfectly normal reaction for someone going through the tween years -- he's not quite a child, but not yet a teenager, either. The struggle for independence and developing an identity of one's own has its ups and downs, and one of its hallmarks is keeping some important issues and feelings private.
Navigating the tween years is difficult for parent and child alike. Although it may be hard to talk to your son or daughter right now, it's more important than ever that you understand what's going on in his or her life, as well as your kid's rapidly developing body and mind.
Read on and learn about five things your tween won't tell you -- but you need to know.
School can be overwhelming.
The middle school years bring a lot of changes to a kid's daily routines. Your child may have five to eight different subjects taught by just as many different teachers, plus an extracurricular activity or two. Imagine having that many jobs with an equal number of bosses! Assignments are all different, deadlines vary, and it takes excellent organization skills to keep up with all that's required.
So if the boy who made straight As in sixth grade is suddenly struggling to turn in assignments on time or bombs a test he says he forgot, the problem may not be forgetfulness, ambivalence, or defiance. He may be having trouble staying organized. Add that to the flurry of hormones flying around an average tween's body and it's no wonder book reports get overlooked.
As a parent, how can you help? Check online class calendars regularly and stay in touch with teachers to make sure you're on top of major assignments and tests. Sit down with your child and show him or her how to use a paper or electronic calendar to stay organized. Help your tween create "to-do" lists and mark off tasks as they're completed. Good organizational habits and personal responsibility are essential life skills that will serve your child well in middle school -- and beyond.
Your child is under a lot of peer pressure.
Kids in middle school want to conform and be accepted by their peers. Today's society presents a youth-oriented culture with strong pressure for tweens to associate with other tweens. Unfortunately, a unique set of values may develop that's much different from the moral values with which your kid has grown up.
What kinds of activities are kids under pressure to try? A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that peer pressure is real, and many tweens are engaging in activities that put their health at risk:
- Smoking. One in five adolescents will have tried smoking by the age of 13.
- Alcohol use. Two-thirds of teens between 14 and 17 have tried alcohol; among teen boys who have tried alcohol, 20 percent had a drink before they reached the age of 12. Episodic (binge) drinking is common: of the adolescents aged 12 to 17, one in four said they'd had five or more drinks consecutively within the last month.
- Drug use: Slightly more than 25 percent of adolescents have used illegal drugs.
- Sex: About one in every three kids aged 14 to 15 has had sexual intercourse.
Tweens also feel pressure to have their bodies look a certain way; girls want to be fit and thin, while boys want six-pack abs and strong biceps. They want to wear clothes from the right stores, sport a certain brand of athletic shoes, even watch the right TV shows or see certain movies.
Parents can help tweens deal with peer pressure by keeping communication lines open, sharing their personal values, and encouraging good decision-making. Honest conversations about alcohol, drugs, sex, and the pressure to fit in can start as early as fifth grade. Openness pays off: Teens who learned about the risks of using drugs from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use drugs than those who say they haven't learned about drugs from their parents, according to a survey conducted by Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
Your tween is very curious about sex.
With everything today's kids are exposed to on TV, the Internet, and stuff they hear in the lunchroom, they know a lot about sex. Even so, it's important to take the initiative to talk to your tween about the changes that are going on in their bodies. Don't wait for your child to come to you with questions; it's a sensitive subject and they may feel uncomfortable bringing up or even talking about the topic.
During middle school, young bodies begin to mature. Most girls begin going through puberty around the age of 10; for boys it's a little later, at 11 or 12. It helps kids to know what to expect before the changes begin happening, then give them plenty of reassurance that developing breasts and sprouting pubic hair is perfectly normal.
Many tweens worry about their appearance, but it helps them to know that everyone goes through the same changes, although not on the same timetable. Acne, mood changes, and growth spurts are all part of growing up, and it can be just as hard to be the first girl with a training bra as it is to be the last boy to grow facial hair. Your tween may also become more aware of the opposite sex, developing a crush on a special boy or girl or "going out" in groups.
How do you get the conversation started? Many parents assume that since there is so much information out there, they don't need to have the "talk." That's not true: there's a lot of misinformation, too, and kids will naturally have questions about things they hear from friends or see in the movies. As a parent, it's important to take the time to talk to them openly and honestly -- and keep the dialogue going as they continue to develop.
Your child needs space -- and you need to set limits.
To help your son or daughter become a young adult, you'll need to give him or her plenty of space. That means it's okay for them to spend time alone in their room. Phone calls and emails should stay private, unless there's reason to be concerned.
On the other hand, transitioning from being a kid with established schedules isn't easy. Suddenly, there are so many more choices and expectations. Even though your tween may resist, he really does need you to help him set limits regarding bed times, curfews and computer time. Too much freedom may mean they fall victim to their own immature judgment.
Take bedtime, for example. It's a fact that hormones are wrecking havoc on your tween's internal body clock. While the rest of the household is settling down, your child's circadian rhythms are cranking up again, and he or she really may not feel tired. Your tween may be tempted to watch one video after another until he or she falls asleep at 3 a.m. -- despite a looming 6:30 a.m. wake-up call. Help your tween by setting a cut off time for TV or gaming; Suggest reading, writing in a journal or enjoying a quiet hobby before turning off the lights at a reasonable hour.
Busy social schedules can also pull a tween many directions, and it's up to you to decide how much is enough. Two sleepovers (where very little sleeping is actually done) may be too many in one weekend; subscriptions to two online multi-player games are an invitation to online overload.
Your tween wants you to listen.
Tweens want to be able to share what's going on in their lives. Really. But they don't want the criticism, nagging, or harsh judgments that might come along with it. Say your daughter shares a story about Amy, a friend who snuck out of the house after midnight. Now is not the time to judge Amy harshly or threaten to call her parents. Talk to your daughter about the behavior. Ask "How do you feel about that?" and "What do you think the risks of that behavior might be? "
Many parents are frustrated when the "How did your day go?" question is met by a grumpy "Fine" and a stony silence. Give them some time to process the events of the day, and make yourself available, but not in the way. Try spending some active time together: ask her to help with dinner or take the dog for a walk. She may find it easier to open up when you're doing something together.
Finally, keep in mind that your relationship with your child will transition over the next few years as he grows into a young adult. Learn to enjoy his unique personality, and try to find common interests that you'll be able to share for a lifetime, whether it's cooking, playing tennis, mountain climbing or watching psychological thrillers. It's a great way to encourage communication, strengthen your relationship, and make the most of the tween years.
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More Great Links
- Davis, Jeanie Lerche. "10 Parenting Tips for Raising Teenagers." WebMd. (Accessed Jan. 17, 2011)http://www.webmd.com/parenting/guide/10-parenting-tips-for-raising-teenagers.
- Fusaro, Kimberly. "10 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell you." WomansDay.com. November 18, 2010. (Accessed Jan. 14, 2011)www.womansday.com/Articles/Family-Lifestyle/10-Things-Your-Teenager-Won-t-Tell-You.html
- Heubeck, Elizabeth. "Teen Peer Pressure: Raising a Peer Pressure-Proof Child." WebMd. (Accessed Jan. 18, 2011)http://www.webmd.com/parenting/teen-abuse-cough-medicine-9/peer-pressure?print+true
- Nemours. "A Parent's Guide to Surviving the Teen Year." KidsHealth.org. (Accessed Jan. 14, 2011)http://kidshealth.org/parent/growth/growing/adolescence.html#cat10007
- Nemours. "Talking to Your Kids about Puberty." KidsHealth.org. (Accessed Jan. 14, 2011)http://kidshealth.org/parent/growth/growing/talk_about_puberty.html#cat10007.
- Ross, Julie A. How to Hug a Porcupine. New York: McGraw Hill. 2008.
- Wallis, Claudia. "What Makes Teens Tick." Time. September 26, 2008. (Accessed Jan. 17, 2011)www.timie.com/time/printout/0,8816,994126,00.html