As the parent of a young adolescent, you know the importance of continuing to guide and protect your child. At the same time, you need to let your child take bigger strides toward independence.  It can feel like a constant push and pull with children this age – knowing when to step back and when to be involved. The following information can help you navigate this time as your child matures and becomes more independent.

Staying involved as a parent

Research shows that active and involved parents have children who are more likely to do well in school and less likely to use drugs and alcohol, or to engage in other risky behaviours. In the middle or junior high school years, experts agree that parents have more control than they sometimes think they do. Here are some ways to be an involved and "hands on" parent:

  • Know where your children are, who they're with, and what they're doing when they aren't with you. Make it a family rule that your child must check in with you by leaving notes, messages, and calling you at work or at home. Continue this rule through high school. You could have a designated check-in time as well. A simple phone call at 4:00 p.m. every day may put you both at ease.
  • Don't let your child spend time in homes where there is no adult supervision. Adolescents  who are unsupervised after school are significantly  more likely to use drugs, according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Arrange to have your child looked after or involved in supervised activities from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., the time most trouble occurs.
  • Get to know your child's friends and their parents. When you drop your child off at someone's home, go in and talk briefly with the adult or adults at home. This is also a good way for you to meet new people.
  • Monitor computer time. Limit how much time your child spends on the computer. Experts recommend  no more than one hour a day online, unless your child is doing homework. Know where your child goes online. It helps to have the computer in a public space in your home so you can monitor what's going on. Talk about what Internet sites are off limits. Check the Internet use history on your browser from time to time, and check with your Internet service provider about parental controls.
  • Limit how much TV your child watches. The average adolescent spends 22 hours a week watching TV, according to a report by the Carnegie Corporation. That's more than three hours of TV a day. Experts recommend  that children spend no more than one hour a day in front of the television.
  • Be consistent about and enforce rules. Young adolescents  need rules about curfews, TV, telephone time, bedtime, computer use, and not spending time at homes where no adult is present. There don't need to be too many rules. But it's important to enforce the rules you do have about important concerns such as safety, drugs, alcohol, adult supervision, and homework. Let your child know which rules are negotiable and which aren't.
  • Try to get conversations going every day. Ask questions like, "How was your day?" "What did you do?" "Tell me about your new math teacher." "Tell me about that new show everyone's talking about." Make this a conversation, not an interrogation. Don't check your email, read the paper, or have your mind on something else when your child wants to talk.
  • Stay involved at school. Get to know your child's teachers. Go to school meetings and special events like plays and holiday shows. Know when a test is coming up or a report is due. Be familiar with your child's schedule. Volunteer to help at school or to chaperone a dance or field trip. Read the school newsletter. Speak positively about school and teachers and talk about school every day during the school year.
  • Help your child fill free time with interesting friends and things to do. Encourage outdoor play, bike rides, babysitting, reading, cooking, family walks, and other activities.
  • Make connections with other parents in your community and at your child's school. The parents of your child's friends and other parents in the community will have valuable information  about teachers, school, limits, curfews, and other issues. The more you know about what's going on, the better. Join a parent-teacher  organization. Get involved in after-school  or community activities to get to know other parents.
  • Be available to talk. Make sure your child knows that you are available to talk with him about anything at any time. It's worth repeating, "I'm here any time you want to talk."

Encouraging self-reliance and self-confidence

Encouraging self-reliance and self-confidence are critical steps as you begin to let go during the middle school years. Children whose parents are overly strict and do not give them any independence  are more likely to engage in risky behaviour, according to Child Trends, a non-profit children's research organization.  It's also true that when parents are overly permissive, their children tend to be impulsive and to engage in risky behaviour.

The challenge for parents in the middle or junior high school years is to strike a balance -- to remain actively involved but also to encourage children to make more decisions and bigger decisions on their own. That's not always easy as a parent. Here are some suggestions:

  • Give your child space. Young adolescents need privacy. Your child may retreat to her room to be with friends, talk on the phone, or listen to music and be alone. Respect this need for privacy. And respect your child's private space. Never read your child's diary or go through her dresser drawers -- unless you have serious concerns about safety or your child's well-being. A diary is a way for children to figure out feelings and learn about themselves. Avoid eavesdropping on telephone conversations, too, unless you have serious concerns.
  • Involve your child in decisions that affect his schedule and free time. You can cut down on conflicts and battles at home by acknowledging your child's growing need for independence.  Do that by discussing schedules, appointments, and family commitments  ahead of time with your child. Listen to what he has to say and compromise when you can. For example, you shouldn't cancel a weekend trip to Uncle Richard's just because your 12-year-old  doesn't want to go. But you might agree to cut the trip short if a birthday party he's been looking forward to is scheduled for the same weekend.
  • Help your child learn to manage her feelings. During middle school, there will be ups and downs with friends, classmates, teachers, and other people, and plenty of social issues, too. Peer pressure, teasing at school, problems with a friend – the list can go on and on. Your child may feel happy and confident one minute and insecure and unhappy the next.

The best way to help your child learn to manage her feelings is to be a good listener and to offer lots of positive reinforcement. Acknowledge  the problem your child is facing, and let her suggest solutions. Then consider how these solutions might work. For example, if your child is having a problem with a friend, ask her to explain the problem and how it makes her feel. Then talk about possible solutions. You might talk about a similar problem you faced as a child and how you handled it. That may not be the solution for your child, but it lets her know she's not alone, that you understand, and that things are likely to turn out OK.

  • Give your child more responsibilities at home. Teach and encourage your child to do his own laundry, watch after a younger sibling, cook simple meals, and participate in other family chores. Then compliment  and thank him for helping. Children need to know that by fulfilling their responsibilities  they can earn privileges. Your family rule might be that duties such as doing the dishes or yard work need to be done before your child goes to a friend's for a sleepover.
  • Adjust limits and rules as your child changes and grows. Children grow and mature a lot during middle school. Acknowledge  and reward this growth with more privileges and greater freedom -- the freedom to stay up later, spend more time with a friend, or have more time on the phone. Remember that later bedtimes and more freedom to be alone at home come with examples of responsible behaviour, not just age.

Allowing your child to make mistakes

It's natural to want to protect your child from disappointments and mistakes. But part of letting go means allowing your child to find her own solutions to problems and to learn from her mistakes.

  • Guide and steer, but refrain from solving problems for your child. That way he'll learn to solve problems on his own.
  • Try not to overreact when your child makes a mistake. Making mistakes is part of being a young adolescent. When your child makes a mistake, use it as an opportunity  to sit down and talk about the options that she did not take and why. If you over-react, she'll soon learn not to come to you with problems. Help your child figure out what went wrong and how not to repeat the mistake.
  • When you make a mistake, admit it. Take responsibility  for your own actions by apologizing when you make a mistake. You'll model good behaviour for your child, which may make a difference in the future.
  • Remember the mistakes you made as a young adolescent. You were that age once, too. Remembering  the mistakes that you made as a young adolescent will help you keep things in perspective when your child makes a mistake.

Making family time a priority

Most families have predictable routines when children are young. Dinner is at a certain hour, so is bedtime, and the family is together on weekends. As children grow older, however, these routines become harder to maintain and frequently drop by the wayside. But routines are just as important for children when they are in middle school as they were when they were younger.

  • Try to have family meals together as often as possible. Studies show that families that have regular meals together have children who are less at risk for drug, alcohol, and other serious problems. When you have meals together, don't answer the phone or watch TV. Make this a pleasant time and not a time for criticizing each other.
  • Build in work and play routines, from homework routines to "down time" rituals. Build in times to be together as a family – to go to movies, on walks, on a family vacation. Though they may object, young adolescents  appreciate these times. And opportunities like these provide a good time to talk.
  • Plan fun things to do together. The middle school years will be gone before you know it. Make time for fun family activities like playing games, visiting relatives, or taking a trip to a nearby tourist attraction.
  • Reinforce the message that family is important. You can do that in several ways. Attend events in your child's life and bring siblings and other relatives along. Just having family around in positive situations shows how important family is. Insist that your child attend family functions and get-togethers. (If your child protests, you might compromise  by saying, "You need to be here for one hour and then you can excuse yourself.") Put together a family photo album or memory book with your children, and tell stories about relatives in the photos, especially people who may not be in your child's life, such as grandparents  or great- grandparents. Sharing fond memories of people shows that family bonds last and are important.

You can make the middle or junior high school years easier and more fun by creating a safety net around you – of aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbours, and friends who know and love your child and are there to offer support. Talk with people you trust about parenting questions or concerns you may have. Socialize and share information  with other middle school families. Help your child find trusted adults to turn to for advice and support. The more you surround yourself with other families going through the same stage of life, the easier this time will be as your child becomes a young adult.

The development of this publication was funded in part  by the  IBM Global  Work/Life  Fund.

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