When I see twelve year olds in our clinic, I still need their parents’ permission to treat them for strep throat or eczema. But parents’ permission, or even their knowledge, is not required for pediatricians in our state to provide contraception, or to treat pregnancy-related issues, sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol or drug abuse, or depression.
The middle school years are a time of enormous transition. Childhood is giving way to adolescence; the primacy of parents is giving way to the forging of peer relationships and networks that have deeper influence than ever before.
These changes are reflected in the changing role of the pediatrician. Starting in middle school, I begin asking the parents to step outside the room for a portion of each visit, to give the student, my patient, a chance to talk or ask questions confidentially. Meanwhile I ask some questions of my own: about school, friends, moods, smoking, sexual activity, etc. Being excluded from this conversation sometimes makes parents feel uncomfortable.
I see parents as vitally important to their children’s well-being, and encourage teens to communicate with them. Most teens I see only every year or two. So I offer some thoughts to parents on how to navigate these wonderful, tumultuous years. I have four kids of my own, ranging in ages now between 12 and 21.
- Build a communication bridge with each child. Quietly develop an interest in some topic that your child is passionate about, learn the details, and keep up with what is new. Choose something that you can both relax and enjoy talking about, even in times of stress. Keep that topic free from any argument or nagging – a safe zone. And build a setting for conversation into the routine – family breakfast or family dinner can be a great conversation anchor. If you haven’t learned to be an agile texter, it’s a good time to start.
- Build bridges to great peers. In middle school and high school, perhaps the greatest predictor of their behavior is the expectations of their friends and peers. Friendships are forged in shared experiences. Go out of your way to facilitate shared experiences for your children with the friends that bring out the best in them. These last few intense chauffeuring years, where you are a major source of transportation, are a real opportunity.
- Build bridges to their dreams. Listen for their aspirations, both short- and long-term. Encourage them to dream. Find ways for them to try the dreams on – connect them with people, experiences, opportunities, books, movies to support their dreams. And don’t mind at all when the dreams change dramatically, and it’s time for them to explore something else.
- Build bridges to memories. Think back on some of your favorite childhood family memories. This is a great time to create some for your own family, when your children are old enough to appreciate and remember them, and young enough that they are not pulled in as many directions as they may be soon. Use photos, videos, and stories to keep those great memories present.
- Family traditions are important. When kids are entering into middle school, it’s a good time to re-think your traditions in light of what will work when they are in the busy high school years, when they move away to college, or when they out on their own. We try to have at least a few days every season set aside for something special (such as our annual Dad’s birthday weekend at the Russian River, not far from our home). This could still work when they all have families of their own. We’ve moved the date around considerably, as well as the location (this year won’t even be in California), but we always do “Russian River.”
Our teens will require our time, our attention, and our money one way or another. When we can, it’s better to invest these in building bridges than in rescue operations. Each family finds their own way. None of us is perfect. But it is certainly possible to enjoy the transition years, and to become even closer during them, as the nature of our relationship transforms as much as our children do.
What are your challenges, concerns, solutions, and thoughts on those years in the middle? What wisdom can you share? Humorous stories welcome. We all need to laugh.