Bonding With Your Teen
Everyone's heard the benefits – and the debates – about bonding with babies. Once you build that bond, most parents strive to keep that parent-child bond strong. During the elementary school years, that's pretty easy; kids are getting more autonomous, more articulate, and their parents are still the center of their worlds.
It becomes more difficult, but no less important, when that happy, candid elementary school child begins to become surly, secretive and solitary – in other words, when they hit the middle school or preteen years. However, if a parent has the right tools, both child and parent will survive these years with that important bond intact, and it will carry over through the teen years and into a happy, close adulthood.
A Bad Rap
Part of the reason parents never hear about bonding with their preteens is because the positive aspects of this time of life are rarely noted. Instead, parents hear horror stories about how mouthy their child will become, how sullen and disrespectful and how they will only want to be around friends, not parents. While this is partly true, the fact is that this age can be a lot of fun.
Margaret Sagarese is the co-author of The Roller Coaster Years: Raising Your Child Through the Maddening Yet Magical Middle-School Years (Broadway, 1997). She wrote the book, along with co-author Charlene C. Giannetti, after realizing that as their children approached adolescence, there were no positive resources to guide them through this sometimes frustrating phase. What was out there was either too negative or too authoritarian. Sagarese realized instinctively that neither of these approaches would work for her or for most people.
"When children reach this age, they no longer see things in black and white –they begin to perceive abstracts," she says. "It may be annoying to the parent when they become argumentative and disagreeable, but this is actually a good thing. As they start spending more time alone with peers, you want them to know how to argue and to state their opinions, so they're not just agreeably following along with what anyone suggests."
Sagarese quotes a fascinating study done at Ohio State University where researchers videotaped the interaction between children ages 11 to 15 and their parents. They found that as children go through early adolescence, parents become meaner toward their children. While the children are actually becoming more sensitive, the parents are becoming more negative. Other studies bolster these findings, showing that this age group is the most verbally abused of any other.
"I can tell you to communicate and be calm, but parents have to look in the mirror and take equal responsibility for some of the battles they are having with their children," says Sagarese.
Bolstering the Bond
The biggest mistake parents make at this phase, according to Sagarese, is to take it personally when their child begins to talk back. Although she doesn't advocate allowing a child to be disrespectful, she says parents need to be able to stay calm and not go on the defensive. Parents who react with anger will get anger back. The trick is to be sure the child understands that the parent will not tolerate disrespectful behavior, without being disrespectful to the child. This can require much tongue biting, but it's worth it in the long run.
Another important point that Sagarese makes is that, just like when your child was a headstrong 2-year-old and wanted to wear sandals in the middle of winter, you have to pick your battles. Sometimes this means there are many to choose from.
"Your daughter may come downstairs in the morning in a belly shirt with low pants, too much makeup, uncombed-looking hair and then refuse to eat breakfast," says Sagarese. "There are several battles waiting to happen right there. You just have to take a deep breath and try to stay calm."
At that point in the interview, I accused Sagarese of hiding in my closet and watching my family. My daughter is a classic example of the difficult, headstrong preteen. She's also my oldest, so she was my litmus test for handling adolescence. At first, I failed that test miserably. It didn't take long for me to discover that, as Sagarese says, hostility breeds hostility. This can break down the lines of communication at a time when they need to be open more than ever.
Although it may seem as if your child is tuning you out, a recent survey by Partners In Brainstorms surveyed girls ages 11 and 12 and found that when they are faced with a problem, 61 percent prefer to talk to their mom, 3 percent to their dad and 24 percent to their friends. At ages 16 and 17, 37 percent prefer Mom, 2 percent prefer Dad and 35 percent prefer friends. This is an age when your importance can't be underestimated.
Sometimes we just have to use our intuition to keep those lines of communication open. If your preteen is in a foul mood, that's probably not the best time to talk about their messy room. Find your moments. Dolly Kelly of Deep Creek, Md., always found that the car was the best place to have a heart-to-heart with her three children.
"With us all so busy and so many distractions at home, the car is always a quiet place where the only thing to focus on is each other," she says. "It just seems conducive to bringing up difficult topics, because you don't have to make that eye contact, and there just seems to be less uncomfortable squirming when discussing a touchy subject."
Activities for Parents and Preteens
Just as when they are very young, parents need to take an interest in what interests their middle-school-aged child. While it may have been cute to take them to their very first Sesame Street or Blue's Clues stage show, taking them to their first concert can have its own rewards. Also, try getting interested in whatever the fad of the moment is.
Sagarese, who ghostwrote a New York Times bestseller on Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, got involved in the subject of the life of a teen idol because of her daughter's interest.
"I had so much fun with my daughter, because everything she became interested in I became interested in," she says. "You can think their new interests are dumb, but if you get involved you never know where it might take you."