by Laura Kastner, Ph.D.
I was preparing a keynote speech for the 180th North Pacific Pediatric Society today and it occurred to me that I should share the highpoints directly with parents. Have you read about the research which shows how much medical care can be improved in intensive care units when checklists are followed? With the complex and emotional realities of home lives, why should we expect raising rascals to be any less mentally taxing than the average surgery?
Research has documented that most teens will experience more moodiness, emotional reactivity and risk-taking, all of which can be very challenging for parents. Tweens and teens can drive their parents crazy with the way they argue for the sake of arguing, lapse into illogical thinking and dramatic interpretations of their plights, have meltdowns over what seem like small inconveniences, find fault with everything (especially their parents), and become maddeningly self-centered. Power struggles and arguments mushroom on the home-front, and parents wonder where their sweet child disappeared to.
I want to provide parents with a checklist of parenting strengths (of which there is an expanded version in my co-authored book, Getting to Calm) which is associated with academic, social and emotional competence in maturing teens. My hope is that parents of 4th and 5th graders can institute as many of these practices as possible as they ready themselves for the “molting age.”
1. Control media and electronic use and avoid giving into excessive materialistic desires. Keep TV’s out of bedrooms, limit screen time, monitor initial cell and social networking to track rule compliance, and remember how hard it to get the genie back into the bottle. A focus on character development and working hard for goodies needs to trump the thrill of getting and spending.
2. Don’t let up on family dinner rituals. Family dinners are probably associated with success for teenagers because they reflect a family’s level of organization, family priority, healthful values and follow-through. The dinner experience can be miserable with moody teens, so no wonder people scrap them all too often. But by random chance, sometimes they can be a blast.
3. Keep chores a priority—they are a vital preparation for life. Kids are only “spoiled” if they are allowed to be. Too many parents think a tween’s “busy” life is an excuse to let chores go by the wayside. American teens are often indulged and entitled; helping with family chores, errands and meal preparation is a way that they learn to take responsibility for themselves, others and community needs.
4. Let your kids struggle, fail and learn, both socially and academically. One of the hardest parenting calls is to figure out how to let children be challenged but not overwhelmed as they practice their own problem solving. Parents need to rescue when necessary, but remember that struggle builds competence and confidence.
5. Keep having fun and building the family bank account of positive emotions. Due to the moodiness and negativity that erupts naturally from teen brain and pubertal development, the tween and teen will be constantly making withdrawals from this account, to no fault of their own. Thus, parents must figure out ways to infuse this account with laughter, joy and frolic. Since kids are nastiest with their own parents, invite family and friends over regularly to keep the good times rolling.
6. Support your tween’s academic development. Disallow any electronic other than music for homework time. Go to school events and conferences and demonstrate a value on the connection to school that should prevail through high school. Middle school is the time to establish a high value on achievement—but not perfection! Teachers should be consulted if you have concerns.
7. Insist that your tween participate in athletic activities over the full year. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a full hour of physical activity per day for tweens and teens. The easiest way to approach this standard is participation in team sports at school, and you get the bonus of “bonding to school” which is one of the determinants of positive teen adjustment.
8. Encourage at least one extracurricular activity at all times and keep this expectation intact through-out high school. Although we’ve all heard of the “overscheduled” child syndrome, just as concerning is the other end of the spectrum, which is the child who is not developing pro-social hobbies, talents and skills in public service.
9. Practice authoritative parenting, which includes firm limits and boundaries, warmth and connectedness, and effective communication. Parents of tweens in middle school should monitor and supervise their children closely, keep a mostly positive and loving connection, and be skillful in “picking their battles” and eliminating unproductive arguments and stalemates with surly tweens.
10. Role model skills in emotional regulation. Teens lack emotional self control due to both the immaturity of their prefrontal cortices and the impact of hormones. Therefore, parents are on the line to role model their own self calming. During meltdowns, a skillful parent does not talk “under the influence” of intense negative emotion and postpones problem solving to calmer moments.
11. Be proactive about talking to your teens about sexuality, substance use, violence and media literacy. Don’t be one of those parents who wants to, intends to, needs to…but doesn’t. Ignore the rolling eyes, and “just do it.”
12. Build family resilience and spirituality by your own conduct and values. Life is composed of an endless series of problems and challenges to all of us. We develop a sense of purpose and integrity through our efforts to cope with adversity, meet challenges with compassion, and demonstrate acceptance, optimism and commitment in our relationships.