"Suddenly," says Susan Mitchell, mom to 13-year-old Samantha, "my sunny, happy-go-lucky daughter has turned into a sullen, moody, unpredictable young adult. One minute she's furious with me over the littlest thing, then 10 seconds later, she's her old adorable, affectionate self. It's enough to drive you crazy!"
Susan's feeling frustrated and bewildered, but she's not alone. The middle-school years are a period of transition and change, a time when young people frantically try on new roles and identities, hoping to find one that fits. Charlene C. Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese, authors of "The Roller Coaster Years", say: "Parenting a child from 10-15 is truly challenging. Like the view from a ferris wheel, the highs are exhilarating; but looking down can be flip-flop stomach scary."
Giannetti and Sagarese, local moms, use the acronym of "the three Ds" - distracted, disorganized, disinterested - to describe the typical middle-school youngster. Kids this age are often forgetful, frequently misplace things, and have no awareness of time. They act bored and show little interest in the world around them, focusing their energy inward as they try to cope with their tumultuous mood-swings and rapidly changing needs.
The 12- to 14-year-old is struggling with a number of developmental tasks, made more difficult by the fast-paced society in which we live. Although their burgeoning physical development and haywire hormonal fluctuations increase their need for sleep, their lives are packed with school, competitive sports, and a variety of other extracurricular activities. Yearning for independence, they are still told by everyone - teachers, parents, even older siblings - what to do and when to do it. Feeling as if their ever-changing bodies are totally out of control, they become obsessed with appearance, hairstyles, and weight. Beginning to identify their unique strengths and abilities, they set impossibly high standards for themselves, plunging into instant despair if they perceive themselves as "failing". Longing for peer acceptance, they often go to any extreme to feel like "one of the crowd."
Mukunda Tejada, outreach coordinator of COMET (Children Of Many Educational Talents), a program for at-risk students at I.S. 117 in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, says, "Kids today have this ŒI don't care' attitude which masks their deep yearnings for love and acceptance. If their friends think it's cool to be Œthe baddest', they will do anything to earn their peers' stamp of approval, even if it violates their own sense of right and wrong."
In her revealing new book, "A Tribe Apart: A Journey Into The Heart of American Adolescence", Patricia Hersh points out that "the adolescents of the Œ90s are more isolated and more unsupervised than other generations... this changes access to a bed, a liquor cabinet, a car." Hersh cites a 1992 study done by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development which found that young people spend virtually all of their discretionary time (time not committed to structured activities such as school, homework or chores) without the supervision or companionship of adults. This leads them to be on their own when making important lifestyle decisions. As a result, she says, "Kids often create an ersatz family with their buddies and let them decide."
One of the main problems, however, is that middle-schoolers act as if they're thrilled to be left alone. Claire Femiano, who grew up in Kew Gardens, points out that "kids put on a great facade of not needing you. The persona is ŒI'm in control - I can take care myself,' and they say it with so much conviction that you start to believe it."
Her own daughter, Liz, age 14, comments: "I really need my parents for moral support, even though I don't want them to nag me to death." Liz says the best things about her folks are their availability and open-mindedness on the (admittedly rare) occasions when she actually solicits their advice, and their thoughtfulness about never embarrassing her in front of her friends. "My mom and dad's opinions really matter to me," adds Liz, grinning as her mother's eyes widen in surprise.
This is a theme I heard repeatedly in my conversations with middle-schoolers, and every parent I spoke with was shocked to learn that these seemingly-sophisticated youngsters are still hungry for their parents' approval, validation and encouragement. Young teens are great worriers, obsessing endlessly about the possibility of getting AIDS, losing a parent through death or divorce, or having to grow up and leave home before they are ready. Their parents are struggling with their own feelings of abandonment, impotence and frustration. Believing that peer opinions carry more weight than parental ones, adults lose sight of how much their own input is still desired and valued (even if this is rarely articulated or acknowledged). Other parents back off in the belief that kids need more space as they move towards independence. And many others move away out of sheer exhaustion, beaten down by endless conflicts about messy rooms, curfews or bizarre clothing preferences, and tired of sarcastic retorts to benign questions like "How was your day?"
Experts say parents need to find a middle ground between withdrawal and invasiveness during these turbulent middle-school years. Desires for privacy and autonomy need to be validated; at the same time, limits concerning acceptable behavior must be set. "Windows of opportunity" for relaxed parent-teen discussions (such as car rides or lunches at the local fast food restaurant) should be created. Parents have to encourage their youngsters' desires for independence, while also letting them know there is someone to fall back on when life becomes scary and overwhelming.
So the next time your 13-year-old rolls her eyeballs and says, "Oh, Ma, leave me alone," listen to her and go away (but not too far), come back soon, (but not too soon), and remember that, in spite of her protestations, you are still a very important part of her life.
-Barbra Williams Cosentino RN, LCSW is a writer in Queens, NY.