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Tweens and freedom: Finding a balance

Published on: May 01, 2009

tween faceIf adolescents came with an instruction manual, it might read like that for a yo-yo: “Secure a slip knot around your finger that can be adjusted for tightness. Prepare the yo-yo by winding the string carefully, then let it go, expecting it to recoil suddenly. Immediately, you will need to rewind the string in preparation for the next trick.”
Tweens are too old to be ordered around without explanation, yet we know from brain research studies that they do not have the decision-making capabilities of adults.

Renton mom Vera Girard says she must constantly corral her 11-year-old son, Garret, who freely admits that if given the chance, he would go to concerts and R-rated movies with his friends and without parental supervision. By contrast, her 14-year-old, Darek, is more of a “homebody,” pushing her less for new freedoms. Our children seek independence in different ways and at different times.

Ready for freedom?

At a recent seminar on adolescents, puberty and sexuality, Julie Metzger, cofounder of Great Conversations in Seattle, reminded parents of research showing the prefrontal cortex of the brain does not fully develop until a person is in their twenties — well after adolescence and the critical time for certain decisions about friends, drug use and sex. This creates a challenge for parents, who are grappling with kids who want new freedoms, but are not necessarily ready for them.

“You have to recognize what is within your power,” says Metzger. “You can say, ‘I’m not trying to control you, but what I hope and pray for you is this.’”

Raising an adolescent and witnessing their decision making is not for the faint of heart. In fact, Michael J. Bradley, author of Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy! Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind, says parents first need to recognize the fundamental change in their relationship with their child. “Many of us refuse to accept our own grief, and instead make desperate attempts at maintaining that old huggy relationship with this new standoffish child,” Bradley says. He recommends parents instead try to fall in love with this new child, accepting them for who they are.

Time to listen

More than ever, experts say, adolescence is a time when parents need to listen. Listen without being distracted; listen with bionic ears so you do not miss clues to what is percolating inside your tween’s head. Allow plenty of time to let your discussions breathe.

This is especially important, because the costs of bad decisions for kids are higher than ever before. Drugs (including alcohol), sex and violence are nothing new, but adolescents’ exposure to them has greatly increased. The images of violence in video games are graphic to an unprecidented degree. And a study published last year by the University of Minnesota cites research that by sixth grade, one out of six children already uses alcohol. This past February, the Drug Free Action Alliance reported that during the Super Bowl, kids selected the commercials for alcohol (specifically beer) as their favorites.

The good news, according to Metzger, who has worked with families for two decades, is that teens who report a strong connection with parents tend to delay high-risk behavior. As your child has their first boyfriend or girlfriend, keep the communication going, but to prevent tween shutdown, talk a little bit at a time. “Rather than having a single 90-minute sex talk, where you can breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘I’m done!’ it’s better to have 90 one-minute talks over time,” says Metzger. Peers may have a stronger pull than ever before, but at this age, parents are vital.

Another tricky part about parenting today is that, while kids have always been two steps ahead of parents in lingo, now they’re communicating with their BFFs via texting, IMs and technology we never had. They may have their own Web sites, which means parents need to decide how much freedom to allow online. Some parents set up their own accounts on social networking sites to monitor their children.

Kathy Slattengren, a Kenmore mother of two teens and the creator of Priceless Parenting classes, has made her own rule that cell phones are put away at night and texting is not allowed during family time. She says her own daughter now thinks it’s rude when a friend texts at the table.

Like Slattengren, Metzger is all for setting limits — and then allowing kids to make choices. “We’re always poised as parents to look for solutions, and that means we’ve missed an opportunity to listen. Instead, in trying to guide them toward being responsible adults, this is the best time to say, ‘You’re all about fun, and I’m all about homework. How can we work through this?’”
“Don’t get into battles where home becomes a very negative place to be,” says Slattengren.

At a local mall recently, a group of 13- and 14-year-old girls spoke about staying safe in numbers, getting to know the security guards and how they are quick to call their parents if someone strange seems to be following them. “I’m on the cell phone with my mom all the time”, says Megan T. from Des Moines. Lauren E. from SeaTac adds, “I’d rather [my mom] be strict and protective than not care. I know a lot of people with too much freedom.”

Hilary Benson is a Seattle-area writer and mother of three. Her own parents live in Bellingham and enjoy mightily her struggles with independent children.

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