For many parents, the strain of their children teen-hood can be felt around the house as early as the first year of Middle School, as they are refer to at some states, or Junior High, as they're called at others.
If you have teen boys at home, most likely everyday that you look at them, they are an inch taller, more hairy, and when you speak to them on the phone you want to hang up because you're certain you've reached a wrong number. And if you have a teen girl at home most likely you find how you never agree on anything - from clothes to food to talking on the phone - the talking back never ends, and the idea that you have something good to offer is beyond their comprehension.
Parents, I can probably assure most of you that when that door slams at your house, if you pause for a moment and listen, you'd be able to hear a thousand other doors slammed at the exact same time. No, it's not in your head. It's a door in every home and at every neighbor, in every neighborhood in which a child has just turned into a teen monster. And yes, most of us had problems with our children before; we've had the tantrums at restaurants and the crying at nights and the arguments over sit belts and that extra piece of candy… but somehow it's not the same.
We can all probably share how we've begun to recognize that a lovable butt we used to wash in the bathtub is no longer ours to pinch or stare in amazement. That the cute little hand that used to leave dirty marks on our walls and cabinets, is now another man's, or another woman's, hand. That the never-ending questions and cheerful conversations about trash trucks and dinosaurs, prince and princesses, have been replaced by one syllable answers.
- "How was school?"
- "Do you want to eat?"
- (a boy): "Yes!" (a girl): "No!"
- When will you be back?"
You get the idea…
So what did happen to our children and what can we understand from the stage they have grown into and the variety of developmental changes they are going through, that can help us all be less annoyed with one another; less angry - before we actually throw them out…?
For boys, the change mostly occurs between the ages of 11-13, for girls it may start younger, and as early as 9 or 10. In most cases it begins to show signs of spiraling downward once the child has joined Middle school. In most states, children graduate elementary school at the end of 5th grade and begin three years of Middle school. That transition, along with other changes we have no control over, is like the push a baby bird gets from his mother bird when it's time to fly out of the nest: we might not be the ones to actually give them that push, but flying is something they are not doing well yet and so diving towards earth at the speed of a falling rock, at times hitting bottom, at others barely catching enough wind to keep from crashing - is, for them, inevitable.
That switch to Middle school is a startling upheaval in our children's lives. In most cases, the last time our child has switched schools was perhaps at kindergarten or first grade level. For an 11 year old this was a lifetime ago; too long ago to remember the actual transition, what it meant emotionally for them and you, how long the adjustment took.
This transition between two different schools, two very different systems, becomes a huge pill to swallow. Add to that the fact that your child, moving from elementary school to Middle (Junior High) school is also moving from a smaller more familiar grounds to a usually much larger one, as well as shifting from one or two teachers at the most, who know them very well, to 5 or 6 teachers that don't have the time to get to know them because they are moving around 3, 4, 5, or more classes themselves. By the way it is set in Middle school, it means that a child needs to get to know many more different teachers' personalities, to comply with each accordingly, to understand each one's demands, requirements, style. Surviving all that takes a toll on our children.
And that's not all!
Adding to that the fact that the environment itself is now larger (usually few elementary schools feed into one middle school) results in a bigger bland of children from a variety of neighborhoods, cultures, backgrounds. No matter which side of the tracks your child comes from he or she is likely to get intimidated and unsettled about "the other children".
We can surly relate to that: Take any of us outside of our familiar circle, the one we've been accustomed to for the most part of our lives, and we are destined to feel like a fish out of water. And regardless of our personality, it will be an adjustment; it will take us time to ease into the new situation. And we, usually, have a bit more social skills, experience, and a sense of obligation. All gears which our children are not equipped with, yet.
Finding their way amidst the bigger campus; having to deal with the responsibility of a locker (in some school two of them), a larger variety of teachers' and children's personalities, new and unfamiliar academic demands, and we're still not concluding why we notice such a drastic change in our children during that time. Because, yes, you guessed it: That's not all!
Bigger, even more powerful changes are the inner changes our children are going through at this crucial time in their life: the body changes.
We've all heard of hormones, oh, yea, we've all experienced at one point in our life or another changes we ourselves go through. And we don't usually take it lightly. We tend to fuss and complain about it, we are moody and irritable: it can get scary even for us. Nevertheless, we have an idea of what is going on, we have resources and the option to seek help, advice, support. Once again, our children, going through such dramatic changes in their lives, lack the ability to understand what it going on, and the experience to express themselves accordingly. Since they are still very self-centered they are under the complete assumption that it is only happening to them, therefore they are even less likely to express themselves or ask questions. More so, their still primitive level of awareness prevents them from coming forth in articulating and communicating to us what they might be feeling or fearing. During that time, much like they have done knowingly and unknowingly since the day they were born, they are looking to us to for answers and for the interpretation of the occurrences; they want us to fix it for them, and bail them out of this misery. But they don't know how to ask.
In addition to the actual changes in school's environment, body transformation and adjustments, at this specific age and time the brain too goes through a modification in the way it is able to perceive and comprehend ideas. Up to age 11 or 12, children have, only, what is called a cognitive ability to recognize and identify concepts. One of the bigger transformations we go through in life is that of our ability, beyond age 12, to visualize and imagine abstract ideas. This "simple" fact alone is responsible for your children talking back at you, feeling embarrassed by you in public or around their friends, conveying, and sometimes forcing, their own opinions on you about everything and anything as if they have sole custody on them, and looking down on you, your values and your principals, as if they are literally appalled by what you have to say.
- "Can you please pick up your socks from the floor?"
- "Please go do you homework."
Now, we all know that we can count at least 150 times in one week only that we've asked them to pick up their socks, or their shoes, or their books, or their backpack… or we've asked them to please put the phone back where it belongs so we can perhaps find it and make a call as well… or we've asked and asked and bagged and yelled for them to go do their homework (already), as they stroll from room to room, are attached to the computer as it is their only life line, or are again hungry and can't do anything before they get something to eat… and yet, each time they hear us, it merely seems to be the first time ever, and our strange ideas of picking up things from the floor or returning things to their proper places or God forbid doing homework - are a shock to their ears and contradict anything they have ever heard before. Wow! It is a mystery how these kids that we've been raising for some ten, eleven, twelve years, are now hearing from us for the first time those simple orders and instructions. Are they really? No! Why then are they acting as if we just landed from another planet while they have been here all along doing things their way…?
Once again, the explanation to it is set in the changes our children are going through at this time: it's as if all that they've been hearing from us all along was received and perceived by one kind of brain they've been using so far. From now on, it is all received, perceived, and more so, filtered, by an entirely different brain. And yes, to them, concepts of picking up things from the floor, doing homework just because we (or their teachers) are telling them to, and proceeding to trail our guidelines as a matter of fact, are no longer without question and doubt.
It is the beginning of the era of rebelliousness:
No concept is without inquiry; no idea is without examination and scrutiny.
We, parents, are under a magnifying glass and if you think your children are deaf and blind to you, you are greatly mistaken. They are actually more tuned to you than ever, except that now they have a thought process that allows them to judge and criticize you like never before. And they use it freely, happily, and as often as they can, regardless of the consequences.
So what does all that mean? That we can't be their parents anymore? Can't tell them what to do now that they are "smarter" and more able to think on their own? Obviously not! Do we punish more, yell more, fight more? Yes, we can do that. But most of all we want to remember that we are still the parents, they are still just children, and they have a long way ahead of them as they still need our guidance, support, advice, and more than ever, our understanding. Except that we parents don't quite understand what is going on with our children and our behavior towards them reflects exactly that.
Since we don't understand, we lack the compassion to their difficulties and thus begin to feel resentful at them. We are easily angered by their fluctuating moods, bad-temper and argumentative manners. We tend to judge them back, belittle their embarrassments, and fume at the fact that they are questioning our morals and values. We disregard their opinions, especially when we find them to be contradicting to ours, and we are sometimes shocked at how daring they become in their oppositional and challenging actions. All of which lead to a great gap between us that begins to build up and to create very disconnected, lonely spaces for them and us, separately.
This is not how we've planned it or want it to be.
So, parents, there's work to be done. And no, it is never simple or easy, but it is effective. Roll up your sleeves, study each and every point made above regarding the changes your children are going through, and thrust to be there; literally and completely be there for them. Next, follow these guidelines, they lead straight to a smoother relationship between you and your soon to be a full blown teen.
- Now that you know Middle school is a tough transition, let them know you understand that. Don't minimize their struggles, express compassion, and enlighten them with your similar grim experiences. What you share with them about your own struggles is extremely meaningful to them.
- If they express distress over other kids teasing them, or fearing other kids are teasing them (remember your young teens are still very self-oriented which means the whole world is focused on them only), inform them how all children are feeling just as anxious as they are; how everyone else is always concerned with how others see them, will judge them, will accept them: it is a universal feeling at all ages for all of us in new situations, it is not just a concern for them alone.
- Respect their privacy more than before when it comes to their body. This is a time when a girl and a boy form the most crucial opinions about their body image. Be positive, avoid remarks such as: you look terrible with that shirt… are you really going out looking like that…? Instead, use a suggestive voice, express your opinions with a lot of compassion and humor, and stress as many good points about their appearance as you possibly can.
- Praise and encourage them when they express feelings of distress. Remember, all of us need support when we are struggling. Notice their mood swings and reflect what they are not saying: "School was hard today, ha…?" or "It's not easy getting to all your homework.", or "You seem to have a lot on your mind, I know the feeling."
- When they express embarrassment with you appearing at their school function or when they meet with their friends, respect their feelings and don't try to push yourself on them.
- When they express different opinions then yours, remember, they are testing and trying to shock you by seeing your reaction. Don't change your views and morals to accommodate their changes, but be open minded and listen between the lines. Their new ideas might reflect fears, misunderstandings, and rumors. Once again, be the wise adult that navigates them through life; yet allow them to grow into their own.
And most of all remember to use humor whenever possible! Laugh at yourself; laugh at the situation; laugh with them: you'll all make it through with less grudge.