As a parent of four children who range in age from elementary to early teen years, I rarely feel like I am meeting every parenting challenge with great success. No other thing I do challenges me to the extent that parenting does. Despite the books I’ve read, classes I’ve taken (and taught!), nothing has prepared me for its surprises and new experiences. No other occupation can so intertwine the daily drudgeries necessary for care taking with the complete unexpectedness and delight of four small portions of humanity, interacting in mischievous and sometimes delightful ways with each other.
So then, why am I writing this article, after just this week experiencing socks being flushed down the toilet, being ambushed by Nerf gun warfare and hearing new heights of literary fantasy put to use in description of sibling brains?
Part of the reason that I risk giving suggestions to other parents is that I have observed some things that do work – not just in our family, but in many others also. With four children on the threshold of their teen years, I am more sensitive to what can be done now that may help them through this potentially difficult time.
Just what is it that makes these years so “potentially difficult”? I believe it is the combination of peer devaluation along with a teenager’s emerging independence from his/her own parents and greater reliance on outside opinions. Devaluation from peers can be expected, especially if the child does not perfectly meet up to our society’s standards of beauty, brains or athletic ability. Our child’s ability to handle the devaluation may depend to a great extent, on what resources and relationships we provide to them in their preteen years.
These are a few strategies, when thoughtfully implemented in our homes, that build a solid foundation for our children as they metamorphasize from child to adult:
1. Examine your family values and how they are communicated in your home. Recognize that the values in our society with their emphasis on beauty, athletics or moneymaking abilities are not what bring true happiness. Teach your children that quality of life depends more on internal qualities demonstrated through acts of kindness, truthfulness, courage, responsibility, fidelity, self discipline and justice, to name a few.
2. Teach your children a “No Knock Policy”. Children in the home are not allowed to put themselves down, or others down. Verbally reward a young child for using positive descriptions and set the example yourself of using five positive comments for every correction you give them.
3. Encourage your preteen to follow through on an interest, to develop competence in something they enjoy or show ability in. This will help hold your teen’s self esteem in place when they feel discouraged about themselves. Competence is something that cannot be taken away. Point out the areas they do well in, to get them started.
4. Communicate regularly and individually, with each child. If possible, plan a special “date” with each child on a regular basis. Let your child know you are vitally interested in their interests by asking them questions and listening to their responses. This is the “fast track” to building better relationships with them.
5. If one child is presenting with problematic behavior, deal with him privately. Don’t allow other siblings or yourself as a parent to label any one child as “the problem”, but rather say, “We have a problem here with this situation, how can we deal with it?” Then make a plan with the child to deal with it proactively. We might start by saying, “This just isn’t like you…”
6. Family meetings are a preemptive way to resolve crises before they begin. The meetings can happen at a set time, or around the supper table one night a week. This is a good time to note “what’s working well” in the family, as well as providing an opportunity to discuss concerns before they create crises. For example, if you note an increasing trend in name calling, you can discuss the impact of negative comments and how they detrimentally affect the whole family. Remember to always finish the meeting with encouragement.
7. Encourage healthy friendships with your child’s peers. Get involved as “the mom” or “the dad” that the kids like. Despite the mess and disorganization, let it be your home that the kids want to come to after school. Know where your kids are and what they are doing, always. Expect accountability for their whereabouts with phone calls or notes. I remember one teenager complaining to her friend about her mom always having to know where she was – the other’s response was, “At least your mom cares about you.” Our kids protest these things at times, and sometimes as parents, we have to give our kids the right things to protest about!
8. Finally, adjust your expectations to realistic ones. I know I am not a perfect parent – and my children are not going to be perfect either. One of the things I can expect during this time of “hormonal fluctuation” is that my preteens will be irritable occasionally, out of sorts, and looking for an argument. In fact, they sort of sound like me before I’ve had my morning coffee! What they need from us is a steadiness – a stability in direction, values and unconditional love for them.
Oh yes – and maybe they need me to have my morning coffee before I interact with them too