“In your calm is your strength.”–German Proverb
Over the years, I have told many people that I didn’t choose Middle School Education; it chose me. It wasn’t until my children approached adolescence that I truly understood the depth of this calling. My years of teaching middle school certainly gave me a leg up in preparing for the tween/teen years as a parent, but it doesn’t make it easier. Adolescents and pre-adolescents have unique qualities that can make parenting a challenge.
Around the onset of puberty, there are marked changes in the development of children’s brains. This begins before outward physical changes of puberty are noticeable, but parents will often notice behavioral or attitudinal changes in children beginning around the age of 9 or 10. This is the age that the brain begins to recognize and to be receptive to the sex hormones of estrogen and testosterone for the first time. In addition, one region of the brain, the amygdala, grows (or rather swells) exponentially during this time, up to 20 times its original size. This increased size continues until about the age of 20 to 25 when the frontal lobes have fully developed and begin to take on greater control. The amygdala is responsible for emotional response and control. In addition to the ongoing development of their brains, their bodies are growing and changing just as quickly. They are driven to be more social, yet more independent from their parents.
What this science shows is what parents of any pre-adolescent or adolescent already know; our children are more emotionally reactive. They have a difficult time making responsible decisions. They tend to talk less to their parents and more to their friends. It means that we, as parents, have to find ways to continue to be the guiding voice for our children, despite closed bedroom doors and the allure of social media. We have to find ways to keep open communication with our children despite their emotional reactivity and increasing need for privacy and independence. It is a balancing act that is constantly put to the test.
Here are a few tips for starting and maintaining open communication with our children:
- Develop a routine–the earlier, the better. When our children start school, they are often eager to tell us about their days. However, they may only focus on one aspect of schooling–recess, lunch or that new “best” friend. Finding a time in their day to have a conversation to recap the day is one way to establish a routine. Even if your child is in eighth grade, it isn’t too late; you can begin opening up the door. One way to start the conversation is in the car on the way home or at dinner time (see #2). Establish this time as a no-tech time and ask the same question every day: “What was your ‘onion’ and your ‘rose’ today?” (Some people might call this Peaks and Valleys.) The onion would be the less than positive thing about their day. The Rose would be the highlight. To model good conversational skills, you should also offer up an onion/rose from your day that is on your child’s level. Follow up statements/questions can be: “Wow, that is an interesting problem. How are you going to solve it? Are there any helpers or resources for solving that problem?” After all, it is important to help guide children to finding ways to solve problems on their own or with the help of a teacher or friend.
- Have family meals together regularly. It has been widely held that eating meals at the table as a family is one of the most beneficial ways we can build positive relationships with our children. This time should be considered a No Tech Time/Zone. There should not be devices at the table, and the TV should not be on. Meals at home not only promote a healthier weight, but it has been concluded that teens develop strong stress management strategies by having this mealtime outlet with family. You will be surprised what you can learn about your child’s day or week simply by having a distraction free meal together.
- Establish No-Tech Times. Beyond mealtime, you should also find time to engage with your children without devices. Go for a walk, go to the park, play a board game. This time allows kids to disconnect from technology and reconnect with family. Similar to family meals, this can help reduce stress. It also helps to build social skills, such as empathy and active listening.
- Guide and model difficult conversations with an even temper. The reality is that our children will often make mistakes. They learn about the world through these mistakes. As parents, we find ourselves asking, “What were you thinking?” We also tend to lecture or yell, but please remember that enlarged amygdala is controlling their decision making or lack thereof. The answer to our oft asked question is that they weren’t thinking; they were reacting or going on impulse.Therefore, we have to model regulating our emotions during tough talks. This can allow us to guide our children through some tough learning lessons. When we lecture or yell, our children want to disengage, and as our children move into high school and beyond, there will be many tough conversations. Our goal must be to maintain open lines of communication, rather than inadvertently shutting the door on future conversations. Here are a few ways to guide conversations more smoothly:
- Let your child know that you are disappointed and upset, but tell them that you are trying to remain calm in order to discuss it in a more meaningful way.
- Tell them why you want to address this issue and establish future expectations. Ultimately, you want them to know that learning how to manage a situation, whether it is friendships, homework, or inappropriate language, that you are teaching them a valuable skill for adulthood.
- Allow them an opportunity to speak. Remind them to use a metered tone and speak in “I” statements. While their logic may not always make sense to adults, it is important to give them the opportunity to reflect and engage.
- Give fair consequences with opportunities to earn back privileges. It is important for children to know they are learning a skill, and we are rewarding them for acquiring those skills.
- Be proactive. As you give your children more independence, set expectations in advance. We don’t always have to wait for our children to make mistakes before we discuss them. “Big talks” should never wait.
- Remember that you were once a tween/teen too. All of your adolescent experiences shaped who you are. They will shape your children as well. We cannot parent away the bad experiences. However, we want them to experience difficult times and learn from them. It won’t always be easy, but with your guidance and open communication, you can guide and nurture better decision making.
Fishel, Anne. “Science says: eat with your kids.” The Conversation, 9 Jan. 2015, theconversation.com/science-says-eat-with-your-kids-34573. Accessed 16 Jan. 2017.
Jensen, Frances E., and Amy Ellis Nutt. The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. New York, Harper, an imprint of Harpercollins Publishers, 2015.
Siegel, Daniel J. Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. New York, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2015.
Steinberg, Laurence. Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. Boston, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.
Whittle, Sarah, et al. “Prefrontal and amygdala volumes are related to adolescents’ affective behaviors during parent–adolescent interactions.” PNAS, vol. 105, no. 9, 4 Mar. 1008, doi:10.1073/pnas.0709815105. Accessed 16 Jan. 2017.