How parents can help their kids navigate tween to preteen years
EDITOR’S NOTE: As a parent, do you feel your child may be struggling through ages 11-21? Kelly Bennie, M.D., a pediatrician with Harpeth Pediatrics in Franklin has been researching this exact issue and has come up with a few recommendations of how parents can help.
I have been a pediatrician for nearly 20 years, so I have watched a good portion of my patients grow into and through adolescence.
Lately I have noticed a disturbing amount of them having significant difficulty navigating the years from 11 to 21. I keep asking myself why, especially in our community where the kids have supportive families and enjoy all the modern conveniences. Was it the same for me when I was that age? What is different for the youth of today? Is it just me, or are others noticing the same thing?
I began searching for answers to these questions a couple of years ago. I found that indeed, I am not alone in noticing there is something going on with our youth that is different from when we grew up.
If you are thinking this might be applicable to you, here are eight things I’ve learned through my research that can help:
1. Focus completely on your child as an individual. Tell your child from the beginning “you are you and there’s no one else like you.” Drill that in their heads before they get exposed to all the marketing messages that will tell them they don’t measure up to someone in the media. We have to encourage their uniqueness and teach them to celebrate diversity in others.
2. Teach your kids to do things around the house. Don’t do everything for them. Think about them moving into their own house one day and the basic things they will have to know like doing laundry and basic house maintenance. My dad taught me things like how to check the fuse box when the electricity went out to see if a breaker had been thrown, how to change the air filters in the AC vents, how to check your tire pressure or change a flat tire. Think of your child as your apprentice and teach them everything you know how to do.
3. Form a pact with other families. When you have young children, find a small group of other families and make a commitment to be there for each other for the next 20 years. This is a great way to fill in your family structure with your friends if your extended family isn’t close by. Studies show that trusted adults are most important to teens. Sometimes it is the parents but sometimes it is a friend of the family. By forming this close knit group, you will ensure multiple trusted adults with which your children will form relationships that may be helpful during a tough time in the future. Get together once a month or once a quarter. Exchange important events on the calendar like baseball games or recitals. Attend each other’s events. Do dinners with adults and kids sitting together. Let the kids observe the adult behavior. This gives them a sense of being raised in a community which contributes to the child’s formation of their identity.
4. Practice with them on how to engage socially. When I was younger, I would observe adult conversations when my parents would interact with other adults who they had invited over or who we ran into at the store. When my parents stopped to talk to someone, I had to stand there and wait until they were done and by default, I was soaking up their social interaction skills. Kids today don’t do that anymore. They might be standing there, but they are on their phones oblivious to the conversation. Take your kids with you when you run errands and insist they leave their phone in the car.
5. Pay attention to school progress. Schools are just different than they used to be. Teachers are forced to follow so many rules and guidelines that their focus is away from caring for the child like they used to be able to do. Because teachers are so overworked, it’s hard for them to delve deeper into the personal life of a child who they might notice is struggling outside the classroom. As parents, we might assume our child’s needs are being tended to or will be brought to our attention if the teacher notices something, but we can’t make that assumption and should be encouraging our kids to tell us what they are experiencing at school and how they are dealing with it. My high schooler has told me about things that are happening in study hall that he thinks are common but I am shocked, but I would never know if I didn’t ask. But you have to remember not to act surprised or rant or threaten to call the school or that will be the last thing they tell you. Just casually ask them how they are dealing with it or what they think about it.
6. Create a balance in your child’s activities. In this culture, kids are starting sports or whatever it is they show a knack for or interest in at much younger ages, but with that comes the dreaded labels. They start to say “I’m good or not good at this,” and they start comparing themselves to others much younger than they used to. Sports have become so performance-driven now that parents and coaches can easily overdo it by teaching children that winning or being the best is so important. We also have the means to give our kids more than they need and, of course, we want to give them whatever advantage it may be to help them to succeed. We buy the best equipment, private lessons, and ACT classes. I am guilty of this too; my list goes on and on. By the time a kid is 10, he already has been told and thus believes certain things about himself such as “I’m smart” or “I’m no good at soccer.” Heaven forbid a child starts playing soccer for the first time at 11, all his peers have been playing since they were 5. And at younger ages, kids are feeling the pressure to outperform one’s peers. Instead, they end up feeling like they have let someone down if they don’t perform up to someone’s expectations. Let’s say your child is not good at volleyball, but she really likes it. We need sports and other activities to be less results-driven and more into building one’s character. To give a child the chance to learn that it’s okay to be one of the mediocre players on the team. It’s better to learn a sense of being a good teammate while trying to get better despite whether that happens or not.
7. Demonstrate down time. As adults, we often don’t just sit quietly. So we aren’t teaching our kids to do that, either. You need time to reflect on things without electronics. Parents should incorporate down time where they ask their kids to go sit on the back porch with them, or play a board game or go get a milkshake and hang out. That leads to conversation. Remember those long car trips to grandma’s or on vacation? We didn’t have TVs in our car to while away the hours. There was nothing else to do but talk to each other. Now we are all seem too busy to do that. Again, we are so connected (to the digital world) that we are disconnected to humans. Research shows that kids don’t like to be too busy. So let them get bored once in a while. It’s good for them.
8. Teach patience and resilience. Even if parents do everything right, there will be times when things don’t go well for our kids. We have to teach them how to react well to disappointment or failure. This is hard for everyone, no matter your age. It takes lots of practice. The best way to teach your kids about this is to share your own experiences. Talk about times when you reacted poorly to an external circumstances and how looking back you should have reacted. I like the family discussion question “What mistake did you make today?” It reminds us that no one is perfect and it helps us practice admitting our faults.
Parents are the key to readying our children for adulthood
While we are doing our best to help our youth succeed, the processes we are using are severely missing the deeper connection that our kids need in order to grow up in a world that has changed so much from what we experienced.
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