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Crazy Days

They're moody, ornery, and completely unpredictable. Here's how to stay sane while you parent a preteen.

Q. Our kids are 11 and 13 and they're making us nuts! Please help us find something unique and positive about our kids.

A. I hear this question from so many parents. They're frustrated with not understanding their preteens. The child who seemed so perfect and normal only a couple of years ago has turned into a complex mess of moods and attitudes. What these parents want most is perspective. So here's a dose.

The preteen years are a unique time in a child's life. This is when two significant life phases overlap: The openness and receptivity of childhood and the forward-looking attitudes of adolescence. This overlap creates a small window of opportunity for growth, commitment, and identity formation.

The window opens on two important issues. The first is how your child thinks about faith. Barna Research claims that the overwhelming majority of Christ-followers date their acceptance of Christ prior to the age of 14. After 14, the likelihood of becoming a Christian drops drastically. Those of us who work with preteens in churches see an enormous difference between these kids and their older teen brothers and sisters, who are much less inclined to listen to new ideas. Naturally, no one is out of God's reach, but there is a special receptiveness to spiritual truths in these preteen years that fades as kids get older and more cynical about the world.

Sure, as a parent, you might see less openness than you saw when your child was 8 or 9. But believe it or not, your "tween" is still in the responsive zone. Take advantage of it by living your own faith intentionally and being open to your child's questions about faith.

The second issue is who they are becoming. During the two years following the onset of puberty, children experience the second most significant set of physiological changes they'll ever go through (birth to 2 see the most). Preteens experience change in every aspect of development: physical, emotional, cognitive, relational, social, and—of course—spiritual. With their brand new ability to think abstractly (a developmental "bonus" of puberty), preteens inevitably reexamine their childhood belief systems. This faith evaluation is part of their God-ordained maturation process, so even if it scares you a little, remember that it's normal and good!

When it comes to their preteens, many parents are tempted to raise the white flag of surrender. But these children are at a point where intentional parenting is crucial. That means making time to talk about issues of faith and staying connected with your preteen's world.

Sure, this kind of stuff takes time and effort. But parenting is an investment. And there is a huge return on parenting effectively during the preteen and early teen years. Noted leadership guru Peter Drucker has said, "I believe that the junior high years are the most important years to develop leadership skills in people." The return is rarely immediate; in fact, it's usually delayed a few years or more. But when you continue being an active, involved parent—even when your child is making you nuts—you'll help them develop their spiritual understanding, faith commitment, vocational calling, and maturity.

While every parent-child relationship is unique, there are some basic principles that apply to all families with preteens. Active parenting during these years involves time, unconditional love, acceptance, guidance, listening, modeling, and all that other stuff you already know how to do. Most of all, it involves a whole lot of patience—more patience than you can muster up on your own. So take your feelings about your children to God on a regular basis and ask him to fill you up with extra patience.

Mark Oestreicher is the president of Youth Specialties (YouthSpecialties.com), the leading provider of resources and training for Christian youth workers.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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