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Getting through the preteen years, a time of change and opportunity

By Joe Bruzzese, M.A.

Adapted from the author’s book, A Parent’s Guide to the Middle School Years (Celestial Arts) Read review >>

One of the big frustrations of pre-teens and young adolescents is the feeling of being misunderstood. So a good starting point for any discussion of the middle-school years is to think about what kids this age wish their parents knew and really understood about them.

Here’s my list of pre-teens’ main concerns, drawn from conversations with them and their parents over the last 20 years. It highlights priority issues that, if neglected, can easily lead to frustration between family members.

As you read the list, keep in mind that young people’s perceptions of what they need and want are often different from what will actually move them forward in their development.

Be aware also that kids are not all the same and that your child’s needs are unique and continually broadening. Learning to appreciate your child’s changing perspectives while maintaining your own is an ongoing challenge but one worth pursuing.

What young people want their parents to know

“My friends are really important to me.” Allow me to hang out with my friends and also help make our family time fun and enjoyable.

“I like my privacy at home.” Help me learn to gain your respect at home. I want to feel respected.

“I like consistency but I won’t admit it.” Too much freedom with no consequences will lead me to trouble.

“Teach me how to make choices.” Don’t bail me out if I would learn an important life lesson by accepting the consequences of my choices.

“I appreciate having a list of things to do and a deadline for completing them.” Constant nagging bugs me.

“Please don’t choose my extracurricular activities or push me to participate in an activity when it’s obvious I’m not interested.”

“Let’s not argue about school.” If you expect me to get A’s and B’s, say so. Telling me to “do my best” doesn’t give me a clear picture of what you expect.

“When I’m feeling down, give me some time and space to sort out my emotions.” Just let me know that you’ll be ready to listen when I’m ready to talk.

“I’m noticing my appearance more now than I did in the past.” Please don’t comment on how I look, especially in public or around my friends. It’s embarrassing.

Focus on friendship

Middle school kicks relationships between kids up to a whole new level. Children encounter a sea of new faces if they change schools. They also get a full complement of new teachers and an increased academic load. For many young adolescents, it becomes a challenge to make new friends and keep their old ones from elementary school. In addition, there are subtle changes in a child’s physical and emotional development.

The onset of puberty increases self-awareness that’s brought on by intense peer scrutiny and leaves many young adolescents feeling emotionally insecure.

A fast-changing scene

It’s not uncommon for friendships and social groups to change from day to day in middle school, often without warning or explanation. With adolescence comes children’s need to rediscover their identity. They often approach this by trying out different social groups until they find one that gives them a sense of belonging. This cyclical pattern, however, can leave kids vulnerable to having their feelings hurt.

Advice for parents

Stand by for emotional support but allow normal adolescent ups and downs to play out. It’s difficult to see a teary-eyed child, but don’t take on the role of problem-solver or peer-mediator. Be supportive but also give children the freedom to find a peer group for themselves. Observe their circle of friends respectfully—without a lot of hovering or assuming the role of “friendship manager.”

What about cliques?

Unpleasant as cliques may be, they are an inevitable part of the middle school environment. They are similar to ordinary social groups, except that cliques typically refuse to accept new members—even those who share the same interests.

It is worth it?

Why do children try to fit in with groups that want to exclude them? Sometimes kids see the status and security that comes with group membership as worth the potential rejection. To a middle schooler, the prospect of walking the halls alone and being seen as a “loser” seems far worse than any possible abuse from being on the fringes of a popular group.

And for the child who is eager to connect with a new group of friends, it’s not always easy to differentiate between potential friends and foes.

Advice for parents

Help your child learn how to identify cliques, particularly those that bully or exclude based on a person’s appearance, interests or race.

Encourage your child to stick with friends who offer positive support. Explain that although it may take time to find the right niche, cliques will be easier to ignore once your child finds his or her own group of good friends.

Keeping communication open

Young adolescents may need your help, but they don’t like to ask for it. When it comes to talking about the details of their friendships, for example, many middle schoolers develop and are beginning to fine-tune their ability to use selective silence when parents ask questions.

Kids clam up about a lot of things at this point because they have a growing need to feel a unique sense of self. They want to stake a sole claim on certain parts of their lives and often view a parent’s questions as intrusive.

Here are some suggestions for opening up the lines of communication in your family:

Be aware that young kids anticipate the inevitable blast of parents’ questions at the end of the school day or over dinner. As often as you can, wait till a more relaxed time to talk. And, instead of starting each conversation with your own questions, try to say less and let your child do more of the talking. Most children like to talk if they’re given the opportunity.  What they don’t like are a rapid-fire barrage of questions and continued probing by their parents.

Try asking questions that begin with “how” rather than “why” or “what”. Starting a question with the word “why?” puts kids on the defensive. Asking “Why did you do it?” or “Why didn’t you try it that way?” requires a child to justify his or her actions and is perceived by many children as an accusation of wrongdoing.

When you ask questions like “How did you do that?” or “How did you find out about that?” you set the stage for your child to take control of the conversation. When you ask “How did you do so well on your test?” or “How did it feel when you heard the news?” you acknowledge your child’s abilities as well as his or her emotions.

Raising children in a digital world

Media in all its forms is everpresent is our kids’ lives. And it’s our responsibility as parents to help teach children to use itsafely and responsibly. There’s a lot of good advice and information out there to help families manage all this media. Our favorite is the free website

It’s a nonprofit organization that’s not trying to sell you products. It reviews and recommends movies, games, websites, TV programs, books and music for different age levels. It also addresses emerging issues related to social networking sites, texting, cyberbullying, violence in the media, and many more.

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