Fostering Healthy IDENTITY in the Pre/Early-Adolescent Child—

Eleven to Fourteen (Infants to 4yrs         5 to 10yrs          High School to College)

Interests

Meaning: Individual interests begin to show themselves more demonstratively and more autonomously during these years. When these interests do emerge, kids will be best served—(their identities desperately need the backing)—when the adults around them confirm and support them.  Yes, interests and proclivities will exhibit themselves in the younger years; but during these tween years the interests will become more of a force emerging from the child as opposed to the activities that parents are largely promoting and encouraging on their own behalf when children are age five, six and seven. When children are very young, parents often represent their kids’ activities to others as genuine interests their children pushed forward on their own. That is a dubious claim. That never holds for the middle school / junior high years, as kids will put their foot down on those activities they wish to discontinue and instead press forward with what is really on their minds. Athletic interests, music interests, artistic interests, academic interests, social interests—one or more of these should be rising to the top, and it is crucial for parents to be validating these choices, as opposed to challenging them, in order to nurture healthy identity formation.

Actions: When children are emerging beyond their elementary years, parents should consider when to give up on pushing those interests the kids are beginning to resist. It is certainly okay to establish routines like music practice, dance lessons or attending soccer games, but when kids turn ten, eleven, and twelve, this is the time to be detecting resistance or, conversely, determining whether an intrinsic motivation is germinating that could mean a serious commitment to the activity for years to come. These tween years are definitely key years to tell if interests are genuine and whether these interests are being “owned” by the child. If they aren’t being owned, it’s time for parents to consider backing off the pressure and scaling back the emotional investment, lest the child develop a negative pattern of resistance and resentment against the parent. Regardless of these motivational levels, it is so important for parents to champion, in as positive way as possible, whatever the child is engaging with in order to emphasize the value of discipline, grit, and commitment—ideals that will not take hold through imposition and compliance.

Learning: Some great advice about caring for your preteen and understanding the stages of emotional and psychological development during the year 11 through 14 can be found on the medicinenet.com site and searching for tween child development. A superb article about teaching children commitment to an activity—a much more thorough narrative on the topic than can be explained in just a paragraph like I tried to do just now—is on the streetdirectory.com site with the article title, “Commitment: Teaching Children the Lessons of a Lifetime.”

Motivation

Meaning: When children become ten-eleven-twelve, the likelihood is high that they will show signs of peeling away from parental cooperation and will begin acting in ways that will frustrate and annoy their parents. This is really the milder explanation of what happens during these years of puberty, as they become more fiercely peer dependent and less parent accommodating. Conduct at school becomes more troubling; a shadow or secret self sometimes forms; attitudes can turn more sullen. I mention these downward trends—which of course is not always the case– because the parental stance having a high level of hope during these ramp-up years to adolescence is to connect with whatever positive elements of motivation are glimmering in the child. Be it sports, music, taikwondo, drawing, geography trivia, movies—whatever:  it is vital for parents and teachers to hook into that which is intrinsically motivating to these children during the middle school years. Often parents turn exasperated and oppositional, only fueling the opposition the child is projecting. The point is not the activity the child likes to do; it does not matter at all. The real issue is a parent’s support for the interests and passions a child might be exhibiting during these years.

Actions: Like the saying relating success in sales, “Always Be Closing,” we adults need to be nurturing those glimmers of intrinsic motivation in the child during these years—the phrase should be, “Always Be Cultivating,” those signs of passion, of motivation, of enthusiasm. Recognizing and acknowledging even the tiniest of successes will go a long way to extend the child’s interest and investment in particular talents and activities. The child’s need to have competence confirmed and celebrated is just as strong in these years as it was when they were younger. Of particular importance is for adults to nurture those often hidden impulses in the child to help others or to serve in the community. The tween years may appear to be more withdrawn and selfish years on the surface, but the empathic nature is still alive and ripe for activation.

Learning: The site with enormous resources and articles on teaching children values and motivation, along with how to zero in on emotional and social learning, is the Edutopia.org site. A key article for teachers regarding motivation on this stie is https://www.edutopia.org/article/nurturing-intrinsic-motivation-students . My favorite book on this subject of how and why we must appeal to the child’s intrinsic motivation is Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.

Cognition

Meaning: These snippets of perspective you are seeing on my enlivenminds site derive from over thirty years of my professional conversations and experience with teachers plus a similar duration of time in meeting after meeting after meeting with parents about their children. No, I am not a university researcher with clinical backup for every one of my observations and pronouncements. I am not a neuroscientist, nor am I a brain researcher. But I’ve read a lot of material about these areas of knowledge, and I have certainly accumulated a plethora of anecdotes to support my contentions and assertions. Therefore, when I offer my thoughts about the pre-adolescent brain, you can look up the research to double check my opinions, but my first-hand experience I hope you will see has a great deal of legitimacy and integrity. So let me assert here, regarding pre-adolescent cognition, which is really a topic about the tween brain, from ages 11 to 14, is that chaos and turbulence are forming during this phase—emotionally, physiologically, spiritually, academically. But beneath this tornadic mindset, the pre-adolescent brain is acquiring crucial problem-solving skills, abstract thinking is emerging, metacognition is surging in terms of being more aware of one’s own thinking processes, and the ability to generalize from particular details is strengthened. As teachers and parents, there is a lot we can do to channel the tween’s fierce desire to assert independence and help them center their exploding brains and bodies toward interests and issues and stances that both confirm their identity as well as their independence, yet elevate their place in the classroom community of learners.

Actions: These are the years for teachers to ratchet up their instructional approach by emphasizing higher order thinking skills and applying active learning. No matter what the subject, lesson plans should require students to evaluate, analyze, make connections, understand cause and effect, consider symbolic significance, and whenever possible to move lessons from the concrete to the abstract. The classroom scene should be one of active learning, including teamwork, projects, constructive knowledge, problem solving, and artistic renderings. Active learning will also mean having students summarize what was learned and what the lesson’s relevance is to the themes of the course or unit of study. The adept teachers for this age group also will reach their students via social, physical and emotional strategies, allowing students to give voice to their feelings, trying out kinesthetic tactics, and guiding students toward pro-social steps in the classroom. For both teachers and parents, conversing with this age group successfully will mean helping them to see the bigger picture, and also helping them to solve problems themselves.

Learning: On the greatschools.org site, there is an article focusing on the pre-teen brain and how parents can best support this phase of a child’s development: “Inside the Tweener’s Brain: What insights can neuroscience offer parents about the mind of a middle schooler?” by Hank Pellissier.  A full study of this pre-adolescent mind can be found in the book, The Middle School Mind: Growing Pains in Early Adolescent Brains, by Richard Marshall and Sharon Neuman.

Relationships

Meaning: This is the age when all the entanglements and complications of relationships are coming into awareness for the very first time. In this section I’m referring to the full range of relationships that exist apart from the romantic relationships that will perk up later in the teen years. For tweens, this means longtime friendships, brand new friendships, cliques that are hardening or breaking up, relationships with parents, with siblings, etc. The contrast between argument and empathy; the choice between parents and peers; the conflict between what you want and what is best: For the adult in the room trying to make sense of the turmoil and confusion the tween feels, this is definitely the time to suspend judgment and support the process of understanding.  All along it is vitally important to validate the child’s/student’s identity. While girls are more likely to vocalize their feelings and boys are more apt to evade or circumvent such displays of feeling, verbal or otherwise, both boys and girls will deeply feel the trials and tribulations of relationships.

Actions: The key to supporting boys and girls during the middle school years as they encounter complications with friends and family is to listen to them and to echo their words and problems in order to confirm what they are saying. It is very hard to avoid issuing judgments, but the better outcomes to these relationship scrapes will more likely occur if we adults can refrain from making any judgment or assessment of the situation. Tween kids want to be heard and they need to be heard. Supporting the child’s process toward his or her own solution at least has a better chance of keeping the dialogue moving between adult and child – and keeping the dialogue alive is way more than half the battle. Priority number one is for parents and teachers to keep the channels of communication active with pre-teens.

Learning: An article found on verywellfamily.com site called “Tweens and “Friendships: Dealing with the Ups and Downs,” touches on the core facets of relationship problems facing kids during their middle school years. A book on these years receiving very positive reviews is The Everything Tween Book: A Parent’s Guide ot Surviving the Turbulent Pre-Teen Years, by Linda Sonna.

Puberty

Meaning: For purposes of this section on IDENTITY, my aim with listing puberty is not to chart the sequence and timetable of hormonal and physical changes taking place in boys and girls, but to spotlight the emotional and social proclivities and changes during this phase, which for girls can begin as early as eight years old and for boys as early as ten years old—the completion of these hormonal and physical changes (growth spurts, acne, body odors, hair growth, voice changes, weight gains, etc,) occurs over a five year period for girls and about six years for boys. However, the emotional, attitudinal, and self-awareness aspects of puberty can become volatile and problematic if children are not prepared properly for these changes, and especially there can be worrisome turns in behavior if parents have not been conversant with their children about the physical maturation process during these years. The manifestations of puberty in the child’s outward behavior and attitude can include getting angry, being confused, becoming more distant and secretive, embarrassment and nervousness with sexual feelings, moodiness, depression, becoming overly sensitive, and a host of other emotionally intense episodes. This is a ripe age for children to struggle with identity, to figure out their place in their family and their sense of self in the broader context of the community and the world.

Actions: For parents, these tween, puberty-evolving years are high time to practice reassurance, availability and caring. Getting out ahead of the changes by communicating about what is ahead even before children show signs of physical change will be best. Additional advice: stay calm during a child’s outburst; be supportive and understanding when your child presses for ways to be independent (independent within the realm of safety, that is); keep lines of communication open, always; stay connected with family rituals like movie nights and card games. Respect your child’s need for more privacy. For teachers, move instruction toward addressing developmental needs, offer students opportunities for self-definition, assign more interactions with peers, praise competencies when they show themselves, and give kids room to move around. Pose higher order thinking questions. Be surprising and unconventional, on occasion, and step outside the box with different kinds of assessments, ones that appeal to the child’s talents and strengths. Puberty will sometimes mean kids pulling away from teachers as much as they might with parents, so being unpredictable and keeping kids engaged with personalized approaches to subject matter can be effective during the middle school years.

Learning: To help kids cope with the physical changes and sexual maturation process, this book is very good: The Puberty Bomb: A Survival Guide for Girls, Boys, and Parents! by Katrina Kahler. An unusual but illuminating article is actually a dialogue between a mother and her middle school son, called, “Advice for Teachers from a Middle School Student,” by Keely Swartzer. This post, on the learnersedgeinc.com site, contains several webclick sources for implementing the student’s advice in the article.

Nutrition

Meaning: Whether physical changes and growth occur gradually or in spurts, the tween years are crucial for maintaining a healthy diet. It is not just about weight and height, but also the central nervous system undergoes significant development during these years of hormonal emergence and activity. Throw into the equation the body image issues, all too common with girls during this phase, which make the need for healthy eating so vital, even lifesaving. I will not spell out the breakdown needs for calories, carbs, protein, fruits, veggies and fats here.  The links in the “learning” section below will have this data, but the key is to make sure they are eating enough, and that you do your best to keep healthy foods around the house—this means ditching the junk foods and work at dissuading your children’s consumption of junk as much as possible. Definitely be careful about sugar consumption, as elevated glucose levels are harmful to the growing brain. Frequent sugar consumption hampers the tween’s ability to process emotional highs and lows. The links between sugar and depression and/or anxiety is all over the health and medical sites. As health advice is everywhere, and while it can be confusing, just know they all advocate a balanced diet and fresh foods, but the one plug I will make is for sufficient leafy green vegetables because of the connection between the lutein pigment found in these greens and cognitive function and academic achievement.

Actions: Talking nutrition and modelling fresh food eating habits will not win every battle with the tween child when it comes to healthy eating choices, but it must be the foundation of home life during these years.  This is the time to be crafty, humorous and creative in your attempts to instill the right eating habits and secure the tweens’ buy-in for healthy meals and snacks. It goes without saying that eating together as a family will boost chances for healthy consumption.  The best way to support this is to establish a strict schedule so that family members eat together. Consider setting up a system of roles and responsibilities:   Perhaps through some good old-fashioned cajoling the children can take roles as chefs in the endeavor, thus building ownership for the healthy foods they will be eating. To keep parental monitoring going on the junk food front, conduct weekly backpack checks—one recent study of backpack monitoring found that only 4% of backpacks get checked by parents with any regularity.

Learning: A book that covers a full range of healthy topics when it comes to tweens and teens is, Healthy Eating for Preteens and Teens: The Ultimate Guide to Diet, Nutrition, and Food, by Leslie Beck. An excellent overview of all the nutritional elements that must be considered during the years of puberty is on the mom.me site, titled “Nutrition for Kids during Puberty,” by Whitney Friedlander.

Electronics

Meaning: Among the angriest parent complaints these days have something to do with online usage or misuse or abuse: For example, perceived over-usage in the classroom, pernicious social media attacks involving their kids, fear that technology in schools is displacing real learning,  and exasperation with their kids frittering away their time online. Often these parents beseech schools to rid the world of this evil invention of modern technology. Unless you are planning to pack up your family and move to the Myanmar forests to become Theravada Buddhists, my strong advice to all parents is to get real and assume your share of the ownership in the matter by working closely with your children and partner with schools on responsible usage. Yes, there are bad people out there, but close monitoring and drilling into the child the paramount importance of never interacting with strangers online will go a long way to stave off harm.  And when should phones come into the picture? There are many opinions out there about when a parent should get their child their first phone. Age isn’t what’s important: A parent needs to judge the child’s maturity level and their ability to follow home and school rules. There are indeed so many topics related to safe tech usage, social media, and identity and reputation protection. The key is to be as activist a parent in this arena as possible, learn what’s going on in the world of social media, stay current with what new apps kids are using, know what options you have as a parent regarding monitoring, and connect with other parents on this topic.

Actions: Setting boundaries and timetables at home, engaging with your children on responsible usage, applying the new monitoring techniques to keep track of usage, modelling healthy book time (just 10 or 15 minutes of real book holding and reading time) and eye time (looking at each other at the dinner table—no electronics in sight)—these are just some ways to instill responsible tech behavior. Regarding the tween’s proclivity to be rash and impulsive, this is high time to begin teaching “mega-moments,” which is taking a brief pause before reacting, especially online, where saying bad things, issuing angry outbursts, can be damaging to one’s reputation, given the permanent footprint of online activity. The pre-frontal cortex, that portion of the brain that determines self-regulation and decision-making, is far from being fully developed and activated during this time, so teaching those silent pauses can be crucially important. For teachers, perhaps the most important stance to take in the classroom is to be a proactive teacher yourself when it comes to assuring that students are using their devices for the schoolwork intended. Move about the room, position kids in ways to assist monitoring, and intervene calmly and quietly when getting students back on track. And by all means, balance their time on devices with time to debate, problem-solve, discuss, and handwrite ideas and notes—while devices are closed up and out of reach.

Learning: An excellent example of a child’s contract for responsible tech usage, which also serves as an anti-bullying strategy, is on the cyberbullying.org site, https://cyberbullying.org/technology-use-contract-2014.pdf . Monitoring devices are very much available for parents—like the mSpy app for parents to track their child’s snapchat usage. There are also tons of apps for parents to check up on Instagram—here’s just one source for these apps: https://www.fonemonitor.com/phone-spy/top-instagram-spy-apps.html#part1 . Regarding teaching your child responsible usage, check out this article on netsanity.net, called “Teaching Children Responsible Use of Technology” by clicking here:    https://netsanity.net/teaching-children-responsible-use-technology/ .