You know the routine: Your 12-year-old comes home to tell you he's been invited to do something you don't want him to do?attend a parentless party, ride his bike to the next town, go bungee jumping. Then the battle begins. You say no, he complains; you stand your ground, he complains. Then he pulls out his trump card: "Mom, everyone else is doing it. Don't you trust me?"
Despite appearances to the contrary, middle schoolers don't live to argue with their parents. What they are living for is acceptance. During these in-between years?more than at any other stage of development?a child is hypersensitive to judgment by his peers. He craves a sense of belonging, and his desire to blend in can blind him to danger or foolishness that seems perfectly obvious to you. These are the times when your middle schooler simply won't respond to reason.
It's important to keep that in mind as you set and enforce limits. While some limits are negotiable, you can still reach out in love even as you stand your ground. A gentle tone of voice, a few words of understanding?"Honey, I know you're worried about what your friends will say, but these are the rules"?will go a long way toward heading off anger and rebellion in your young teen.
To keep a level head yourself, remember that setting limits is a loving thing to do. Though kids may balk at your limits, emotionally they need them. Consider this study: On an unenclosed playground, school children tended to play within a rather small area in the middle, avoiding venturing too far. When the playground was fenced, the children spread out far and wide, using every bit of space, right up to the limits of the enclosure.
For your 11- to 14-year-old, limits will provide a sense of security, and within that secure space there is a greater sense of freedom. Deep down, your young teen will be reassured when she knows someone is in charge, that you care enough to think through what's in her best interest. Your child will also benefit from hearing you explain the reasons you set limits: because you love her.
And get ready to express that love often because you will be setting plenty of limits in the next few years. Phone privileges, parties, dating, curfews?all call for balance between your child's growing need for independence and his continuing need for safe parameters. Finding that balance is key to preparing your child for the teen years when he'll need to learn to set limits for himself.
Montessori teacher, mother of 11
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