Let adolescent be, but never leave the room emotionally

October 24, 1995|By Susan Reimer

THE CARNEGIE council on Adolescent Development, a panel of 27 educators, scientists, U.S. senators, health and legal experts, spent 10 years and untold millions of dollars to conclude that the only way to prevent our middle-schoolers from making horrible life choices is to provide them with just the kind of support and attention they are busy telling us, in increasingly angry voices, that they do not want.

Just what we need.

Another blue ribbon panel setting impossible standards and making dire predictions. And not just about the ozone layer or the spread of disease, but about our kids. And not just any kids, but the ones about whom we are most often sleepless with worry. Our middle-schoolers.

Unrestrained and unclean, withdrawn or explosive, first rude and then tearfully insecure, they are a daily trial that changes daily.

Middle-schoolers are not miniature adults. They are not even miniature teen-agers. They are more like large toddlers, for that is the only other age group that goes through such rapid and profound cognitive and physical changes.

When I asked the advice of a veteran mother who has twice survived the lost years between 10 and 14, she suggested this: "Leave the room."

Her advice covered both the cooling-off periods we need and the independence they want. But the Carnegie Council is warning us not to go beyond earshot.

"They wanted us to let go at age 2, also," said Ruby Takanishi, executive director of the council. "But this time we are more likely to cave in."

Dr. Takanishi, the mother of a 13-year-old girl, likened the age to a kid at the mall. "They don't want you to be standing right there next to them, but they want to know that you are around the corner in case they need you. But this second part doesn't often get expressed because the parent has left the scene."

Early adolescence is a time of experimentation and testing, as it has always been, but the stakes are higher. The council found that these kids are fooling with tobacco, alcohol, sex and drugs at a much earlier age and with more devastating consequences.

And they are so vulnerable not only because of the R-rated cultural messages that bombard them from television and movies, but also because of the dramatic increase in the time they spend without adult supervision.

The percentage of families with only one parent or with two parents who work outside of the home has increased from about 40 percent in 1970 to almost 70 percent today. These kids, too old for baby-sitters and without the after-school programs afforded their younger brothers and sisters, are getting into all kinds of deadly mischief between 3 p.m and 6 p.m.

The council recommends changes in schools and the workplace -- smaller classes, after-school activities, flex-time options at work -- to increase the supervision of this age group. But these institutional recommendations are beyond the reach of many of us. The answer is simpler than child-care tax credits or reconfigured middle school curricula.

It is this: Don't let go. Don't back off. Don't bow out. Find a way to stay close to your child, even as they push you away, because they don't really want you to go.

"The truth is, the older your kids get, the more they need you," said Dr. Takanishi. "Most parents think they need you less and that is the perception we are trying to fight. That they are struggling for autonomy and independence and as parents we should stand aside. That is incorrect."

Any parent of a middle-schooler will tell you that you don't guide a middle-schooler, you fight with him. You don't negotiate limits, convey values or discuss issues of character, you slam doors, yell or cry.

It can be unpleasant and exhausting for a parent to try to slipstream through the moods of this child. And we may have to leave the room from time to time.

But we should never go very far.

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