By Donna de Levante Raphael
Pride Parenting Columnist
I avidly remember the days when my child was constantly by my side. There were times when it felt a little cumbersome and perhaps exhausting, but very comforting. There is comfort in knowing where your kids are at all times, so comforting that we as parents feel certain that it will always be that way. Nevertheless, the tween years arrive, and independence rears its ugly head to the tune of squeaky voices that whine, “Mom can I go to the mall with my friends?” or “We’re all going to hang out at Michaels’ house.” With the onset of preadolescence, parents must decide just how much independence their child is ready to manage. Here is some advice to guide parents down the slippery road to their tween’s independence.
Tighten and Loosen the Reins
Parenting an adolescent is quite similar to managing the reins of a horse. First, there is the gradual loosening of the reins to give the child opportunities to demonstrate responsibility. Alternately, there is a need for tightening, a time when Mom or Dad must make it known that they are still the ones in charge. Most frequently, the process is ongoing, and it varies greatly with each child. Nobody knows the child better than the parent, but it’s critical to keep the lines of communication open.
Many parents put a priority on staying home during their child’s elementary years, but then when middle school comes along, they don’t realize how much their child still needs them to be involved.
Keep in mind that middle schoolers need their parents much more than they think they do. They have started to test their independence, but they lack knowledge of the world and in most cases lack common sense.
Still, parents are often relieved that their child can finally stay home alone, at least without doing something dangerous like playing with matches or answering the door to a stranger. For this reason, it’s tempting to give them too much responsibility simply because it’s more convenient for the parent.
With technology the way it is, tweens need more guidance and supervision than ever. This is the time when they start making choices, and without parental guidance, they may make improper choices. If any, that means parents need to ratchet it up a notch by increasing their parental control. Communicate with your child and be aware of what is going on in your child’s life. At the same time, give her more independence and see how she handles it. Remember, each child is markedly different, with huge variances in social, emotional and physical maturity. This is a time when a child’s physical appearance may be inconsistent with their emotional maturity.
Unfortunately, when parents are ready to communicate with their tween, the child may not be ready to listen or share. He may not have had a chance to formulate his thoughts, or he may simply be operating on a different timeline. That timeline may well be when the exhausted parent is finally slipping into bed for a long-awaited good night’s rest.
Interestingly enough, most middle school students do their thinking in the evening, coincidentally when parents tend to be exhausted. As parents, we need to work on their timeframe shifts because some of the best relationships are based on late in the evening discussions when the child is going to bed or is in bed.
It’s a time when they are more relaxed and willing to share, and they have had a chance to think about themselves. Long gone are the days when parents read a bedtime story with their child. Now it’s time to sit in a chair next to the bed and talk. Always acknowledge that you’re listening also.
The best times to talk are when you are doing activities together. That may be when you’re shopping or playing a sport. It may be in the simplest day-to-day thing, like driving them to their activities. It’s important to be involved in these things so you are available when they want to open up.
A good time to engage in a conversation is when something appears on television, such as an incident involving drug abuse. The parent might say, “Do you anybody who does that?”
Most important, don’t wait until there’s a problem. Instead, discuss things before they happen and make it part of everyday ongoing conversations. At the same time, don’t lecture, don’t judge and definitely don’t be aggressive because they will shut down and it will take a long time before they will share with you again. It’s also a big turn off for tweens.
Parents may also need to ask better questions. If Dad asks, “What did you do in school today?’ they’re response might be, “Nothing.” Try asking a question that is less vague, such as “what did you do in math today?” If the answer is the same, then ask “What did you do in math today, did you open the book? What were the problems on the page?” the answer might be, “There were some fractions.” Then the parent can now ask how many problems the child completed. When is the next test? The child may respond that he did only half of the problems, followed by an opportunity for Dad to say, “It looks like you have some studying to do?’ This is so much better than just asking the child if he has homework, and Dad can then offer to help with the homework and studying, if help is needed.
Preadolescents are rarely willing to talk. That’s why making the discussions part of a routine is so important. If Mom or Dad says, “Let’s sit down and talk,” the child may refuse to respond or ask to be left alone.
They are so changeable at this age. Sometimes they’ll confide in you and tell you every little detail. At other times, they clam up and want their space. If you can tell something is wrong but they won’t talk about it, tell them you will check in on them later and then wait until they calm down or cool down before you try again.
Don’t ever let things go. Experts agree that there needs to be some accountability.
Parents still need to hold their child accountable, according to the experts. If not the child thinks there are no repercussions. That means asking questions, such as: Where will you be? Who will you be with? How can I reach you? These are some very fair and legitimate questions.
This is the age when even good, well-behaved kids begin to test the limits. Most will test out a scenario where they say they’ll be one place and go to another, for instance. It’s important that they learn that you are on top of things. They need to know that you care enough to check on them and that you were once their age also.
Never be afraid to check up on your child. There can even be a reward if they live up to the expectation that have been set. For instance, after several honest and truthful trips to a friend’s house, the child might be rewarded an extra half-hour with his friends.
Remember, that our children need to earn the reward. And that reward after many times of telling the truth. Don’t forget that tweens are not long-range planners. They live in the here and now, so they need to be reminded of their responsibilities frequently.
Make it a give and take conversation between parent and tween. For example, Mom might ask her daughter how long she thinks she is allowed to stay at the mall. If the daughter replies that six hours is a fair amount of time but Mom thinks that a five-hour time period is more appropriate, Mom could say, “How about five hours? And you need to check in every two hours, I will come and get you.” that’s an immediate consequence, and it holds the child accountable.
Regardless, some things seem trivial. Should parents pick their battles? The safety and well-being of your child is always worth fighting for. Parents have the right to know what’s going on in their child’s life.
More important, picking your battles can send a mixed message. Picking your battles does not mean condoning the behaviour. Some experts feel that the parent needs to pick their battles, because if you choose to fight over every perceived disrespect (such as eye rolling), you will be in constant battle. You need to work towards positive interaction, while still letting them know that they need to respect and listen to you. Likewise, at this age it is important to begin communicating with them a little differently. Listen to their opinions and allow some discussion. Really communicate to them that you are hearing their side.
Parents need to give reasons when they disapprove of something. For instance, regarding inappropriate clothing choices, Mom might say, “I don’t approve of what you’re wearing because it sends a negative message” or “I don’t approve of what you’re wearing because older boys may look at you.”
Parents can open the lines of communication simply through explanation. Dad might say, “When you do this, I am affected by it, because it makes me worry.” After all, what happens if dad is 20 minutes late picking up the child from sports practice? The child screams, “Where were you? I was worried.” They need to learn that accountability works both ways.
Regulating tween independence is no easy task, and it’s one that requires constant vigilance and dedication. Now is the time when parents need to make themselves available and willing to listen. When the teenage years arrive, kids will be faced with even more decisions.
Former writer and publisher of the parenting magazine I-Parent and women’s magazine Cayman Woman. Currently working on editing a new parenting media site and releasing a parenting book. To contact Donna de Levante Raphael: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more parenting information visit -’Village Parent’ Facebook page. “Like” us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/VillageParent.