My 12-year-old son and I are having a tough time getting along lately. There are frequent arguments that usually end when he goes into his room and completely shuts me out and won’t talk. I feel as though his behavior is extremely disrespectful, and it’s making me realize I don’t “like” my kid right now, even though I love him deeply. I’m afraid if this goes on too long, it will wreck our entire relationship. As a single mom, I feel alone in this and don’t know what to do to make things better.
Response by Michelle Dobson, PhD, LPC, RPT
This is a common issue for parents of pre-teens/early adolescents. Thankfully, there are strategies to help you navigate through and improve your relationship. Let’s first touch on brain development during this important time in your child’s life. Similar to the period of time when your child was 18 months to 6 years old, as a pre-teen/early adolescent, your child’s brain is awash with chemicals that serve to increase learning, understanding, and functioning. The emotions, thoughts, and actions of your child may seem chaotic and impulsive which in many ways they are.
As a toddler, I’m sure you remember your child beginning to show independence. He realized he was a separate person who could say “no!” As a preschooler, your child’s higher brain skills began to emerge. These skills range from opinions to empathy and include impulse control, patience, and problem solving. This higher level thinking will not be fully implemented in your child’s brain until he is about 25 years old!
The process which starts around age two has a burst of growth in the pre-teen/early adolescent years. The brain is ready for learning and growing in these specific higher thinking skills. The process can be confusing, scary, and hard for both the child and the adults around them.
Just like how a toddler/preschooler is stuck between being an infant (totally cared for) and being school-aged (capable of doing most things for themselves) the pre-teen/early teen is stuck between the safety of being a child and the freedom of being a young adult. Through understanding this difficult position your child is in, you may be better able to have compassion and understanding when interacting with him.
The next thing to understand is how important you are to your child. Pre-teens/early adolescents truly want better relationships with parents as well, they just don’t know how to do this and it’s up to us to be intentional in building and maintaining the relationship. This takes some creativity and openness. It also requires consistency and predictability. Although there are several parenting strategies out there, two of them stand out as effective in building up the parent/child relationship: positive interactions and strengths-based parenting.
Positive interactions, as a parenting strategy, mean exactly what you would think they mean; having more fun together! William Glasser (2003) found most people try in vain to control their children. The problem is the only person we can truly control is ourselves. We can, however, influence other people’s behavior through the relationship we have with them. Focusing on building the relationship is the first step to seeing changed behaviors.
Spend more time together doing something your child enjoys. Schedule this time (daily if possible, weekly at a minimum) and make it a non-negotiable for both of you. It needs to be an interactive activity, so video games would work as long as both of you are playing. It could be a trip to the ice cream store (or coffeehouse) where you listen to your child’s interests, goals, or dreams. The first few times, he may not feel safe enough to talk much. That’s okay. Just sitting together, enjoying ice cream or frozen yogurt will begin to strengthen your relationship. Get creative! Think about your child and the things he likes to do. How can you become involved in those? Can you think of things you enjoy doing together which maybe you haven’t done in a long time? Make a plan and do it again! The goal is to have more positive time together than negative.
Another effective strategy is strength-based parenting. Waters (2018) discussed how our brains are pre-wired to seek out problems, which is a great defense mechanism for survival but not a very effective way to build a relationship. Thankfully, we can re-wire our brains to seek out and identify strengths. Talents and characteristics are how psychologists identify strengths. Talents are based on performance and tend to be observable such as sports, arts, even mathematics.
Characteristics, however, involve personality traits such as compassion, courage, tenacity, curiosity, or humor. As parents, we tend to be more apt to recognize and praise the talents than the characteristics. In strength-based parenting, both are necessary. Begin to notice and point out the strengths your child has. This can be as simple as “I enjoy your humor! You’re always making me laugh.” Or “You helped me put away all the groceries. That was thoughtful.” Write in a journal daily of all the strengths you notice and send your child a text the next day pointing out what you observed. You could also use this list of strengths to write your child a letter.
Finally, incorporate the concept of strengths when helping your child traverse a problem or difficulty in his life. Ask him questions such as “What strength do you bring to this issue?” Research has shown, the things we focus on we get more of. By focusing on your child’s strengths, you will not only increase these characteristics in your child, you will find it builds your confidence as a parent as well.
Glasser, W. (2003). For Parents and Teenagers: Dissolving the Barrier Between You and Your Teen. HarperCollins Publishing; New York, NY.
Waters, L. (2018). How to Be a Strength-Based Parent: By focusing on our children’s strengths, we can help them flourish—and stop being so critical and worried. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_be_a_strength_based_parent
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