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by Laura Sessions Stepp

During early adolescence, when our kids are between 10 and 15, they start to ask in a serious way who they are, what they believe, and what they have to offer the world.

This is a crucial time„developmentally differently from the later teen years„because children are beginning to adopt patterns of thought and behavior that will stay with them for years to come. If we provide the right kind of guidance, we can help our kids find some of the answers they are looking for and make wise choices for the future.

Early adolescence is partially about loss. Our children lose their innocence, their unquestioning faith in adults, and their certainty about themselves and their place in the world. It is about loss for us, as well. We lose our kidsÍ adoration, their physical need for us, and to some extent, our sense of control. 

But adolescence is also about gains„big gains. In giving up their old roles, our kids take on new ones. And with few exceptions, they donÍt turn into unrecognizable monsters. They just become more of who they are. If we liked them most of the time when they were 3, 4, and 5, chances are weÍll like them when theyÍre 13, 14, and 15„most of the time. 

And make no mistake; parents still have a key role to play.

The research is consistent: young adolescents go back and forth between wanting to separate and wanting to connect. While they look to friends for guidance in dress, music, hairstyles, and entertainment, they rely on their families for affection and basic values„no matter how they may act. 

There are steps we can take, indeed, must take, if we want to increase the odds that our sons and daughters will grow up to be happy and responsible adults.

All parents are faced with the same dilemma: Is this the time to accept your kids just as they are and stop trying to change them? Or should you continue to push for the parts you feel need improvement.
  • Encourage, but donÍt push, said the kids I talked to for my book. Challenge us to do better, but loosen the ties. Let us start making some mistakes. Praise us when we exceed your expectations, but donÍt make us feel thereÍs something seriously wrong with our half-finished form.
  • Think of it this way. When a wobbly toddler takes a tumble, we donÍt say, ñBoy, what a klutz. SheÍll never learn to walk.î We say, ñOops, try again.î ThatÍs exactly the attitude we need to adopt with our young teens. Despite their sophisticated appearance, they are still wonderful works in progress.
  • At this age, young teens know that some mistakes can have serious consequences„for themselves and for others. So we need to make it clear what the big blunders are: ñI can tolerate a messy room most of the time, but IÍll be deeply disappointed if you lie to me.

News reports of guns and violence make parents rein in their children exactly at a time when kids need to begin to make their way into the world. Such restrictions, while understandable and well intentioned, are lamentable. Among the youth I followed over time for my book, it was easy to pick out those who had been overly sheltered. They were shyer and less self-confident than the savvier kids were, or they were aggressive and even hostile.

One of the Dads I interviewed had mastered two strategies that recent studies say characterize successful parenting of adolescents. He limited his sonÍs exposure to truly dangerous situations as best he could. At the same time, he encouraged him to seek out new circumstances and taught his son skills that would enable him to take care of himself wherever he was.

As parents of young adolescents, itÍs not easy to give up the idea of control. But events will yank it out of our hands, anyway. This doesnÍt mean that we relinquish our influence over our children. It means that we replace control with communication. Kids have to learn to take control of their own lives„and how well we communicate with them will help determine their success in doing it.

Communication starts by asking good questions and listening closely to the answers before we jump in. It means matching our actions with our words and communicating our values and morals, our likes and dislikes through our behavior.

Communication also means sharing, and as our kids enter adolescence, we begin to share them with a wider audience„relatives, teachers, coaches, neighbors, storekeepers, parents of their friends. Young adolescents forget (or donÍt want) to tell us lots of things, but if weÍre plugged into this larger community, we learn many of these things anyway. The most successful parents IÍve met were those who talked regularly with each other and everyone else about their children. They may have stood at the edge of their childrenÍs lives, but they knew what was at the center.

The key task in a young personÍs search for identity is discovering what he or she is good at. True self-awareness and self-esteem donÍt come from being praised all the time, but from performing challenging tasks well, in activities that are valued by the people kids care about. With increasingly stronger bodies, keener cognitive skills, and budding creativity, young teenagers practically cry out for pursuits that go beyond filling out ditto sheets or washing dishes.

Paid jobs are appropriate for many kids, if the number of hours is kept down. Volunteer work also appeals to a young teenagerÍs newfound idealism. And beyond minimal chores at home, we need to ask ourselves what other significant responsibilities a child can assume: build a bookcase, shop for groceries, or balance a checkbook. One reason so many kids this age become whizzes at the computer is that they know their parents are not. They love being the in-house expert.

Encourage children to take on tasks that involve increasing levels of skill and responsibility, showing appreciation for their efforts as well as accomplishments.

  • Expose kids early to a variety of possible interests and talents. Enlist support from others for their enthusiasm.
    Ask for childrenÍs opinions about consequential matters and show respect for their answer
  • Find ways to show how much you love your kids even when theyÍre being unlovable„fathers of daughters, especially
  • Nurture childrenÍs friendships. Keep your home open to friends. Get to know friendsÍ parents..
  • Ask children to help set their own rules, as well as the consequences of failing to abide by those rules. Enforce consistently.
  • Quietly observe your childÍs world and the people in it. State clearly what is acceptable behavior, allowing as much room as possible to act ñnormal,î according to your childÍs definition.
  • Consider young teens as resources, not problems. Speak up in public for your children and others.
  • Prepare children for the world outside and then propel them toward it.
  • Hold on to family routines. Find out activities to do together regularly.

(adapted from Work & Family Life newsletter, edited by Susan Ginsberg)


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