Preventing Behavior Problems in Pre-teens

Staying connected as children approach the adolescent years may become a challenge for moms and dads, but it's as important as ever — if not more so now. While activities at school, new interests, and a growing social life become more important to growing children, moms and dads are still the anchors, providing love, guidance, and support. And that connection provides a sense of security and helps build the resilience children needs to roll with life's ups and downs.

Your pre-adolescent may act as if your guidance isn't welcome or needed, and even seem embarrassed by you at times. This is when children start to confide more in peers and request their space and privacy — expect the bedroom door to be shut more often. As difficult as it may be to swallow these changes, try not to take them personally. They're all signs of growing independence. You're going to have to loosen the ties and allow some growing room. But you don't have to let go entirely. You're still a powerful influence — it's just that your pre-adolescent may be more responsive to the example you set rather than the instructions you give. So practice what you'd like to preach, just preach it a little less for now.

Modeling the qualities that you want your pre-adolescent to learn and practice — respectful communication, kindness, healthy eating, and fulfilling everyday responsibilities without complaining — makes it more likely that your son or daughter will comply. Small, simple things can reinforce connection. Make room in your schedule for special times, take advantage of the routines you already share, and show that you care.

Here are some tips for preventing behavior problems pre-teens:

1. Bedtime and goodnight: Your youngster may not need to be tucked in anymore, but maintaining a consistent bedtime routine helps pre-adolescents get the sleep needed to grow healthy and strong. So work in some winding-down time together before the lights go out. Read together. Go over the highlights of the day and talk about tomorrow. And even if your pre-adolescent has outgrown the tuck-in routine, there's still a place for a goodnight kiss or hug. If it's shrugged off, try a gentle hand on the shoulder or back as you wish your youngster a good night's sleep.

2. Create special time: Make a tradition out of celebrating family milestones beyond birthdays and holidays. Marking smaller occasions like a good report card or a winning soccer game helps reinforce family bonds.

3. Develop Trust: For better or worse, the pre-adolescent era marks the time when moms and dads and kids begin to disconnect a bit. This can lead to trust issues for both parties. It might sound silly considering you've lived with your youngster her entire life, but once she hits the pre-adolescent age, you'll possibly need to reestablish your trust with her. This can come by a variety of methods, but allowing a bit of leeway -- in something like hanging out with friends, for example -- can enable your relationship with your pre-adolescent to grow and strengthen. It's important to keep an open line of communication and to remain actively involved in your youngster's life. There are many ways you can do this, but be sure to keep yourself available during meals, games and other family activities. Maintain these family moments throughout the pre-adolescent years and make sure your youngster understands she can always come to you with any type of question or quarrel. This will also be a time when you may feel it necessary to do some research about your youngster on your own. Although it's important to keep tabs on where you youngster is and what she's doing, many parenting experts believe that you should respect your youngster's privacy until she gives you a good reason to suspect she is using poor judgment in an important area of her life. Although snooping on your youngster might seem like a good idea, it's generally best to begin allowing him to have his first taste of independence.

4. Discipline Them Effectively: A growing trend among punishments for pre-adolescents these days is to get creative. Instead of simply grounding your youngster or taking away a privilege, some moms and dads incorporate the reason for the punishment inside the punishment itself. For example, you could remove the hinges of your youngster's door (or the door itself) if she is constantly slamming it. This can be a great way to teach lessons. However, it's still important to follow a few simple guidelines. With pre-adolescents, be very clear with your rules, expectations and limitations. Cognitively, a pre-adolescent is beginning to understand the structure of sentences and ways to manipulate them to find loopholes, so speaking plainly with a clear message is important. Many believe positive reinforcement of rules works the best. This means that when your youngster does something wrong, you talk about what she should instead be doing, as opposed to simply telling her "don't." Kids can understand cause and effect, so pointing out what behavior they should be using and why can sometimes be more effective than simply telling them to stop. As with kids of any age range, being patient and consistent with punishments for pre-adolescents is key. Stick with the rules you set, and be ready and able to handle your youngster in a calm and collected tone if she breaks those rules.

5. Ease the Transition into Middle School: Your youngster's middle school course work will likely be more difficult than what she is used to, so she may need your help at first. You might not remember your own experience very well, but the transition into middle school can be a terrifying experience for a youngster. In many schools, this will mean a more open class structure or having to use lockers and get to classes on time. Before the term starts, you should attend a tour of the school with your youngster. You'll be able to learn about scheduled break times, find classrooms and start organizing a routine. If he is taking a new bus to school, it might be helpful to walk the route with him and help him memorize the bus number. It's not all logistics, though. Your youngster will be getting used to new and different peers in addition to dealing with a wide range of new courses and material. Also, he'll likely find himself with more social demands and having to balance complex homework assignments. As a parent, you should be involved: Make sure you've met the teachers and that you have access to a course guide so you know what to expect throughout the year. Doing so will help you help your youngster as he finds his way among new friends, group homework projects and new obligations.

6. Encourage Hobbies and Extracurricular Activities: Encouraging your pre-adolescent to explore different hobbies will help him to develop his interests and boost his self-esteem. Without proper guidance, moms and dads will hear their youngster utter the words "I'm bored" far too often. As your youngster begins to come into his own, he'll begin looking for new ways to spend time and energy outside of his schoolwork. While many moms and dads are likely to push for a youngster's hobby to be reading, keep his own desires in mind while still teaching him life skills. Whether its music, video games, movies, art, sports or something else entirely, the cost of hobbies and extracurricular activities can be stressful. You'll worry whether it's worthwhile to purchase a brand new violin if your youngster doesn't end up playing it, and that's OK. Instead of buying it, you can simply rent one as a reliable and less expensive way to develop your youngster's interests. If your pre-adolescent is struggling to find a hobby you consider useful, you might try offering a few suggestions. For instance, if he's interested in movies, pick up a cheap digital camcorder so he can try out his filmmaking skills. If he's interested in video games, introduce him to youngster-friendly programming software. Keep your intentions and your youngster's interests in mind while helping him select extracurricular activities and hobbies. In theory, you can find ways to combine the two into something your pre-adolescent will benefit from and enjoy.

7. Family meals: It may seem like drudgery to prepare a meal, particularly after a long day. But a shared family meal provides valuable together time. So schedule it and organize it just as you would any other activity. Even if you have to pick up something pre-made, sit down together to eat it. Turn off the TV and try to tune out the ringing phone. If it's impossible to do every night, schedule a regular weekly family dinner night that accommodates children' schedules. Make it something fun, and get everyone involved in the preparation and the cleanup. Sharing an activity helps build closeness and connection, and everyone pitching in reinforces a sense of responsibility and teamwork.

8. Leave Them Home Alone When They're Ready: You can give your adolescent trial runs to see whether she is ready to stay home alone for an evening. One of the greatest signs of trust between a parent and a youngster comes from the first time you leave him home alone. Although different kids will react in different ways, there are ways to tell whether your youngster may be ready to take on the head of the house role -- temporarily, at least. Start by leaving him for short durations. Run to the store to grab groceries, for example, and see how you and he handle it. If he remains calm and collected, he'll probably soon be ready to stay alone for longer periods. If you decide it's OK to give him the evening to himself, be sure to call and check in often and provide him with a phone number to reach you. You'll also want to ensure your youngster has access to neighbors or close relatives in case you can't be reached -- or in case you want someone to drop by to check on him. The first time you leave him home alone, you'll want to run through a few safety measures, such as who to call in case of an emergency, what to do in case of a fire, and which appliances are off-limits. Make sure he understands that you're still ruling the house by proxy. This means all the same considerations of TV watching, computer usage, video game playing, and eating are all set in stone. If these rules and boundaries are breached, make him understand there will be consequences.

9. Moderate Media Exposure: Depending on your age, this is likely something your moms and dads didn't have to deal with as much as moms and dads of today. There's no going back to the days when the only worry was what was on the radio. Pre-adolescents have access to a number of entertainment media: television, video games, the Internet, music and movies. A common suggestion among professionals is to monitor and moderate media exposure for your pre-adolescent. This means understanding the ratings systems -- such as the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) for video games and the MPAA for movies -- in addition to keeping an eye on their media consumption. Many moms and dads use a rewards system to keep track of how much their youngster uses such media. For instance, they may decide their youngster can play two hours of video games for every three hours he does homework. It's important to find a system and stick with it across the board -- no exceptions for the finale of their favorite show or if they get to the top level of a video game at the end of their time limit. Standing by these rules establishes your boundaries and also teaches good time management skills to pre-adolescents.

10. Prepare Them for Peer Pressure: Peer pressure becomes even more prevalent at the pre-adolescent age, so having regular, open talks with your youngster can help him maintain his self-esteem. There is no way around it: When your youngster gets to the pre-adolescent age, he's going to be dealing with a number of social pressures. These come from both the inside and out, as kids struggle to define themselves and control how they are viewed by others. Have a conversation with your youngster early on in his life regarding peer pressure. To an adult, it might sound a bit clich├ęd to have a talk about thinking for yourself or not letting others get to you, but pre-adolescents will often seek approval from peers, even ones they're not particularly fond of. This can lead to dangerous situations regarding sex, violence, drugs or alcohol, so it's important to talk to your youngster often and early. Ensuring your youngster's self-esteem stays and that his identity is solid can help him deal with peer pressures, but don't lay it on too thick. After all, parent's compliments can only go so far with a pre-adolescent.

11. Share ordinary time: Find little things that let you just hang out together. Invite your pre-adolescent to come with you to walk the dog. Invite yourself along on her run. Washing the car, baking cookies, renting movies, watching a favorite TV show — all are opportunities to enjoy each other's company. And they're chances for children to talk about what's on their mind. Even riding in the car is an opportunity to connect. When you're driving, your pre-adolescent may be more inclined to mention a troubling issue. Since you're focused on the road, he or she doesn't have to make eye contact, which can ease any discomfort about opening up.

12. Show affection: Don't underestimate the value of saying and showing how much you love your pre-adolescent. Doing so ensures that children feel secure and loved. And you're demonstrating healthy ways to show affection. Still, pre-adolescents may start to feel self-conscious about big displays of affection from moms and dads, especially in public. They may pull away from your hug and kiss, but it's not about you. Just reserve this type of affection for times when friends aren't around. And in public, find other ways to show that you care. A smile or a wave can convey a warm send-off while respecting boundaries. Recognize out loud your youngster's wonderful qualities and developing skills when you see them. You might say, "That's a beautiful drawing — you're really very artistic" or "You were great at baseball practice today — I loved watching you out there."

13. Stay interested: Stay interested and curious about your pre-adolescent's ideas, feelings, and experiences. If you listen to what he or she is saying, you'll get a better sense of the guidance, perspective, and support needed. And responding in a nonjudgmental way means your youngster will be more likely to come to you anytime tough issues arise.

14. Stay involved: Stay involved in your pre-adolescent's expanding pursuits. Getting involved gives you more time together and shared experiences. You don't have to be the Scout leader, homeroom mom, or soccer coach to be involved. And your youngster may want to do more activities where you're not in charge. That's OK. Go to games and practices when you can; when you can't, ask how things went and listen attentively. Help children talk through the disappointments, and be sympathetic about the missed fly ball that won the game for the other team. Your attitude about setbacks will teach your pre-adolescent to accept and feel OK about them, and to summon the courage to try again.

15. Teach Good Learning Skills: It's easier said than done when it comes to teaching good learning skills. However, by the time your youngster has reached the pre-adolescent age, it should be more apparent which type of learner your youngster is. As school systems become more populated and teacher-to-student ratios drop, it helps for moms and dads to figure out the type of learner their youngster is and help her develop her skills. Different people learn different ways, so try various methods of studying a lesson to determine how your youngster learns best. She may intake new knowledge best by listening to a lecture, reading the material or practicing the theories. Once you know which method works best, encourage her to use those approaches when studying and completing assignments. In addition, be sure to point out how the concepts and ideas she's studying correlate to the world, and try to make connections to everyday events when possible. As with everything else, remain positive and attentive to her needs. There is nothing wrong with being one particular type of learner, and recognizing your youngster's strengths early on will help her throughout her academic career.

16. Help with Health and Hygiene: Braces are common at the pre-adolescent age, so good dental hygiene is especially important during this time. Health and hygiene are two pieces of the pre-adolescent puzzle that will become even more important as your youngster grows. With the onset of puberty, things will start to change, and you'll want to be aware of the following:
  • Shaving: Although boys may not be ready to tackle this one yet, girls may be ready to start shaving. Be ready to teach them how to do so safely.
  • Sex: Pre-adolescents might be more in the know than they seem, so talk about sex as soon as you feel they can understand it.
  • Mouth care: Brushing teeth, flossing and using mouthwash are key to preserving all the time and money you've invested at the dentist.
  • Menstruation: This will come with a slew of different health and hygiene considerations, so be prepared to offer answers to a variety of questions.
  • Exercise: Teach simple methods of exercise, such as walking up stairs or parking farther away from the entrance in parking lots. Kids ages 6 to 17 need at least an hour of moderate exercise a day.
  • Bathing: Bathing, hair washing and facial cleansing are all important. Many pre-adolescents are going to experience pimples and breakouts, so educate here as well.
  • Antiperspirant/deodorant: This will become even more important as their hormones become more active and sweating increases.

If you establish rules early, your pre-adolescents may take on many of these tasks naturally. As with all these tips, remain positive and supportive when your pre-adolescent does things right. Learn even more about parenting by visiting the links on the next page.

17. Talk About and Monitor Their Nutrition: Pre-adolescents are at an age when they start to strike out on their own, and it may be difficult to keep track of what they're eating. But you still maintain the decisions of what food to keep in your home, so keep your cupboards stocked with healthy foods. As they begin to decide on their own what they want to eat, you can teach them techniques for healthy eating, such as the following:
  • Calcium is key for growing kids, and it's easy to get from sources such as dairy products, leafy vegetables, salmon, broccoli and tofu.
  • Ditch the junk food. You've heard this one over and over yourself, so there's no reason to have your youngster eating it either.
  • Drink plenty of water. Pre-adolescents need just as much water as adults.
  • Iron-rich foods are important, especially as males begin developing muscle mass and females begin menstruating.
  • Watch caloric intake. Pre-adolescents are going to have drastically different calorie needs as they get older: Boys need about 1600-2400 calories and girls need about 1400-2200, depending on how active they are.
  • Whole grains and brown rice are more nutritious than their white counterparts.

The pre-adolescent years are also riddled with growth spurts and weight changes, so be wary but non-confrontational if your youngster begins gaining or losing weight. However, if the weight changes become an issue, speak with him immediately regarding eating disorders or exercise.

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