Talking with Preteens
Balancing Stress and Success
We live in a high-pressure world, and we want our children to be successful. It seems like our kids have to be athletes, play an instrument, be involved in community service activities and excel in school just to be "average."
Many parents are struggling with the desire to be good parents, provide opportunities to our children that we did not have, and give them a chance to be the best they can be. However, in the process, we:
- Experience a lot of stress
- Don't feel that we communicate with our children as much as we would like to, or about the things that we should.
I invite you to explore how to balance stress and success, while at the same time making a commitment to communicate more with your children. Try the activities below to get your mind thinking about your children, and then go talk to them.
- Activity A -- What stresses your children?
- Activity B -- Quality Time
- Initiating Good Communication
- Encouraging Preteens to Communicate
Activity A -- What stresses your children?
Get a piece of paper and draw a line down the center. Only write on one side. The second side is for you to get your child's perspective. After you do this activity, fold the paper and ask your child to complete his or her half, then compare answers. The process will make for an interesting conversation.
Write down five things that cause your child stress, in order of importance (how much stress they cause).
What were some of the things you put as the biggest "stressors" for your kids? Many of the answers are probably about the difficulty in balancing activities, doing too much. That is not rocket science -- their lives mirror ours.
Did anyone put down "parents"? I am sorry to say that parents often cause much stress -- because we are too pushy or nosy, or put too much pressure on our kids.
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Activity B -- Quality Time
Write down the last time that you just "hung out" with your eldest child -- not doing anything, just hanging out listening to music, watching clouds or the ocean, just talking? Not washing the dishes, folding the laundry, driving, shopping or anything else.
Research suggests that family time should be as important as education, athletics, community service, music, dance, social activities and other outside commitments. Kids need time to talk with parents, as well as some unstructured time each day to "process" what they are learning. Preteens and teenagers also need about 10 hours of sleep each night.
You can help reduce stress by making time to spend with your child, time during which you just hang out with him or her -- shoot hoops, read, cook, talk, sit, walk, play cards, anything. This time tells children that you find them interesting and worthwhile, which will boost their self-esteem. This is also the prime time that kids will ask parents questions.
My kids prefer the grocery store line, and when we are having "tea," which I have figured out is code for "mom hasn't dropped out of warp speed." Grab the tray and turn on the kettle. Twenty minutes of tea, with a fresh flower on the table and a cookie -- and our evening is off to a much better start.
Use the rest of the sheet of paper you have to make a list of things you can try to provide more time with your children. Do not be disheartened if you try a few and they are duds. Just keep trying -- your children will appreciate the effort.
A big bonus is that "hanging out" time is actually very relaxing for you, too.
Remember, when weighing the value of the time you spend, that hanging out together is important for opening up communication. It may take a while before they talk, but they will.
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Initiating Good Communication
Start early. Waiting until your children are 12 to have the "sex talk" is not a good idea. Kids are hearing about and forced to cope with tough issues at increasingly earlier ages, not only sex but also alcohol, drugs, peer pressure, smoking, the list goes on forever. Many girls are starting their periods at 10 now.
There is a lot to cover, and the lessons should be gradual.
Communication should be tailored to the age of the child. For example, toddlers learn eyes, ears, penis, breasts, etc. Five-year-olds should know the correct terms for all body parts, and understand how babies are made and where they come out of a female's body.
Add more information as your child grows. By the time a child is 10, he or she will need to be comfortable talking with you about body odors, bathing during periods, etc. If you start everything at 10, it all may feel very intrusive to your child.
Initiate conversations with your child, even about sexuality. While some kids will ask you questions, others need you to start the conversation. This does not mean start a conversation out of the blue; it means be aware of naturally occurring moments. For example, when something on TV or the radio mentions sex, open it up and ask what they know about the topic, or if they have any questions. Listening to what the kids talk about in the car may provide other opportunities -- jump right in when you can.
Create an open environment. At no other time in history have children been exposed to so much information, and they need to know they can ask you anything. Try not to overreact when your 10-year-old asks what oral sex is. Just ask what they really want to know, and answer as clearly and honestly as you can.
Communicate your own values (clearly). Do not assume they understand. Tell them, "I do not think sex before marriage is ever acceptable" or "I think sex before marriage is OK if and only if the couple has discussed it, is using a reliable method of contraception and condoms, and his or her mother knows."
Listen to your child. If you really listen, your children will feel more comfortable talking to you. They know they have your undivided attention because they are important, and you are committed to understanding their feelings and providing information.
Try to be honest. Whatever your child's age, he or she deserves an honest answer -- it strengthens his or her ability to trust. If you do not give him or her a complete answer, they will make one up, which may be more frightening than the truth. The most difficult questions also give you a chance to add in your values.
Be patient. Let your children ask the whole question, and ask for the story that explains why they want to know. It will help you give the correct answer. In most cases, kids are not asking for the complex answer we want to give.
Talk about it again, and again and again. If your child asks the same question several times, maybe over several days or weeks, be tolerant and give the answer, over and over again. Chances are good that your child is taking in some of the answer, processing and then coming back for more when they are ready. Persistence is a valuable character trait.
Admit if you do not know something, and look for the answer together, or tell your child when you will come back with the answer.
Ask for feedback. Let a little time pass after an important conversation and then ask your child to tell you what he or she remembers from the conversation and what he or she understood, or thought you were saying. My favorite example of this comes from some research we did a few years ago with parents and teenage girls.
We had the parent and child talk about premarital sex for about 30 minutes, while we taped the conversations.
Then we had focus groups of girls and parents separately. In one room, the parents were so pleased with themselves -- they had conveyed their values to their daughters. They had told their daughters that they were definitely against pre-marital sex, even if they had done it.
In the room next door, the girls were saying yes, they understood what their parents expected from them sexually -- they knew their parents trusted them to make the right decision and if they were really in love, sex before marriage was OK.
The moral of this story is, ask them what you said -- the answer may surprise you. More importantly, it gives you an opportunity to say what you believe again, in a way they will hear.
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Encouraging Preteens to Communicate
Make time to help with a science experiment, chaperone a field trip to a science or technology museum, or help with a family science night.
Turn off the TV and get the family involved in a project, volunteer experience, board game or other activity:
- Spend time learning a new computer program or game with your child.
- Spend some time investigating the Internet with your child -- have them take you to a couple of their favorite pages or visit a chat room.
Finally, take time to support the wonder of children -- look at the night sky, go for a walk, plant a garden, listen to the birds. There are no easy answers and no guarantees that your child will succeed, but knowing they can always talk with you and feeling loved, cared for and respected is a great beginning.
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This material is an excerpt from a workshop by Nancy Brown, Ph.D., presented at the Expanding Your Horizons in Science and Math Conference in Santa Cruz, California.