Parenting a preteen sometimes feels like you’ve gotten lost in a foreign neighborhood without your trusted GPS. What used to make your five-year-old laugh doesn’t work anymore with your thirteen-year-old. An adolescent’s maturity can seem inconsistent and unpredictable, as the journey through child development is not a linear one. What you learned about parenting your child in the early years doesn’t always apply to the older set and you find yourself needing a new road map.
Ellen Galinsky, the President and Co-Founder of the Families and Work Institute, spent years interviewing parents and their children about work and family life. By listening to children ages 8-18 for a study titled, “Ask the Children”, Galinsky found out what kids really care about when it comes to parenting. Here are just a few highlights from the interviews she conducted in her comprehensive study of families and work.
Older children in their preteens and adolescence want more time with their parents—even when they act as though they don’t. Although they are becoming more independent and you may be sending your daughter off to sleepovers more, preteens still want time with you. Not just time spent driving from one activity to the next, or from one friend’s house to another, they want time to hang out together when there is no specific agenda or no particular place to be.
In an interview with PBS’s Frontline, Galinsky notes, “I found in this study, by listening to young people, that not only is the amount of time the parents spend with their kids important, but what happens in that time is also important. And particularly important to young people is that there’s time to hang around together. It’s not always planned; it’s not always scheduled…but there’s just time to be together.”
Hang in There!
Even when they push you away, preteens and adolescents want you to stay close. They may be grumpy, moody, irritable, or sad, and they may look like they want to be left alone. But often they want you close by and they want you to notice how they are doing. They want you to ask them how their day went, or what’s bothering them when they’re not feeling well. They want you to be curious, and they want you to care.
Galinsky says, “In a video that I made of them [older children], they said, ‘Well, you know when we’re teens, we’re so busy pushing our parents away that when we want them, it’s hard to ask.’ One girl said, ‘I’m more comfortable if my parent just notices that there’s something wrong and says it, because I find it hard to break that barrier. But I really do want them.’ And another child said, ‘Your friends can be there for you, but it’s really your parents—particularly when you’re older, you have a little bit bigger problems—it’s your parents who are really important to be there for you.
It’s the Small Things That Matter
Children love the small, sweet things that parents do for them on a regular basis and they love the rituals that make each family unique. According to Galinsky, it’s not the family vacation to Hawaii or the big family reunion that your child will remember most when they are older. It’s the small things that parents do on a regular basis to show their children how much they love them.
Galinsky recalled her interviews with older children, “…One child talked about that when she came down the stairs to go to school, her dad said, “You go, tiger, you go get them,” and that was what she was going to remember most from being a young person. Another child talked about being in bed and the wake-up song—this was not a little kid. But his mother always sang a wake-up song, and that’s what he was going to remember most. That says to parents, ‘Have those rituals, have those traditions. Those are important, even with teens.’”
Tell Me About the World
Another finding from Galinsky’s research is that young people who felt heard and respected by their parents, wanted to continue learning about the world from them—even as they got older. They want their parents to tell them about their world-views and how the world works. They want them to remember that just because they are older, they still want to learn from them. Young people want to hear about their parent’s work lives, not necessarily the complaints and conflicts that parents often bring home with them, but the insights and interesting things that are happening at work.
Take Care of Yourself
Galinsky asked children if they could have one wish that could change the way their mothers or father’s work affects their life, what would that wish be? Even more than the desire to spend more time with them (and that’s paramount), they want their parents to be less stressed and less tired.
Young people actually worry about their parents a lot. Galinsky found that, “One out of three [children] worries about his or her parents often or very often, and two-thirds worry some of the time.” And one of the things they worry about the most is how stressed their parents are.
There’s a lot to learn as we venture into the world of preteens and adolescence. We are often the ones that our children want the most when times get hard, but we get triggered easily by their surly attitude and push/pull behavior.
Parents spend less time at the park and don’t drop into playgroups anymore as their children get older. Often we have less contact with other parents and fewer conversations about the challenges and triumphs of parenting a preteen or adolescent. But parents of older children still need support and strategies to get them through the teen years.
As parents of preteens or adolescents, we have to take the time to appreciate the hard work we’ve already done as parents, and remember that our work is not finished. Our children still want us to remind them how much we love them, to really notice who they are, and to take an interest in their lives.