Monday, June 20, 2011

The Art of 12 to 14 Year Olds

We take keen interest when we observe other parents transitioning their children into the early teen years.  We’ve found the age of about 12 years old through about 14 to be a pivotal time in parenting, and see many families struggling during this transition.  In the same way that toddlers challenge barriers during the “terrible twos,” young teens will have an awakening to their surroundings, and initiate intense challenges to their existing barriers.  They will begin to ask for more privacy and unsupervised time both inside and outside the home.  They’ll want to make their own choices about social activities, clothing, and peer groups.  They’ll want to coordinate and plan the logistics for their activities by themselves (leaving their parents to fill any gaps at the last minute!), and will push against curfew and bedtime restrictions.  They’ll want to have more control over how money is spent on them and their friends, and more influence over shared resources like the family room television and car rides to activities. Boys who worshipped their mother will suddenly reject her and demand time and attention from their fathers.  Conservative girls will suddenly desire makeup and revealing clothing.  This “social growth spurt” seems to catch confident, successful parents of grade-school children off-guard, and because they haven’t anticipated the change, or planned a strategy for dealing with this change, it throws them for a loop.

At this critical time in childrearing, we often see parents take one of two unhealthy approaches.  They either decide that they’ve done enough parenting, and essentially let their teens run wild, or are afraid to let go of the grade school years, and exercise tight control over their children.  Either out of parenting exhaustion, or overconfidence in the foundations they’ve laid, some parents of young teens will collapse under the onslaught of demands for new freedoms and privileges, and give their young teens or pre-teens far more unsupervised freedom than they’re equipped to handle.  When these teenagers start making really poor decisions and getting into trouble, the parents are forced to back up and assert more authority and control.  This reversal creates a crisis where parents have to add unpopular new rules and limits, and the teenagers rebel against the changes and loss of their previous freedoms.  Their rebellion requires more draconian restrictions, and the relationship between the parents and teenagers spirals downward.

Alternatively, some parents will resist teenage growth by staunchly limiting their teens to the rules and freedoms established in grade school.  The parents will continue to exert unwavering control over clothing choices, social activities, friendships, and family resources.  They treat their teenagers like young children instead of adults-in-training, and the teens will often rebel against their parents, sometimes as late as young adulthood.  We’ve seen a number of “good” kids go off to college or a career unprepared to establish self-discipline in their lives, and make disastrous, life-changing errors in judgment.

We didn’t see either of these approaches as healthy, and instead choose a planned, guided approach to training our teenagers how to handle the responsibilities that come with pre-adult freedoms.  Each time one of our teens pushed against an established boundary, we reviewed with them the skills and experience adults used to manage that freedom, and built a plan to help our teen grow into successfully managing that new freedom.  Sometimes, they would be ready to take on a new freedom or expanded boundaries right away, and we would release them with a plan for managing their progress.  Most times, we would review what would need to change or improve before our teenager could take the next step.

For example, our pre-teens began asking to join friends at local parks without supervision.  Because they had demonstrated their ability to resist peer pressure, and to make good decisions with groups, we gave them some new rules around park visits (know who the friends are and get parental approval in advance, travel to and from the park with friends, establish a time they’re expecting to return, plan to be home before dark, and carry a cell phone), and expanded their freedom around park visits.  Because they were still children, they occasionally violated the new rules, or made some bad decisions, and we either discussed the ramifications of their actions, or disciplined them by temporarily restricting their park visits, as appropriate.