A friend of mine is what I call a pushover with her tween kids. It seems like she’s afraid to reign them in for some reason – like she’s worried about how they will respond. My oldest is seventeen, and I feel like I know what this mom is in for if she doesn’t figure this out soon. Any ideas for my friend?
I get it. No adult wants to be yelled at or feel like her child’s reaction is so aggressive that it scares her. As my colleague and parenting expert at parentingmojo.com Tina Feigal says, “Scary kids are scared.”
First, let’s look at what might be underneath the behavior. It’s scary growing up. Typically between the ages of nine and twelve, kids’ bodies are preparing for or entering puberty. During the adolescent years, boys will be getting a whopping ten times more testosterone than they’ve ever had, and estrogen will be released in girls, triggering everything from body changes to fluctuating emotions. Their social world is also changing. In a natural and necessary desire for independence and differentiation, they start listening to their peers more than their parents. This means some girls may become cliquish, and some boys may move away from mom for fear that a close relationship will be perceived as too feminine. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for organized thinking and problem-solving in both girls and boys, is growing. But it will not catch up to the super-charged limbic system, responsible for emotional reactions, for many years.
Boundaries will be challenged! Remember when he was two? Firm and loving boundaries, along with training in “using his words,” helped him learn what was acceptable and unacceptable. This was called pruning. Now it’s time for pruning, part two! A parent’s job is, once again, to prune back the behaviors that are unacceptable with appropriate boundaries, consequences, and chances to make things right. These years are prime time for regular family meetings so everyone can review family values and resolve problems before they get out of control. Like a path in the forest, the good choices and healthy interactions are encouraged so this path becomes easier and well-worn. The behaviors that are unacceptable are discouraged and do not result in rewards, so that path will eventually disappear to reveal a socially adept young adult.
In the meantime, there will be anger, sullen looks, and pouts. But when emotions boil over, don’t be scared. Caregivers need to stay calm and stay present. “You’re really angry right now” shows your child you want to know more so that he can get control and explain what’s going on inside. Then you can problem solve. Make sure the child is part of that solution and also understands (even though he may not agree with) the consequences. Then, when a child feels everything is changing inside and out, it will be comforting to know there is a reliable grown-up who is setting clear and respectful limits.
And from parenting expert Tina Feigal: “If a child feels secure, has some sense of control of his world, and is assured about the future, there’s no need to defend himself with scary behavior. As his adult guide, focus on what he needs to reach the state of calm, and the positive behavior will naturally follow.”
And when he’s seventeen, he’ll be on the way to becoming a healthy young adult who knows how to manage the tough stuff in life with persistence and grace, just like his parents.