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How Much Independence Should Parents Give To Young Teens?

As kids enter the teenage years, they often beg for more freedom. Moms and dads walk a tightrope between (a) wanting their kids to be confident and able to do things for themselves and (b) knowing that the world can be a scary place with threats to their kid’s health and safety.

Some moms and dads allow too much of the wrong kind of freedom, or they offer freedom before the teen is ready to accept it. Other moms and dads cling too tightly, denying young adolescents both the responsibilities they require to develop maturity and the opportunities they need to make choices and accept their consequences.

Research tells us that teenagers do best when they remain closely connected to their moms and dads, but at the same time, are allowed to have their own points of view – and even to disagree with their mother or father.

Here are 10 crucial parenting tips to help you balance closeness and independence:

1. Teenagers look to their moms and dads first and foremost in shaping their lives. When it comes to morals and ethics, political beliefs and religion, adolescents almost always have more in common with their parents than their parents believe. As a mother or father, you should look beyond the surface, beyond the specific behaviors to who your youngster is becoming. Your adolescent may want to dye her hair orange or pierce her lip, but these expressions may be independent of her sense of who she is and who she will become.

At the same time that many of your youngster's behaviors are ultimately harmless, some of them may not only be harmful but also deadly. Moms and dads need to talk to their kids and make it clear that many of the major threats to their future health and happiness are not a matter of chance, but are a matter of choice (e.g., drinking and driving, smoking, drugs, sexual activity, dropping out of school, etc.). Teenagers who engage in one risky behavior are more likely to participate in others, so moms and dads need to be front and center, talking to their kids about the negative consequences of getting started down the wrong path.

2. Most young adolescents respond best to specific instructions, which are repeated regularly. For example, don't just say, “I want your room clean,” because they don't know what that means. Say instead (in a non-argumentative way), “This is how I see a clean room: the clothes are off the floor, the bed is made, and the lamp is on the desk rather than the floor.” Your child may say something like, “I don't really want the lamp over here …I want it over there.” In this case, give your child the freedom to express himself or herself.

3. Choices make young adolescents more open to guidance. For example, you can tell your daughter that her English homework must be done before bedtime, but that she has a choice of completing it either before or after dinner. And you can tell your 13-year-old son that he can't hang around the video arcade with his friends on Friday night, but he can have a group of friends over to your house to watch a movie.

Using humor and creativity as you give choices may also make your youngster more willing to accept them. One mother couldn't get her son to hang up clean clothes or put dirty clothes in the laundry basket. So she gave him two options: either all the clothes had to be picked up, or everything would go on the floor. The mother later commented, "I was washing the clothes and then putting them in piles on the floor. It made me crazy, but it worked." After two weeks, her son got tired of the stacks on the floor and began picking up his clothes.

4. The more mature and responsible a young adolescent's behavior is, the more privileges moms and dads can grant. You might first give your child the right to choose which tennis shoes to buy within a certain price range. Later you can let her make other clothing purchases (with the understanding that price tags won't be removed until you approve the items). Eventually, you can give her a clothing allowance to spend as she likes.

5. It’s important for moms and dads to strike a good balance between “laying down the law” and allowing too much freedom. With most young adolescents, it's easiest to maintain this balance by guiding but not controlling. Adolescents need opportunities to explore different roles, try on new personalities and experiment. They need to learn that choices have consequences. That means making some mistakes and accepting the results. But moms and dads need to provide guidance so that their children avoid making too many poor choices. You can guide by being a good listener and by asking questions that help your youngster to think about the results of his actions, for example, "What might happen if you let someone who is drunk drive you home?"

Your guidance may be better appreciated if you ask your youngster's advice on a range of matters – and follow the advice if it seems reasonable, for example, "What should we cook for your father’s birthday?" Also, the fine line between guiding and controlling may be different for different kids. Some kids, whether they are 8 or 18, need firmer guidance and fewer privileges than do other kids at the same age.

6. The most important responsibility you have as a mother or father is to protect your youngster's health and safety. Your youngster needs to know that your love for him requires you to veto activities and choices that threaten either of these. Let him know what things threaten his health and safety – and put your foot down! Doing this may be difficult, however, because teenagers have a sense that nothing can hurt them. At the same time that your child feels that everything he experiences is new and unique, he also believes that what happens to others will not happen to him. His beliefs are based on the fact that the teenage years are the healthiest period of time during our lives. In this period, physical illnesses are not common, and fatal disease is rare. The important thing to emphasize to your youngster is that, while he may be very healthy, death and injury during the teenage years are most often caused by violence and accidents.

7. We, as parents, want our kids to eventually become healthy grown-ups who can solve problems and make good choices. These abilities are a critical part of being independent. To develop these abilities, however, young adolescents on occasion may need to fail, provided the stakes aren't too high and no one's health or safety is at risk. Making mistakes also allows adolescents to learn one critical skill: how to bounce back. It's hard for a youngster to learn how to pick herself up and start over if her mother always rescues her from difficulties.

8. Don’t lose credibility in your child’s eyes. For example, if you tell your son that he must be home by 9:30 p.m., do not ignore his 11:30 p.m. arrival. You lose credibility with your youngster if he suffers no consequences for returning home 2 hours late. However, the consequence should fit the “crime.” Grounding a youngster for an entire month restricts the entire family. Instead, you might talk with him about how coming in 2 hours late has affected you. You've been up worrying and have missed your sleep. But you'll still have to get up the next morning at your regular time, make breakfast, do your chores and get to work on time. Because his lack of consideration has made your life harder, he will have to complete some of your chores so that you can get to bed earlier the next night.

9. Some battles aren't worth fighting. It may offend you if your daughter wears a shirt to school that clashes wildly with her pants, but this isn't a choice that can cut off future possibilities for her. Young adolescents may have a growing sense of the future, but they still lack the experiences required to fully understand how a decision they make today can affect them tomorrow. They may have heard that smoking is unhealthy, but they do not fully understand what it means to die of lung cancer at the age of 42. Talk to your kids about the lifelong consequences of choices they make. Help them understand there are good and bad decisions, and that knowing one from the other can make all the difference in their lives. Let your youngster know that you are "the keeper of options" until she is old enough and responsible enough to assume this responsibility.

10. All kids resist limits from time to time, but they want them – and they need them. In a world that can seem too hectic for grown-ups and teenagers alike, limits provide security. Oftentimes, teenagers whose moms and dads do not set limits feel unloved. Setting limits is most effective when it begins early. It is harder but not impossible, however, to establish limits during the early teenage years.

When Teens Refuse to Talk to Parents

"My teenage daughter has stopped talking to us. She just shuts us out. What can I do to get her to open up?"

Teenagers often aren't great communicators, particularly with their moms and dads and other grown-ups who love them. Adolescents often feel they can talk with anyone better than their mother or father. They tend to be private, and don't necessarily want to tell parents what they did at school today.

Many psychologists have found, however, that when moms and dads know where their kids are and what they are doing (and when the teen knows the parent knows), teens are at a lower risk for a range of problems (e.g., drug, alcohol and tobacco use; sexual behavior and pregnancy; delinquency and violence, etc.). The key is to be inquisitive – but not interfering. Work to respect your youngster's privacy as you establish trust and closeness. It's easiest to communicate with an adolescent if you established this habit when your youngster was little. You don't suddenly dive in during the 9th grade and say, “So what did you do with your friends last night?”

But it's not impossible to improve communication when your youngster reaches the teenage years. Here are some tips:

1. Avoid over–reacting. Responding too strongly can lead to yelling, and it can shut down conversation. Try to keep anxiety and emotions out of the conversation—then most children will open up. Instead of getting angry, it's better to ask, “What do you think about what you did? Let's talk about this.” Children are more likely to be open if they look at you as somebody who is not going to spread their secrets or get extremely upset if they confess something to you. For example, if your kid says, “I've got to tell you something. Friday night I tried smoking pot,” and you go off the deep end, he won't tell you again. At a time when they are already judging themselves critically, teens make themselves vulnerable when they open up to moms and dads. You already know that the best way to encourage a behavior is to reward it. If you are critical when your son talks to you, what he sees is that his openness gets punished rather than rewarded.

2. Communicate with kindness and respect. Adolescents can say or do things that are outrageous and mean-spirited. However hard your youngster pushes your buttons, it's best to respond calmly. The respect and self-control that you display in talks with your youngster may someday be reflected in her conversations with others. How you say something is as important as what you say. Communicating with respect also requires not talking down to teens. They are becoming more socially conscious and aware of events in the world, and they appreciate thoughtful conversations.

3. Create opportunities to talk. To communicate with your youngster, you need to make yourself available. Teens resist "scheduled" talks. They don't open up when you tell them to, but when they “want” to. Some adolescents like to talk when they first get home from school. Others may like to talk at the dinner table or at bedtime. Some moms and dads talk with their kids in the car. Moms and dads need to grab odd moments and have deep communication with their teenagers.

4. Just listen. You need to spend a lot of time not talking. Listening means to avoid interrupting and to pay close attention. This is best done in a quiet place with no distractions. It's hard to listen carefully if you're also trying to cook dinner or watch television. Often just talking with your youngster about a problem or an issue helps to clarify things. Sometimes the less you offer advice, the more your adolescent will ask you for it. Listening can also be the best way to uncover a more serious problem that requires your attention.

5. Realize that no magic tip exists for successful communication. What works for getting one youngster to talk about what's important doesn't always work with another one.

6. Talk over differences. Communication breaks down for some moms and dads because they find it hard to manage differences with their youngster. It's often easiest to limit these differences when you have put in place clear expectations. For example, if your 14-year-old son knows he's to be home by 9:00 p.m.—and if he knows the consequences for not meeting this curfew—the likelihood that he will be home on time increases. Differences of opinion are easier to manage when we recognize that these differences can provide important opportunities for us to rethink the limits and to negotiate new ones, a skill that is valuable for your youngster to develop. When differences arise, telling your youngster your concerns firmly but calmly can prevent differences from becoming battles. Explaining why your youngster made - or wants to make - a poor choice is more constructive (e.g., “Dropping out of your algebra class will cut off lots of choices for you in the future. Some colleges won't admit you without two years of algebra. Let's get you some help with algebra.").

7. Talk about things that are important to your adolescent. Different youngsters like to talk about different things. Some of the things they talk about may not seem important to you, but with teenagers, sometimes it's like a different culture. You need to try to understand this, to put yourself in their place and time. Don’t pretend to be excited about something that bores you. By asking questions and listening, however, you can show your youngster that you respect her feelings and opinions. Here are topics that generally interest teens:
  • Culture and current events: Ours is a media-rich world. Even young kids are exposed to television, music, movies, video and computer games and other forms of media. Remember, though, that the media can provide a window into your teen's world. For example, if you and your youngster have seen the same movie (together or separately), you can ask her whether she liked it and what parts she liked best.
  • Emotions: Teens worry about a lot of different things. They worry about their friends, being popular, sexuality, being overweight or scrawny, tomorrow's math test, grades, getting into college, being abandoned and the future of the world, and so on. Sometimes it's hard to know if a problem seems big to your youngster. If your child is unsure, you can ask questions like, "Is this a small problem, a medium problem or a big problem? How important is it to you? How often do you worry about it?" Figuring out the size and importance of the problem helps your child decide how to address it.
  • Family: Teens like to talk about - and be involved in - plans for the whole family, (e.g., vacations) as well as things that affect them individually (e.g., curfews or allowances). If, for example, you need change jobs, your youngster will want to know ahead of time. She may also want to learn more about your new job. Being a part of conversations about such topics can contribute to your youngster's feelings of belonging and security.
  • Hobbies and personal interests: If your youngster loves sports, talk about his favorite team or event or watch the World Series or the Olympics with him. Most teens are interested in music. Music has been the signature of every generation. It defines each age group. Moms and dads ought to at least know the names of popular singers. It's important, however, to tell your youngster when you believe that the music he is listening to is inappropriate—and to explain why. Your silence can be misconstrued as approval.
  • Parents’ lives, hopes and dreams: Many teens want a window to their mother’s and father’s world, both past and present (e.g., How old were you when you got your ears pierced? Did you ever have a teacher who drove you crazy? Did you get an allowance when you were 11? If so, how much? Were you sad when your grandpa died? What is your boss like at work?). This doesn't mean you are obligated to dump all of your problems and emotions into your youngster's lap. You are the parent – not a “buddy,” and an inappropriate question may best be left answered. However, recounting some things about your childhood and your life today can help your youngster sort out his own life.
  • School: If you ask your youngster, "What did you do in school today?" …she most likely will answer, "Nothing." Of course, you know that isn't true. By looking at your youngster's assignment book or reading notices sent home by the school, you will know that on Friday, your child began studying the Civil War or that the homecoming football game is next week. With this information, you then can ask your youngster about specific classes or activities, which is more likely to start a conversation.
  • Sensitive subjects: Families should handle sensitive subjects in a way that is consistent with their values. Remember, though, that avoiding such subjects won't make them go away. If you avoid talking with your youngster about sensitive subjects, she may turn to the media or her friends for information. This increases the chances that what she hears will be out of line with your values or that the information will be wrong.
  • The future: As the cognitive abilities of teens develop, they begin to think more about the future and its possibilities. Your youngster may want to talk more about what to expect in the years to come (e.g., life after high school, jobs and marriage). She may ask questions like, "What is it like to live in a college dormitory?" "How old do you have to be to get married?" "Is there any chance that the world will blow up some day?" "Will there be enough gasoline so that I can drive a car when I get older?" These questions deserve the best answers that you can provide (and those that you can't answer deserve an honest, "I don't know.").

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

Helping Your Difficult Child Through the Tough Middle School Years

Moms and dads often become less involved in the lives of their kids as they enter the middle grades. But your child needs as much attention and love from you as she needed when she was younger—and maybe more. A good relationship with parents is the best safeguard the youngster has as she grows and explores. By the time she reaches the teenage years, you and she will have had years of experience with each other. The mother or father of today's little girl is also the parent to tomorrow's teen.

Your relationship with your youngster will almost certainly change after elementary school. In fact, most parents report that their child's behavior changed drastically (for the worse) once he or she entered the 7th grade. But, these changes can be rewarding and welcome if treated appropriately. As your middle school youngster makes mental and emotional leaps, your conversations will grow richer. As his interests develop and deepen, he may begin to teach YOU (e.g., how to hit a baseball, what is happening with the city council or county board, why a new movie is worth watching, etc.).

According to the research, when their difficult children enter middle school, effective mothers and fathers exhibit the following qualities:

1. Middle school kids need strong role models. Try to live the behavior and values that you hope your youngster will develop. Your actions speak louder than words. If you set high standards for yourself and treat others with kindness and respect, your youngster stands a better chance of following your example. As these children explore possibilities of who they may become, they look to their moms and dads, friends, well-known personalities, and others to define who they may become.

2. The middle school years are a time for exploring many areas and doing new things. Your youngster may try new sports and new academic pursuits and read new books. She may experiment with different forms of art, learn about different cultures and careers and take part in community or religious activities. Within your means, you can open doors for your youngster. You can introduce her to new people and to new worlds. In doing so, you may renew in yourself long-ignored interests and talents, which also can set a good example for your youngster. Don't be discouraged when her interests change.

3. Middle school kids need support as they struggle with problems that may seem unimportant to their moms and dads. They need praise when they've done their best. They need encouragement to develop interests and personal characteristics.

4. Middle school kids need moms and dads who consistently provide structure and supervision that is firm and appropriate for age and development. Limits keep them physically and emotionally safe.

5. When your kids behave badly, you may become angry or upset with them. You may also feel miserable because you became angry or upset. But these feelings are different from not loving your kids. Middle school kids need parents who are there for them—adults who connect with them, communicate with them, spend time with them and show a genuine interest in them. This is how they learn to care for and love others. Moms and dads can love their kids but not necessarily love what they do – and kids need to trust that this is true.

6. It is tempting to label all middle school kids as being difficult and rebellious. But these youngsters vary as much as do kids in any other age group. Your youngster needs to be treated with respect, which requires you to recognize and appreciate his differences and to treat him as an individual. Respect also requires you to show compassion by trying to see things from your youngster's point of view and to consider his needs and feelings. By treating your child with respect, you help him to take pleasure in good behavior.

7. We are not born knowing how to act responsibly. A sense of responsibility is formed over time. As kids grow up, they need to learn to take more and more responsibility for such things as: (a) admitting to both the good and bad choices that they make, (b) completing chores that contribute to the family's well being, (c) completing homework assignments without being nagged, (d) finding ways to be useful to others, and (e) taking on community activities.

There are no perfect mothers or fathers. However, a bad decision or an "off" day (or week or month) isn't likely to have any lasting impact on your middle school son or daughter. What's most important in being an effective parent is what you do “over time.”

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents with Difficult Preteens and Teens

Understanding Your Preteen's Behavior

Throughout our lives we grow and change, but during the preteen years, the rate of change is especially evident. We consider 11-year-olds to be kids, but we think of 16-year-olds as "almost adults" – a huge leap that happens in the space of only 5 years. We welcome the changes, but we also find them a bit challenging.

When kids are younger, it is easier to predict when a change might take place and how rapidly. But by the preteen years, the relationship between a youngster’s real age and his developmental milestones grows weaker. Just how preteens develop can be influenced by many things (e.g., genes, families, friends, neighborhoods, values, etc.).

Cognitive Changes—

The cognitive or mental changes that take place in the preteen years may be less easy to see, but they can be just as dramatic as physical and emotional changes. During adolescence, most teenagers make large leaps in the way they think and reason and learn. Younger kids need to see and touch things to be convinced that they are real. But in the preteen years, kids become able to think about ideas and about things that they can't see or touch. They become better able to think though problems and see the consequences of different points of view or actions. For the first time, they can think about what might be, instead of what is. A 5-year-old thinks a smiling person is happy and a crying person is sad. A 13-year-old may tell you that a sad person smiles to hide his true feelings.

The cognitive changes allow preteens to learn more advanced and complicated material in school. They become eager to gain and apply knowledge and to consider a range of ideas or options. These mental changes also carry over into their emotional lives. Within the family, for example, the ability to reason may change the way preteens talk to - and act - around their moms and dads. They begin to anticipate how their parents will react to something they say or do and prepare an answer or an explanation.

In addition, these mental changes lead preteens to consider who they are and who they may be. This is a process called “identity formation” and it is a major activity during the preteen years. Most preteens will explore a range of possible identities. They go through phases that, to a mother or father, can seem to be ever-changing. Indeed, preteens that don't go through this period of exploration are at greater risk of developing psychological problems, especially depression, when they are grown-ups.

Just as adults, who with more experience and cognitive maturity can struggle with their different roles, preteens struggle in developing a sense of who they are. They begin to realize that they play different roles with different people (e.g., son or daughter, friend, teammate, student, worker, etc.).

Preteens may be able to think more like grown-ups, but they still do not have the experience that is needed to act like grown-ups. As a result, their behavior may be out of step with their ideas (e.g., your daughter may participate eagerly in a walk to raise money to save the environment - but litter the route she walks with soda cans, or she may spend an evening on the phone with her best friend talking about how they dislike certain classmates because they gossip).

It takes time for preteens and their moms and dads to adjust to all these changes. But the changes are also exciting. They allow the preteen to see what he can be like in the future and to develop plans for becoming that individual.

Emotional Changes—

Most experts believe that the idea of preteens being controlled by their "raging hormones" is exaggerated. Nonetheless, this age can be one of mood swings, sulking, craving privacy, and short tempers. Younger kids are not able to think far ahead, but preteens can - and do, which allows them to worry about the future. Some may worry excessively about:
  • being bullied at school
  • drugs and drinking
  • dying
  • hunger and poverty in the country
  • not having friends
  • nuclear bombs and terrorists attacks on the country
  • school violence
  • divorce of their parents
  • possible death of a parent
  • appearance, physical development and popularity
  • inability to get a good job
  • school performance

Many preteens are very self-conscious. And, because they are experiencing dramatic physical and emotional changes, they are often overly sensitive about themselves. They may worry about “defects” that are very noticeable to them, but are hardly noticeable to others (e.g., "I can't go to the football game tonight because everyone will laugh at this monster zit on my forehead"). A preteen also can be caught up in herself. She may believe that she is the only person who feels the way she feels or has the same experiences, that she is so special that no one else (particularly her parents) can understand her. This belief can contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation. In addition, the preteen’s focus on herself has implications for how she mixes with family versus peers (" I can't be seen walking around the Mall with my mom!").

Preteens’ emotions often seem exaggerated. Their actions seem inconsistent. It is normal for preteens to swing regularly from being happy to being sad, and from feeling smart to feeling dumb. In fact, some think of the preteen years as a second childhood. One minute, they want to be treated and taken care of like a 3-year-old. Ten minutes later they are pushing the parent away, saying, “Leave me alone.” It may help if you can help them understand that they are in the midst of some major changes that don't always move steadily ahead.

In addition to changes in the emotions that they feel, most preteens explore different ways to express their emotions. For example, a young girl who greeted friends and visitors with enthusiastic hugs may turn into a preteen who gives these same people only a nod of the head. Similarly, hugs and kisses for a mother or father may be replaced with a pulling away and an, "Oh, Mom!" It's important to remember, though, that these are usually changes in ways of expressing feelings and not the actual feelings about peers and family. (Note: Be on the lookout for excessive emotional swings or long-lasting sadness in your preteen. These can suggest severe emotional problems.)

Physical Changes—

As they enter puberty, preteens undergo a great many physical changes, not only in size and shape, but in such things as the growth of pubic and underarm hair and increased body odor. For females, changes include the development of breasts and the start of menstruation. For males, changes include the development of testes.

Preteens do not begin puberty at the same age. For females, it may take place anywhere from the age of 8 to 13; in males, it happens about two years later on average. This is the time period when young people’s physical characteristics vary the most within their classes and among their peers. Some may grow so much that, by the end of the school year, they may be too large for the desks they were assigned in September. Others may change more slowly.

The preteen years often bring with it new concerns about body image and appearance. Both females and males who never before gave much thought to their looks may suddenly spend hours primping, worrying and complaining about being too short, too tall, too fat, too skinny or too pimply. Body parts may grow at different times and rates (e.g., hands and feet may grow faster than arms and legs). Because movement of their bodies requires coordination of body parts, and because these parts are of changing proportions, preteens are often clumsy and awkward in their physical activities.

The rate at which physical growth and development takes place also can influence other parts of a preteen’s life. A 12-year-old female who has already reached puberty will have different interests than her peer who does not do so until she's 13. Preteens that bloom very early - or very late - may have special concerns. Late bloomers (especially males) may feel they can't compete in sports with more physically developed peers. Early bloomers (especially females) may be pressured into adult-like situations before they are emotionally or mentally able to handle them. 

The combined effect of (a) the age on the beginning for physical changes in puberty, and (b) the ways in which peers, parents, and the world around them respond to those changes, can have long-lasting effects on a preteen. However, some of these young people like the idea that they are developing differently from their peers (e.g., they may enjoy some advantages, especially in sports, over peers who mature later). Whatever the rate of growth, many preteens have an unrealistic view of themselves and need to be reassured that differences in growth rates are normal.

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents with Defiant Preteens and Teens

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Parenting Rebellious Teens

One day you wake up and find that life has changed forever. Instead of greeting you with a hug, your little boy rolls his eyes when you say "good morning" and shouts, "You're ruining my life!" You may think you've stepped into the Twilight Zone, but you've actually been thrust into your son's teen years.

During adolescence, teens start to break away from parents and become "their own person." Some talk back, ignore rules and slack off at school. Others may sneak out or break curfew. Still others experiment with alcohol, tobacco or drugs. So how can you tell the difference between normal teen rebellion versus dangerous behavior? And what's the best way for a parent to respond?

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Outbursts, rages, and strife become a way of life (an emotionally unhealthy way of life). We set aside our own needs and focus on the needs of our children. But what does it cost us?

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The Strong-Willed Out-of-Control Teen

The standard disciplinary techniques that are recommended for “typical” teenagers do not take into account the many issues facing teens with serious behavioral problems. Disrespect, anger, violent rages, self-injury, running away from home, school failure, hanging-out with the wrong crowd, drug abuse, theft, and legal problems are just some of the behaviors that parents of defiant teens will have to learn to control.

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