Getting a View from the Ferris Wheel
"The biggest challenge in dealing with this age group is their roller-coaster emotions."
--Middle school teacher from Washington
"She's driving me crazy!" the mother of a thirteen-year-old girl confessed to a friend over the phone. "Her math teacher called to tell me she hasn't handed in any homework for three days. You should see her room! I expect the board of health will soon condemn it. And the way she dresses! The other day she sprayed blue streaks in her hair and painted her fingernails to match."
She sighed. "But you know, she can be such fun! The other night she challenged me to a game of cards, Go Fish, like we used to play when she was younger. We played for almost two hours and talked about everything--school, music, her French club, several books she's read, our last summer vacation. And I was reminded what a great kid she is--smart, funny, warm, caring.
"Of course, it was just a lull in the storm," she said, sadness in her voice. "By the next morning, we were at each other's throats again. I just can't wait until these years are over!"
Parenting a child from ages ten through fifteen is truly challenging. Like the view from a Ferris Wheel, the highs are exhilarating; but looking down can be flip-flop stomach scary. It is the best of times and the worst of times.
"How can this be?" parents ask themselves and each other. How could a child, who yesterday was so happy, cooperative, and sharing have metamorphosed into such a moody, angry, and selfish individual? Parents lose patience and heart, particularly when they are on the receiving end of so much hostility:
"Why can't I stay out until midnight? I'm old enough."
"I hate you! You never let me do anything!"
"It's my room and I like it messy!"
"I won't change my dress! It's not too tight!"
"Why can't you be like David's dad? He never yells."
"I don't care if the whole family's going to the museum. It's boring. I'd rather hang out with my friends."
"This dinner sucks! Why couldn't we go out for pizza?"
"What do you mean I've been on the phone for over an hour? I just got on!"
"You're ruining my life!"
Soon it seems like all your close encounters--with an alien being who bears just a passing resemblance to your son or daughter--are of the angry kind. Two-way communication stops. You feel your offspring spinning out of control, out of your orbit. You, of course, want your child to be independent, to explore new worlds. Yet how will you be able to exert any control once he has left your atmosphere? Will the gravitational pull of your love and concern be strong enough to help him steer clear of all the destructive forces that he will encounter?
"My son always depended upon me for help and advice," remarked the father of a thirteen-year-old. "Now he credits me with as much intelligence as a sow bug."
"My daughter is a total enigma to me," confided another mother. "I have no idea what makes her tick and it scares me to death."
As mothers of children in this age group, we, too, have had moments when we felt ill-prepared for the challenges of parenting. On more than one occasion we have faced problems--cliques, setting limits, school issues--that have sent us scrambling for advice and guidance. Again and again we found it difficult to come up with the authoritative information we needed to help us make sound parenting decisions. While there are many books to help parents through other stages of their children's development--infancy, toddlers, preschool, grade school, and teens--we found surprisingly little written to help parents cope with the overwhelming physical, intellectual, and emotional changes experienced by the ten- to fifteen-year-old.
In fact, this age group is one that has somehow fallen between the cracks. As parents, and as a society, we are now playing catch-up. Great Transitions: Preparing Adolescents for a New Century,
a 1995 report from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development focusing on ten- to fourteen-year-olds, observed: "A social consensus holds that knowledge about infant and child development is critical to a child's future. No such consensus yet exists in defining the knowledge parents should have about the adolescent years or about their roles during that critical period."
Perhaps one reason a consensus on parenting ten- to fifteen-year-olds has been slow to develop is that there is no one foolproof way to parent them. In contrast to early childhood, children in this age group mature at wildly different rates. As a result, children younger than ten and older than fifteen may exhibit many of the same characteristics we'll be describing.
Just look around your son or daughter's class. Some children are tall and mature looking; others small and childlike. And the differences are more than skin deep. While one twelve-year-old may fight for later curfews and more freedoms, another may withdraw, shunning family and friends. These two reactions are typical and normal ones for a child going through puberty. Yet each child manages to worry parent. The Life of a Ten- to Fifteen-Year-Old
The old saying goes: "Don't judge someone until you have walked a mile in his shoes." So, for a moment, imagine what your life would be like if you encountered some of the same difficulties in your own life as those being endured by your young adolescent:
Congratulations! You've been promoted, moved up another step on the ladder. Initially, you're euphoric, expecting you can now operate with more freedom. It doesn't take long, however, for you to see that there are many negatives and few positives resulting from your new position. Your workload has doubled. Your added responsibilities now require you to toil at home an hour or more every evening on projects you regard as little more than busywork. And your boss doesn't seem to trust you. He is constantly second-guessing you, listening in on your phone calls, going through your papers when you're not looking. Nothing seems to please him. Yesterday he reprimanded you because your desk was untidy!
Your coworkers aren't much help. There is an in-group and you are decidedly on the outs. No matter what you wear or how you comb your hair, someone manages to make a snide remark. Would it be paranoid to say that they are out to get you? The other day, one of them criticized your proposal in a meeting, embarrassing you in front of the client. Work is difficult enough without having to worry about being sabotaged by your peers.
On top of everything else, you feel lousy these days. Maybe it's the flu that's making you so tired. You can't seem to get out of bed in the morning. And your appearance! Your face has broken out and nothing seems to help. You've put on maybe ten pounds since the holidays, all in the wrong places. You looked in the mirror this morning and couldn't believe what you saw. Too many sweets, no doubt. Nothing in your closet fits. Time to diet again.
Doesn't sound like much fun, does it? Welcome to your child's world! These young people are living life in a pressure cooker. Is it any wonder they occasionally explode? Here are just a few of the frustrations they must contend with:
They yearn for independence when they are still being told what to do by their parents, teachers, and older siblings.
They are the target of many advertising campaigns, yet have little disposable income of their own.
They worry about their appearance while nature is wreaking havoc with their bodies.
They long for peer acceptance while some of those same peers make life miserable for them.
They worry about doing well in school while their workload and responsibilities increase.
They are on the brink of adulthood, yet have trouble controlling childlike impulses.
They are eager to voice their opinions, but they still have difficulty formulating coherent arguments.
They maintain a hectic schedule--between school, sports, social events, and extracurricular activities--at a time when their physical development demands they sleep more.
These years have never been easy for children or their parents. In 400 B.C. Socrates observed: "Young people nowadays love luxury; they have bad manners and contempt for authority. They show disrespect for old people and love silly talk in place of exercise. They no longer stand up when older people enter the room; they contradict their parents, talk constantly in front of company, gobble their food and tyrannize their teachers."
"Adolescence hasn't changed," observed Dr. Ralph I. Lopez, a Manhattan specialist in adolescent medicine. "We didn't invent it."
Of course many things have changed since the days of Socrates. The world has become a more dangerous and stressful place for young people. When today's parents were this age, their lives were fairly stable and uncomplicated. The vast majority of children lived in two-parent families. Schools were safe, uncrowded, and close to home. The only people in the neighborhood who carried guns were policemen.
Contrast that lifestyle to the one now experienced by a young person. More than half of all American children will spend at least part of their childhood or adolescence in a single-parent family, according to the Carnegie Commission. Violence for many is an accepted part of their lives. Children ages twelve and up are the most common victims of crime and two-thirds of their victimizers are other children. Many have witnessed a violent crime. Alcohol and drug abuse is prevalent. (Thirteen percent of young adolescents have used marijuana.) The number of children having children is staggering. (Forty percent of ninth graders have had sexual intercourse and 20 percent of high schoolers say they have had at least four partners.)
There is scientific data to prove that these children, because of better nutrition, are reaching puberty at an earlier age. (The average age of menstruation is now twelve, compared to thirteen back in 1960.) But in many ways, the intellectual and emotional maturity of these children has not caught up. Some are forced into adult situations before they are able to cope. They are bombarded with TV shows, movies, videos, and music that contain violence and explicit language and images.
Peer pressure has always been an issue with this age group, but these days a parent has genuine cause to worry. A lapse in judgment may have serious, irreversible consequences. A fifteen-year-old who has unprotected sexual intercourse, for example, risks not only an unplanned pregnancy but also AIDS. (Every month, the number of teens who test positive for the HIV virus doubles.)
No wonder parents are anxious! Saving a young adolescent from danger is more complicated than catching a toddler who is about to fall off the monkey bars. We can't hover over our ten- to fifteen-year-olds, arms outstretched, in the event of an accident. For the most part, they're on their own, traveling to and from school, spending the afternoon at the mall, or going to the movies. Sometimes we have to let our children suffer the consequences. We hope for two things: That those consequences won't be too severe and that they will learn something valuable from the experience.
Losing control is never a pleasant feeling, and losing control over someone you love, someone you know still needs your guidance, is downright chilling.
Some parents react by withdrawing. "Grit your teeth and get through it," the parent of an older teen advised. "It will be over in a few years."
Other parents recede into the background assuming it's appropriate. They believe the following statements:
Young children need parents more than older children do.
Young adolescents need to be left alone in order to become independent.
My child has a personal life now and it doesn't include me.
Ten- to fifteen-year-olds care more about what their peers think than what their parents think.
For the record, all these perceptions are wrong! Young adolescents need more, not less, from parents. Children in this age group care what parents think, far and above what anyone else thinks.
These young people are walking contradictions and the greatest inconsistency involves their parents. "Young adolescents are a dichotomy," admits Ross Burkhardt, past president of the National Middle School Association (NMSA), veteran middle school teacher, and parent. "Mom and Dad are extremely important even though they don't want to admit it. This can be very confusing for parents."
Parents who believe that their children really mean it when they say, "Leave me alone," need to take another look. What a child may be saying is, "I want more privacy than you are giving me now. But don't go too far. I might need you later."
The parenting job is not less important as a child grows beyond ten. The fact is that hands-on parenting makes or breaks the future of young adolescents. The Carnegie Council points out, "Studies show that although young adolescents crave--and require--adult support and guidance as they struggle toward independence, it is during the period ages ten through fourteen when these essential requirements are least likely to be met. If the nation continues to neglect this age group, millions of young adolescents will become "lifelong casualties' of drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, AIDS, suicide, violence, and inadequate education."
Parents who misread their middlers will miss a golden opportunity--perhaps their last chance for many years--to play an active role in their children's lives.Strategies: Is Your Parenting Style Too Nice or Too Negative to Be Effective?
As we strive to become positive parents, it can be helpful to examine our style. Read each of the situations below, choose one answer, and mark it in the space provided. Then proceed to the scoring section, and on to evaluating your responses.
1. Your daughter has come home from school clearly upset. She confesses to being excluded and ridiculed by girls she thought were her friends. Would you (a) empathize by sharing a similar memory and advise her to take a wait-and-see approach; (b) telephone the mothers of the girls causing your daughter's distress and ask them to intervene; (c) dismiss the episode by telling your daughter that she has you as her best friend; (d) label those so-called girlfriends "catty," "bitchy," and not worth her time.
2. Today is report card day. Your child's grades are satisfactory overall, maybe even wonderful, except for one or two. Your strategy would be to (a) call the teacher immediately for a conference to discuss the low grades and what can be done to improve them; (b) commend overall performance, but ask your child to explain the poorer grades; (c) focus on the positive aspects of the report card only, because to do otherwise would only cause trouble; (d) figure one or two low grades are nothing compared to how badly most children this age do in school.
3. Your son seems down these past two weeks. When you probed "What's got you down?" he dismissed your efforts with monosyllabic responses. Your next step would be to (a)
Excerpted from The Rollercoaster Years by Charlene C. Gianetti. Copyright © 1997 by Charlene Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.