Preteens the Middle Years : Lazybones or Workaholic? Your child’s personality

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Q: My daughter just wants to spend time with her friends. Doesn’t she need me any more?
A: As your daughter moves further into adolescence, her peer group will play an important role in helping her to become an independent, free-thinking young person in preparation for college and career. Learning to stand on her own two feet and developing an identity that is separate from her relationship with you is a necessary part of your daughter’s development, so don’t take this as a personal rejection.

Research shows that adolescents spend more than half their waking hours with their peers, and less than five percent of time with either parent. However, when children were asked to consider who they were closest to and who gave them the most support, parents still came out on top. Your daughter’s friendships are becoming more important to her, but that doesn’t mean that you are now less important. Your daughter still needs the loving care, safety, and security she is used to getting from home (friends can’t replace that), but how she makes use of this will change.

Q: I’m worried my son’s friends are going to lead him astray. Should I stop him from seeing them?
A: If your son is trying to fit in with a new group of friends, he may get involved in a few high-spirited activities at first to show that he is “one of them.” This behavior may be worrying, but remember that he is now choosing his friends based on qualities such as shared interests, attitudes, and values. When your son has gotten to know his friends better, he may feel that their behavior does not fit with his outlook on life, and will probably decide to look for a more compatible group on his own. However, if you challenge him on his choice of friends, he is likely to leap to their defense, and you risk pushing him even closer to this group. Discuss your concerns about his behavior and the possible consequences, but allow him the freedom to make his own choices—unless he is putting himself or others at serious risk.

Your son does not have to be a leader to stand up for what he believes in. With a little time and your support, he will make the choice that’s right for him.

Q: My daughter always spends her allowance as soon as she can. How can I get her to save up?
A: You may have thought that your daughter would grow out of the “I want it now” phase, but some preteens and adolescents take time to develop the ability to see the bigger picture. Delaying gratification in favor of a bigger but longer-term pay off is something that many adults still struggle with.

Some researchers have argued that adolescents find rewarding things more rewarding due to changes in how the brain processes rewards and pleasure. As a result, your daughter may be more driven to get a quick fix by buying something, and saving her money just isn’t an option. Of course, your daughter’s behavior is also shaped by her friends and the messages she gets from society, which tends to emphasize the commercial ideal that “You can have it all right now.” This can be hard for a young person to resist when there are so many things they believe they simply must have.

Let your daughter make her own decisions about what she buys (within reason), but help her appreciate the value of money by talking through the costs and benefits of her choices. You can also teach her some smart shopping skills to help her money go further: Take her to look around second-hand shops, fleamarkets, and vintage clothing stores, which often contain hidden treasures at a fraction of the usual cost. If your daughter misses out on something she wants because she doesn’t want to save, stay firm and try not to give in when she comes to you for a loan.

Q: My son is spending more and more time alone in his room. Should I leave him alone?
A: Coping with the demands of adolescence requires a supportive and caring home environment, a stable school placement, good friends, freedom to grow, and privacy. As your son develops into a young teenager, he needs time and space to sit back, relax, and think about everything that is going on in his life, who he is, and who he wants to be. His developing sense of independence also means that he probably won’t want to share everything with you in the way he once did, so time alone is very important to him. Unless you are concerned that your son is taking to his bedroom because he is distressed, anxious, or engaging in dangerous activities, allow him the time he needs to make sense of all the changes he is experiencing.

Try to keep your son involved in family life, let him know what your plans are, and invite him to join you if and when he wants to. Forcing him to come out of his room is unlikely to make for a very enjoyable evening for anyone. If you are concerned about your son’s emotional health, find an opportunity to share your concerns with him and speak to your doctor if you feel he may need extra help and support.

Q: My daughter seems overly focused on her schoolwork. I’m worried she’s missing out.
A: Your daughter is at an age where she is beginning to imagine different futures for herself, and academic success may be an important part of her career plans. Alternatively, her study habits may reflect the peer group she belongs to at school, or they may simply show that she enjoys her work and derives a lot of satisfaction and self-esteem from academic success. If your daughter seems happy in herself, try not to worry that she is missing out on things. Her social life is important, but it is the quality of her friendships that matters rather than the amount of time she spends hanging around with friends. However, if you are concerned that your daughter is withdrawing more from her friends, try to encourage a healthy work/life balance. Set an appropriate time limit for homework, and create opportunities for her to spend time with her friends. If you are concerned that your daughter may be spending extra time on her work because she is struggling to keep up, talk to her about this and speak to the school to see what support is available.
Q: Lately my child argues with me about everything. Why is she being like this?
A: If you and you daughter have always gotten along well, her argumentative behavior probably reflects her developing verbal and reasoning skills rather than a problem in your relationship. Instead of simply accepting what she is told, she is now beginning to question things in her world much more—this is great for her academic development, but not so great when you are asking her to clean her room… again!

As a younger child, your daughter may have accepted what you were saying with nothing more than a comment under her breath if she disagreed. Now, however, you are getting the full force of her developing intellect. Try not to take this personally. State your case calmly and clearly and, where possible, avoid getting drawn into arguments. Let her have her say, but try to discuss problem issues when she is calm rather than in the heat of the moment. This will set the tone for how she uses her new-found skills in the future.

Q: Our son refuses to help out at home. How can we get him to?
A: Children don’t suddenly become lazy overnight—it takes years of practice! If your son has been able to get away with doing very little for a long time, there is no reason why he should suddenly start helping out. Many parents nag their children to do the dishes, clean their rooms, hang up their clothes, and so on—but end up doing it themselves for the sake of an easy life (and a tidy home). Similarly, many children who are capable of achieving far more find it is easy to get away with doing the bare minimum at school. In this way, those who aren’t bothered by a bit of nagging learn that laziness is rewarded in the end.

You can motivate your son by picking up on examples of behavior you want to see more of and praising him for these. You could also agree on some simple chores at home and link them to his allowance. Performance at school can be rewarded in the same way. Laziness is not a phase that your son will simply grow out of, but his behavior can and will change with the right motivation.

Q: When my son is at home he just lazes around playing video games. Should I make him use his time more productively?
A: Everyone needs a period of downtime where we can relax and unwind from the pressures of the day, and this may be your son’s way of doing that. Sharing tips and comparing progress on the latest video games may also be a hot topic of conversation among his friends, so your son needs time to keep up to date. Recent evidence on teenage brain development suggests that he is going through an important period of growth and development, during which high-level skills such as problem solving, planning, and organizing will be further refined. Those skills that are not used as frequently may not be hardwired in the same way, leading some researchers to call this the “use it or lose it principle.”

If your son is spending all of his spare time on the sofa, you may need to encourage him to engage in other activities by setting a time limit on his gaming. Remember, though, that what you see at home is not the full picture of your son’s life. He may be working hard at school and have other interests that test his developing skills.

Q: I’m concerned because my daughter is very shy and only has a few friends.
A: From the earliest years of a child’s life, individual differences in temperament affect how other people respond to her and how sociable she is. Clearly not everyone wants to be part of a crowd or is comfortable with being the center of attention—it’s usually the same children who take the lead in the school play, while many are happy to stand at the back. As your daughter goes through adolescence, the changes she experiences may leave her feeling insecure and unsure of herself, increasing her shyness. However, being shy is not a problem in itself, as long as it does not prevent her from doing things she wants to do. If she has a few close friends, this may be enough for her needs, and you can’t force her to take part in activities. In fact, trying to do so will probably make things worse.

Focus on building her confidence and self-esteem by praising the things she does well and offering her plenty of reassurance if she is critical about aspects of herself she does not like.

Like father like son? Letting go

To be honest, I was dreading my son entering adolescence—mostly because I remember the problems I caused my own parents. When he started puberty, I steadied myself for the onslaught of moods, arguments, and difficult behavior, so I wasn’t surprised when it started. After a while, though, I began to realize that I was actually causing more problems than my son was. I was so scared about him getting into trouble that I tried to control everything he did and gave him very little freedom, which just made him argue with me all the more. It wasn’t easy for me, but I started to give him more independence (with very clear limits) and tried to talk things over with him rather than just saying “No!” It helps us to work things out together.

We still have our disagreements, of course, but we also have plenty of laughs, and we now get along much better than I did with my father at his age.

New beliefs Environmental issues

Your child’s developing cognitive skills now enable her to think about moral and ethical issues in a more complex and grown-up way. She may start to display new passions, for example, developing an intense interest in recycling and global warming. She may insist on shaping up your household recycling practices, or challenge some longstanding habits in your home. She’s beginning to make individual choices based on her own beliefs and principles, and deciding on her own what she feels is the right thing to do. In addition to her attempts to improve the planet, you may also find her taking more of an interest in news and current affairs.

Use her enthusiasm to open up conversations with her about her activities, and try not to undermine her idealistic view that she can change the world single-handedly. We can all do our part for the environment; agreeing to a few changes at home will also show her that you support her beliefs, which helps to build her self-esteem.


Your child is beginning to make individual choices based on her own beliefs and principles about what she feels is right

Adolescent brain function A second wave of development

It has been known for some time that young children experience a sensitive period of brain development, lasting from birth to around 18 months. During this time, a maze of connections is rapidly wired between brain cells (neurons). This process is known as synaptogenesis, and is followed by a period of synaptic pruning, in which frequently-used connections are strengthened, and little-used connections are removed. Young children should therefore be exposed to a wide range of learning experiences so they will retain as many new connections as possible. However, recent brain studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have shown that this is not the end of the story.

It is now known that different areas of the human brain develop at different rates. In the frontal cortex, which is responsible for functions such as planning, organizing, impulse control, reasoning, and decision making, there is a second wave of synaptogenesis that peaks at around 12 years for males and 11 years for females. Once long-term connections have been formed, they are made more efficient with a coating of myelin (insulation surrounding the synapses). MRI scans show that myelination begins at the back of the brain and moves forward, meaning that the frontal lobes may not be fully matured until young adulthood. Other brain areas, such as those involved in spatial, sensory, auditory, and language functions, appear largely mature in the teenage brain.

Research studies have also shown that teenagers are quicker than younger children at understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, but are not as efficient as adults. This suggests that the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective and the quality of empathy continue to develop during adolescence and beyond.

What does this mean for my child?
There for you

Your child’s brain is continuing to develop, so she still needs your help and guidance.

Rock star

Encourage your child to develop his new interests even if you think they may not last.

  • During this second wave of brain development, your child has considerably more control over his behavior than during the first, and can therefore do a great deal to help shape the connections that will be hard wired. Encourage your child to make the most of his talents and opportunities and support him if he shows a new interest, even if you feel it may be just a passing fascination. Expose him to new learning experiences, but avoid the temptation to force museum visits and enroll him in art classes unless he shows some degree of interest in these activities. Encouraging your child to make the most of his talents and opportunities will lay the foundations for important life-long skills.

  • Some of the difficulties you may experience with your child’s behavior are likely to be related to his developing frontal lobes. He is becoming more self-aware, reflective, and better able to understand the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of others. However, these and other high-level cognitive skills, such as planning, thinking through the consequences of actions, and regulating his impulses and emotions, will take time to develop. This does not mean that you should let inappropriate behavior go unchecked: keep rules and boundaries firmly in place.

  • Try to stay involved in your child’s life—even though he may not seem as if he wants you to at times. Offer guidance and support when he needs it, listen to his point of view, and set consistent rules and guidance to help him stay on the right track.

A word of caution

This period of brain development is clearly important, but these biological processes are not the only factors that will shape your child’s personality. Scientific understanding about the links between brain structures, their function, and their role in specific behaviors still has a long way to go. Your child’s relationship with you, his home and school environments, and friends, not to mention the effect of all those hormones, will all play a role in the complex story of his ongoing development.

Not just biology

Your child’s friends and family, as well as her relationships with school and others in her life, will all have a significant part to play in her ongoing development.

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