What can I do to be a good parent for my early adolescent child?
Parents often become less involved in the lives of their children as they enter the middle grades. But your young adolescent needs as much attention and love from you as he needed when he was youngerand maybe more. A good relationship with you or with other adults is the best safeguard your child has as he grows and explores. By the time he reaches adolescence, you and he will have had years of experience with each other; the parent of today's toddler is parent to tomorrow's teenager.
Your relationship with your child may change-in fact, it almost certainly must changehowever, as she develops the skills required to be a successful adult. These changes can be rewarding and welcome. As your middle school child makes mental and emotional leaps, your conversations will grow richer. As her interests develop and deepen, she may begin to teach youhow to slug a baseball, what is happening with the city council or county board or why a new book is worth reading.
America is home to people with a great variety of attitudes, opinions and values. Americans have different ideas and priorities, which can affect how we choose to raise our children. Across these differences, however, research has shown that being effective parents involves the following qualities:
Showing love. When our children behave badly, we may become angry or upset with them. We may also feel miserable because we become angry or upset. But these feelings are different from not loving our children. Young adolescents need adults who are there for thempeople 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. According to school counselor Carol Bleifield, "Parents can love their children but not necessarily love what they doand children need to trust that this is true."
Providing support. Young adolescents need support as they struggle with problems that may seem unimportant to their parents and families. They need praise when they've done their best. They need encouragement to develop interests and personal characteristics.
Setting limits. Young adolescents need parents or other adults who consistently provide structure and supervision that is firm and appropriate for age and development. Limits keep all children, including young teens, physically and emotionally safe. Carole Kennedy is a former middle school principal, U.S. Department of Education's Principal-in-Residence (2000) and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. She puts it this way, "They need parents who can say, 'No, you cannot go to the mall all day or to movies with that group of kids." Psychologist Diana Baumrind identifies three types of parents: authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. By studying about findings from more than 20 years of research, she and her colleagues have found that to be effective parents, it's best to avoid extremes. Authoritarian parents who lay down hard-and-fast rules and expect their children to always do as they are told or permissive parents who have very few rules or regulations and give their children too much freedom are most likely to have the most difficult time as parents. Their children are at risk for a range of negative behavioral and emotional consequences. However, authoritative parents, who set limits that are clear and come with explanations, tend to struggle less with their adolescents. "Do it because I said so" probably didn't work for your son when he was 6 and it's even less likely to work now that he's an adolescent. (For more information on setting limits, see the Independence section.)
Being a role model. Young adolescents need strong role models. Try to live the behavior and values that you hope your child will develop. Your actions speak louder than words. If you set high standards for yourself and treat others with kindness and respect, your child stands a better chance of following your example. As adolescents explore possibilities of who they may become, they look to their parents, peers, well-known personalities and others to define who they may become.
Teaching responsibility. We are not born knowing how to act responsibly. A sense of responsibility is formed over time. As children grow up, they need to learn to take more and more responsibility for such things as:
completing chores, such as doing yard work, cleaning their rooms or helping to prepare meals, that contribute to the family's well being;
completing homework assignments without being nagged;
taking on community activities;
finding ways to be useful to others; and
admitting to both the good and bad choices that they make.
Providing a range of experiences. Adolescence is a time for exploring many areas and doing new things. Your child may try new sports and new academic pursuits and read new books. He 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 child. You can introduce him 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 child. Don't be discouraged when his interests change.
Showing respect. It is tempting to label all young adolescents as being difficult and rebellious. But these youngsters vary as much as do children in any other age group. Your child needs to be treated with respect, which requires you to recognize and appreciate her differences and to treat her as an individual. Respect also requires you to show compassion by trying to see things from your child's point of view and to consider her needs and feelings. By treating your young adolescent with respect, you help her to take pleasure in good behavior.
There are no perfect parents. However, a bad decision or an "off" day (or week or month) isn't likely to have any lasting impact on your child. What's most important in being an effective parent is what you do over time.