Terry is a 12 year old making the transition to middle school whose worry about going into 7th grade developed into a fear of crying in public and panic attacks, which led to separation anxiety. His parents are worried sick because Terry is having a hard time now even going out to play with friends. His older brother thinks Terry is weird.
Jennifer, an 8 year old, developed separation anxiety in 3rd grade, making school mornings a nightmare for the whole family. Jennifer’s parents face screaming, crying, begging and outright, “I won’t go!” whenever they try to get her out the door to catch the school bus. Jennifer’s anxiety has generalized to play dates and parties, she’s even run out of the classroom. Her sister, in the same school is embarrassed by Jen’s public behavior.
What is Separation Anxiety and Why is My Tween So Afraid?
Parents whose tween develops separation anxiety, an emotional condition where a child experiences distress and anxiety when separated from the primary caregiver, often become worried, frustrated, and even angry in trying to deal with their anxious child’s behavior. It’s hard for a parent to understand and deal with their child who freaks out over going to play at a friend’s house. A normal occurrence during childhood development, separation anxiety generally occurs between the ages of eight months and two years old, though separation fears also develop during other life transitions such as, beginning kindergarten and entering into pre-adolescence.
Parents with anxious tweens ask, “What in the world is happening to my once happy child?” “Why can’t he go to birthday parties anymore?” “Why can’t she let go?” This is a time of explosive growth and change from childhood into pre-teen. Many children have a hard time stepping out into the world and try to cling to the safety of home. Following are some of the reasons:
- Tween bodies are developing and awareness of body image becomes an issue; the flood of sex hormones affects emotional centers of the brain making it tough for tweens to control feelings and behaviors; areas of the brain that house impulse control and rational thought are still developing.
- School work becomes harder, homework and testing increases; “fitting in” is suddenly very important; more individual responsibility is expected from parents and school.
- If anxiety develops it packs a wallop with symptoms that include: racing heart, hot flush and sweating, stomachaches, vomiting and diarrhea, headaches, feelings of dread and of being trapped, the inability to concentrate, think or reason, and panic attacks.
A child with separation anxiety is a child who feels distressed, frightened and out of control. Anxiety is a complex condition, and there are many aspects to helping your child. How you communicate your concerns, respond to your child’s behaviors, and talk about what’s happening will play a large part in helping your child.
Can We Talk?
Communicating effectively can be tricky, especially when you’re trying to talk to your anxious pre-teen who says, “I don’t want to talk about it.” And who can blame your child who wants the disturbing feelings to just go away? It’s not just the words you use, but the volume and tone of your voice matters too. And your body language speaks volumes: Are your head neck and shoulders tight? Is your facial expression one of frustration, worry or anger? Is your posture sagging with fatigue about the situation or rigid with tension? Do you wring your hands without realizing it? Having trouble making eye contact because you feel like crying?
It’s hard to communicate to your anxious tween that you are in control of the situation though he feels out of control much of the time, and when you feel anxious about his separation fears yourself. But that’s what you want to do, and here are tips to help you communicate effectively:
- Stay Calm-no matter what your child says, no matter how he is behaving you must remain calm, regardless of how you feel. Your composure communicates to your child that you are his “rock” and in control. Learning easy belly breathing will help you to do this.
- Check Your Body Language-keep shoulders back but relaxed, relax facial muscles and hands, make and maintain eye contact to show you’re engaged and interested.
- Ask Open-Ended Questions-you want to connect with your child and find out how she feels. To keep the conversation going, keep away from closed questions that only require a yes, no, or a head nod. Say things like: “How does it make you feel?” “Tell me more about that.” “What do you think will happen?”
- Tone of Voice Matters– speak softly and kindly to show your child how much you care. This will ease any guilt (a common occurrence) your tween may have about his anxiety disrupting the whole family, and will help your child open up to you.
- Listen-show your child you are interested in his feelings, his problems by: making eye contact, give your child your undivided attention, don’t’ interrupt–wait your turn to speak, nod when appropriate, lean forward slightly and keep hands still, paraphrase what he’s said to make sure you’ve heard correctly and to show that you’ve been listening.
- Honor Your Child’s Feelings-don’t downplay your child’s fears. For example, never say things like, “It’s silly to be afraid of going to your friend’s house.” Though irrational, your child’s fears are real to him. Anxiety makes kids feel different, isolated from others-judging his feelings adds to that. Telling him it’s okay to feel afraid supports him. Say, “I’m here for you and you’re not alone in this.”
- Make it Brief-anxiety is hard to talk about, so limit the conversation. Watch your child’s reaction, if he gets upset, end it, comfort him, and say, “Honey, it’s okay, we can talk about this later.”
- Believe-tell your child you believe in his ability to overcome anxiety and that together you’re going to make things better for him. Your belief that he can succeed is projected onto your child (in the same way your worry is) and will empower him.
For several years now, critics of our educational system and parenting culture have been saying that at the same time the academic performance and morality of American youth plummet, these same children and adolescents carry an outsized opinion of themselves. The shorthand goes that they have too much self esteem. However, if you understand the definition and source of true self esteem, you’ll see that our kids are sorely lacking in the stuff.
First, let’s fix on a good definition. Authentic self esteem is based on the self respect that emanates from external reality. It does not come from internal fantasies fed by well intentioned parents showering their kids with unearned praise. Self-esteem and self-respect may appear to be synonyms, but as child psychiatrist Jack Westman points out in our new book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Child & Adolescent Psychology, they are not. A child’s self-esteem, Dr. Westman explains, can be low or high based on a fantasy he holds about himself, whereas self-respect is based on reality. You can have high self-esteem, and still be a selfish, inconsiderate person.
Kids who have been “spoiled,” whose parents consistently tell them that they are smarter, more creative, athletically gifted, and all around superior to others, can have high self-esteem. But this form of self esteem crashes when they are frustrated or don’t get the sort of approval they have come to expect.
In contrast, self-respect is having a good evaluation or judgment of yourself and having that view validated by realistic accomplishments and experiences with other people. Self-respect gives rise to authentic high self-esteem. This internal feeling is based on external reality.
Because these two words have been conflated in general use, we’ll refer to self respect (as we’ve defined it here) as self esteem but please understand that we are referring to the authentic meaning of this over-used, misunderstood term.
Why Does Self Esteem Matter?
Authentic self-esteem in children is important for a child’s emotional, social, and-now the research makes clear-also for her intellectual development. Sources of self-esteem include the following:
- A child’s innate temperament helps shape her self-esteem. Easy, friendly temperament children tend to develop more self-esteem than children with difficult, inhibited temperaments.
- When parents are willing to discuss household rules and discipline with them, their children’s self-esteem rises. A child then internalizes the message that she is important enough for her opinions to be heard.
- Parents’ consistent warmth, affection, and involvement with their children builds self-esteem. A hug sends the simple message: “You are important to me.”
- Self-esteem also comes from the peer comparisons a child makes and approval or rejection she experiences from peers.
- Self-esteem comes from a child’s emerging “belief system” which can be seen as an accumulation of all of the preceding.
The Problem for Tweens
It’s probably not a surprise to hear that the children most vulnerable to low self esteem are 9 to 12 year olds. When measured by psychological researchers, self-esteem is highest in preschool and lowest at the start of junior high school. In a study of 2,000 low- to middle-income children living in the greater Detroit area, 25 percent of this age group had negative self-esteem. Their negative views of themselves showed up on all three scales measured: academic competence, social acceptance, and global self-worth. On each scale, 5 to 10 percent more girls than boys displayed negative self-esteem.
Why is it so tough to be a tween? First they’re undermined by vast hormone-driven body and mind changes. They literally don’t feel like themselves anymore. To add to their emotional challenges, the transition from elementary to high school is when children fall from a secure social position to a new unfamiliar one, and find themselves at the “bottom of the pecking order.” It’s also the age when many are pulling away from their parents, not confiding all their thoughts and feelings, and not allowing as many kisses and hugs as they used to. Still, by understanding the source of true self esteem, and then helping guide their tweens to adopt attitudes and engage in activities that will give them cause to feel good about themselves, parents can help them navigate this difficult transition.
How to Give Praise
Authentic self-esteem in children does not come from adults offering unearned rewards or praise-simple, right? Apparently not, because in one national survey 85 percent of parents said they think it’s important to tell their kids-early and often-how smart they are.
The problem is this approach backfires. Kids as young as seven know when they’re hearing an untruth about themselves. For instance, if an adult tells a child how fabulously he just did at bat after he struck out, he’ll sense the adult’s false praise.
So what is effective praise? What works with children is the same as with adults. Praise works when it is:
- Specific to an accomplishment
A child can get addicted to false praise. The reward system of the brain will anticipate it and begin sending out dopamine when praise is received. Not receiving praise then becomes a problem for the child. The child who depends on unearned praise will not take risks and will care only about getting good grades. He is more likely to cheat on tests. In other words learning loses its intrinsic value; it’s all about performance and how good he looks to those whose praise he covets.
Meanwhile, the ability to sustain a task and accept a certain amount of frustration and failure is essential to learning and creating in school and in life. When a child is too afraid of failure and too dependent on false praise, she is at greater risk for failure. Praise should be given for sustained effort and rewards should come only with success, not a near miss. From these experiences a child will develop authentic self-esteem and a solid core of emotional resiliency-the all important ability to bounce back from failure or adversity.
Have you noticed your preteen spending more time away from you when just a few years ago they were asking you to stay longer at drop off? Now they are preoccupied with the dramas going on between friends, spending more time with each other on the computer, and telephone. (Texting of course; no one seems to talk much any more!)
While you might feel that your preteen is moving away from you, it is important to know that this is normal and a vital part of their development. Toddlers do this thing called ‘refueling’. They go back and forth, physically, from the parent. You can literally watch them move away, then come back for a hug or a sit on the lap, and then to turn back once again to the outside world after they have ‘refueled’ on comfort.
Your tween needs to ‘refuel’ as well. They need you to be able to adapt to their growing world and recognize that the ways to remain close to you are changing, but the need to do so remains the same. If you find new ways to connect, you will be able to help their growing sense of identity and strengthen their feelings of competence and mastery, all aspects of good self-esteem. At the same time, learning how to communicate and adjust to their changing needs will help you set the stage for the teenage years, when the time away from home increases, and the issues get trickier.
Staying connected requires ‘tuning in’ and ‘active listening’. By being aware of what your preteen is going through, you will know how to ask the right questions, or offer them comfort so that they can build confidence in themselves. Following are some tips to improve that skill:
- Observe your child’s face or listen to their tone of voice. If it is very upsetting to you when you see your child upset or anxious, try to calm yourself down and trust that they will be okay. It is your job to let them know that you are there to listen, while remembering that it is okay for your preteen to manage their unpleasant feelings. They need to know that you have confidence that they can handle powerful emotions. This is a big part of soothing and will help them remain open to speaking up about what is upsetting them without worrying that you can’t handle it or will need to ‘fix’ it.
- If they aren’t speaking, but you can see that they seem upset, you can say, “You look a bit down; what’s up?” Take a moment to observe their reaction. If they don’t seem to want to talk, but aren’t going off to be alone, you can ask them to help you with a task. Offer an activity where they can feel close to you without feeling like they have to talk. By doing this, you “hear” that your preteen wants comfort, but needs to work out their feelings on their own first. After some time, they may be more open to talking about what is going on, when their feelings are less hot.
- Ask open-ended questions instead of questions that end in a “yes” or “no”: “What was recess like today compared to last week?” What did you guys do?”
- We often feel that we have to “teach” our kids things. Try to listen without being judgmental. Our kids need to feel that we are their allies and understand their position. Validate their responses. You can always help them problem solve later.
- Mirroring and identifying with how your preteen feels is an important part of active listening. By repeating back what your child says, you can gain a better understanding of the problem that your preteen is trying solve and help them clarify their feelings. It often helps to start your sentences with, “It sounds like you feel…”
As we get less ‘face time’ with our kids, the challenge becomes to adapt and find new moments to connect. Here are some tips on seizing these ‘golden moments’:
- If you are the one who picks your preteen up from school, observe their face. At pickup time you will get a lot of information by simply observing their expression, tone of voice, and how they interact with their teacher and friends.
- When you take your preteen and their friends to activities be a “fly on the wall.” Listen to the chatter. Pay attention to your child’s behavior and how they act around different friends. You will get a lot of information about how they experience different people. Do they change? Do they tend to be assertive at home, but deferential to certain friends? This is a stage where it is common for girls in particular to become less self-assured as they worry about being ‘left out’ or hurting other people’s feelings.
- Mealtime is key. Even though many families can’t eat together until the weekend, try to find at least two times during the week when you can get home early enough to enjoy dinner with your kids. Rules about meals should include no television and no cell phones, adults included. Use this time as an opportunity to unwind, share a laugh, and talk about the days’ events. You will be amazed at how much comes out and how this can keep you ‘in the loop’!
- You may no longer be reading a book to your child at bedtime, but you can still spend that time together, each enjoying your own books. The bonus of a foot or backrub are ways to offer comfort and connection without talking.
Finding new opportunities to connect with your preteen and giving them space to work out their problems says that you respect and trust their growing ability to figure out their own issues while allowing you to be there if they need you. The ‘back and forth’ of “refueling” may look different from when they were toddlers, but their need for connection and comfort, remains the same.
The events that signal the transition from childhood to the tween years might be pleasant, like your daughter being asked to babysit, or your son no longer needing constant supervision and direction with his bedtime routine. But for most of us, there are other, more dubious events that signal tweendom. Think sudden modesty, boys traveling in packs, newfound arguing skills, eyerolls, attitude, and diminished interest in family time.
Welcome to tweenhood, where bodies and brains are under major construction. And while construction zones can be pretty hazardous places, understanding what’s going on in their heads and their bodies can help you (and your child) face it with a little more confidence, a lot less drama, and a focus on safety.
Part I: The Body Morph
For a lot of adults, thoughts of puberty bring back nothing but memories of awkwardness and insecurity. Most of us want our children to have a better experience than we had, and that means our children need two things in particular: a better understanding of what to expect before it happens, and a go-to adult (preferably a parent) that will answer questions honestly and without judgment.
The conversations are made a little easier by understanding that during the late-elementary to early-middle school years, the primary developmental task for your tween is answering the internal question, “Am I normal?” A focus on pre-emptive discussions and simple reassurances can go a long way to ease body anxiety and replace it with acceptance.
To make is easier for you and your tween, here’s a timeline of the pubertal happenings for girl and for boys. Having honest conversations that address their body-questions (both asked and anticipated) in these early years will do wonders for your connection with your child. It will also firmly establish you as their trusted go-to for future confusing, awkward, and private matters.
Puberty usually begins with growth of her feet and hands!
Breast buds (caused by circulating estrogens) are next for 85% of girls. One side will typically bud first and show up as a hard, sometimes tender knot under the areola. The other breast will bud within a few months (although maybe up to 6 months later).
Vaginal discharge (also an estrogen effect) will begin shortly after breasts bud. The discharge has an acid pH that can be irritating to the sensitive skin on the vulva. As hair grows in, it pulls the discharge away from the skin and the irritation resolves. Until then, a mini-pad or a barrier cream containing zinc oxide (diaper rash cream) can be helpful.
Body odor (the result of circulating androgen hormones like testosterone) kicks in around this time. Soap becomes a necessity.
Pubic hair (another androgen related effect) follows for most girls, but may show up before breast buds for 10-15%. It starts as a few straight, darker hairs, then as more hair grows in, it begins to curl. If it grows “out of bounds” and pokes out of bathing suits, she’ll need guidance with hair management or choosing a different bathing suit. Don’t forget to mention that you can help.
Once she’s sprouting pubic hair, she will likely have oily skin, blackheads or acne (androgens, again!). Gentle facial cleansers and over the counter acne treatments, if used consistently, work for most girls.
She’s been growing taller, but suddenly, there’s a very rapid growth spurt, sometimes 2-3 inches in a matter of months.
About 6 months after her fastest growth spurt, she will probably start her period. Most girls have visions of menstruation that are entirely wrong. Make sure you share your first period story with her, and explain what she can expect. She wants to know how much it will be, how long it will last, what color it is, if it hurts, and how to manage it. Again, reassurance goes a long way to reducing anxiety.
Once the period begins, her feet should be finished growing, but she will continue to grow in her trunk, and there may still be some lengthening in her legs. Her growth slows down significantly after her period starts, but most girls will continue to grow at least 1-2 inches over the next few years.
Help her understand and accept that her growth will occur both up and out, and that getting new curves is the norm.
For most girls, breasts are not finished developing (shape more than size) until around age 17 or 18.
Brains are changing too! Through all this time, there are major changes going on in the way her brain functions and grows. Check back in next week for details on the Brain Morph.
Puberty usually begins with growth of his feet and hands as well as an increase in height and weight.
As feet grow, they tend to take on a stronger odor, as does the rest of his body. Soap, deodorant, clean socks, and new shoes are welcome during this phase!
Testicles become larger and the scrotum hangs lower and darkens in color. For most boys, that means nobody knows they’re hitting puberty except them!
Hair growth increases on the legs and begins in the armpits.
The penis grows and then begins to take on a mind of its own with respect to erections. Erections occur more frequently and at unusual times, not just in response to physical stimulation or sexual thoughts. Make sure he knows this is normal.
Pubic hair will darken and become coarse.
Male breast development (gynecomastia) affects about 60% of boys at some point, most commonly between the ages of 12 and 14. It may cause tenderness, but it is rarely a problem and will resolve on its own.
Sperm production results in ejaculation either through wet dreams, masturbation, or other physical stimulation. Again, make sure he knows what to expect, and that it’s normal!
Voice cracks begin as the vocal cords change and the voice deepens.
Facial hair, oily skin and acne may show up around the same time.
A rapid growth spurt is common, but overall, boys also gain height over a longer time than girls, so their ultimate height is taller than most girls.
Muscle mass increases significantly and shoulders broaden
Chest hair may begin, but not all boys get chest hair
Final height is achieved usually in late teens.
Brains are changing too! Through all this time, there are major changes going on in the way his brain functions and grows. Check back in next week for details on the Brain Morph.
As if body changes aren’t enough, the tween years also bring major changes in thinking, behaviors, interests, and moods. Suddenly, your child can sling some attitude, text without looking, and argue you to death-all at once! Many of these new “skills” are blamed on raging hormones, but the truth is that most of them are actually caused by all the shiny new thought pathways and hardwiring going on in your child’s noggin.
When you (and they) understand and acknowledge all the happenings in their head, it can improve your parenting efficiency and effectiveness, and it can help you guide your child into their teen years with a sense of safety and improved self-confidence. Oh, and it will definitely decrease the drama!
PART II: The Brain Morph
As recently as a few decades ago, scientists thought the brain was finished growing around age two, and “data entry” was all that happened after that. Today, through advanced medical imaging techniques, we know that the brain begins a second, large growth spurt around age twelve and finishes up In the early to mid twenties (yes, twenties—can you say “parental stamina”?). Understanding three important happenings in the adolescent brain can help you mitigate the transition and help your child develop useful skills and habits.
First of all, the part of the brain responsible for abstract thinking, impulse control, and understanding consequences (the prefrontal cortex) does not start developing until around age 12. And it takes a full eight to ten years to complete the process. During this time, your child needs practice and guidance developing strong decision making skills and socially appropriate behavior. Helping your child stop and think through decisions will help him become a better decision maker. Helping your child “take a minute” to process how she might handle a risky or dangerous situation can help her make better decisions in the future. Just because they lack their own “brain filter” doesn’t give them an excuse for bad behavior. It just reinforces the importance of parental guidance and setting limits for them.
Secondly, the part of the brain that serves as the emotional center (the amygdala) is amped up and in overdrive. Studies of the adolescent brain in action reveal that pretty much every thought, every statement, every action passes through this area and gets an extra helping of emotion. And the emotions are often misread and misfired. That means your tween is not very adept at interpreting facial expression or body language: a headache is anger, confusion is anger, a sideways glance is anger, and a sad event can be uncontrollably funny. Did you notice anger shows up more than most other emotions? It’s the most common emotion they “read,” and it’s the easiest emotion for them to “access.”
You can strengthen your child’s emotional intelligence by pointing out emotional misinterpretations. Teach your child to pause before assuming that actions or words are meant as aggression. Tweens need help thinking about the possibilities other than their first defensive impression. It’s also important for parents to model healthy expression of their own emotions. That means not jumping to conclusions emotionally, controlling the way you express your anger and frustration, and avoiding yelling matches with your adolescent. On the other hand, it also means openly and sincerely expressing your happiness, love and gratitude as another example to follow.
Additionally, this emotional center, as such a dominant part of the brain, needs to be “fed” regularly with things that give your child “emotional highs.” Tweens and teens crave excitement and thrills, therefore risk taking is a big part of their lives. The good news is that healthy risks (sports, live performance, trying new things) feed that center just as well as the risks we don’t want our kids to take (drugs, sex, dangerous behaviors). As a parent, encourage your child to take healthy risks. Allow them to become experts in their areas of interest or skill. As your child takes risks and masters new skills, you will see their confidence growing.
Finally, the third brain change that deserves attention is likened to pruning trees to allow for new growth. The adolescent brain actually goes through a pruning phase as it lays down new neural pathways and becomes faster and more efficient. The thoughts and actions that are no longer used get pruned back (think abandoned music lessons) and the brain begins hardwiring the pathways that continue to be used regularly.
As your tween’s brain is making new connections, it’s important to make sure they remain physically active and practice decision making skills, communication skills, and healthy behaviors like setting goals and establishing personal values. These are the things that they will carry with them into adulthood. Repetition is key to hardwiring. That means whatever they do repetitively will be with them for the long haul. That also means you can be repetitive. That’s right, it’s not only ok, it’s important to repeat your messages to get them hardwired over the course of your child’s adolescence. But be creative with your repetition so it doesn’t turn into nagging. Find different ways to get your same message across. Use examples from school, the news, music lyrics. The more your child hears the same message from you in different ways and contexts, the better that message will be hardwired into their consciousness.
Unfortunately, too many tweens are hardwiring less useful skills. Hours spent in isolation with a computer, or in front of a TV, or watching violent video games can have long term effects on brain development and behaviors.
So, just as your child’s body is changing rapidly and developing characteristics that will persist into adulthood, so is your child’s brain. Modern science has made it clear that there is no time more important than the tween and teen years for establishing healthy habits and spending time honing the skills they will carry into adulthood.
By the time kids reach their pre-teen years, they’re most likely quite used to carrying a backpack to school, sleepovers, camp, etc. In fact, the backpack they choose is often an opportunity for them to express their personal style. There’s a reason that backpacks are so popular as a means to transport books, homework, school supplies and personal belongings: they’re practical — they ensure an equal weight distribution across the body, enabling kids to use strong back and abdominal muscles. The downside is that because they can accommodate so much inside, they can become overloaded and enormously heavy. Under those conditions, backpacks can compromise a tween’s posture and lead to future back, neck and spine issues. Doctors and physical therapists recommend that kids carry no more than 10-20% of their body (less is better, of course). Easier said than done, since far too many students carry significantly more than they should!
Consequences of Heavy Backpacks
- A too-heavy backpack can pull backward, resulting in the need to compensate by bending forward, which can cause shoulder, neck and back pain in addition to the possibility of unnatural spine compression.
- Improper backpack use (including a too-heavy backpack or the use of only one shoulder strap) can lead to poor posture, especially among girls and younger tweens, because they’re likely smaller and may carry loads that are heavier in proportion to their body size.
- Backpacks with tight, narrow straps can dig into the shoulders and interfere with circulation and nerves, contributing to tingling and numbness.
- Large backpacks can be a nuisance to others when they protrude in a tight space or can be tripped over.
- Large backpacks can cause a student to be off-balance and increase the risk of falling, especially on stairs.
How To Choose a Safe Backpack
Despite their potential problems, backpacks can be an ideal carryall for tweens to use to tote school and/or personal items around. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the following tips be considered when selecting a backpack:
- Look for a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and a padded back (to cushion heavy items and prevent poking by sharp objects/edges).
- Choose a lightweight version, which most kids’ packs are, and talk your tween out of sporting the enormous quantity of key chains that some like to attach!
- Though stylistically this will be a tough sell, encourage the use of a waist belt that would help take some of the pressure directly off the back.
- Make sure the backpack has multiple compartments to help spread the weight out.
- Consider a rolling backpack, though it can be challenging to maneuver stairs and inclement weather.
How to Safely Use a Backpack
- Pack lightly and organize the backpack to use all of its compartments.
- Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back.
- Ensure that it never weighs more than 10-20 percent of the tween’s body weight (measure if you have to).
- Use both shoulder straps (slinging over one shoulder can strain muscles).
- Tighten the shoulder straps to fit closely to the body and just above the waist.
- Suggest that unnecessary items (e.g., diaries, ipods, personal books, etc.) be left home.
- Reinforce proper lifting technique to avoid back injuries (i.e., bend at the knees and grab the pack with both hands when lifting a backpack to their shoulders).
Consider Getting The School Involved
Just as many parents (and trees!) have benefited from the curtailing of paper overload (thanks to emails and access to important school information online), involving other parents and your tween’s school in solving students’ backpack burdens might help to lessen kids’ loads. Some ways the school can get involved include:
- Utilizing paperback books.
- Implementing school education about safe backpack use.
- Putting some curriculum and assignments on the school’s website, when possible.
- Encouraging children to remove old items from their folders and backpacks once the subject is complete.
- Providing a locker or cubby for students to leave material that can remain at school.
Recently the news has been all about the death of Michael Jackson. Millions watched his memorial service and our hearts went out to Paris-Michael when she told the world how much she loved her dad. Now, we wonder what can be done to help the Jackson children, and others who have also lost a parent, come to terms with their grief.
What Death Means to Kids
For kids, how they perceive death depends on their age and cognitive development. Preschool aged kids believe death is temporary. Five to nine year olds start to realize that death is irreversible and that all living things die, but think that they are somehow immune to it. Preteens, however, fully comprehend death. “Between 9 and 12, children understand that death is inevitable and affects everyone,” explains Dr. Jessica Lippman, author of Helping Children Cope With the Death of a Parent.
What to Expect
Immediately after the death of a close family member, most people experience a period of intense upheaval and a sense of unreality, which can last a few months. “Gradually the real meaning of the loss takes shape, not just in how the person’s absence is felt, but also in the many ways life has changed,” says Dr. Robin Goodman, Director of A Caring Hand. “Grief for children is about the everyday changes and reminders – who read you a story at night or an empty chair at the dinner table.”
These reminders can provoke different reactions in different kids. Their behavior may range from regression, which could include acting out, to anger, separation anxiety, or needing to control everything. Kids sometimes try to regain the feeling of control in their lives by taking on more responsibility than is age appropriate. Often, the oldest child will try to take on the role of family caretaker. “It’s very important that this behavior is not accentuated or encouraged, because if the older child is taking care of the family, he can’t take care of himself and fully mourn,” explains Dr. Cara Gardenswartz, a psychologist with expertise in grieving.
It is crucial to watch for signs that your child needs help coping with their grief. Most behavior, under these circumstances, is considered normal. However, Suzy Yehl Marta, author of Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope advises finding a counselor who specializes in grief and loss if a child’s response is extreme, protracted, or the caregiver is concerned.
Supporting Your Kids
“As a first priority, the adults in the child’s world need to reestablish a sense of stability and predictability for their youngster,” recommends Dr. Lippman. The death of a parent can trigger fear of the unknown in a seemingly volatile world. “The circumstances of a death address how we see the safety and stability of our world. As adults, we have to help our children sort out the reasons and circumstances of the death,” continues Lippman. Helping your child put the death in perspective and assuring that they will be cared for goes a long way in helping them through the grieving process.
“Listen, listen, listen,” is the advice of Deidre Lewin, Director of the Den for Grieving Kids. The best way to help a child through the trauma of the death of a loved one is to be there while they sort through their feelings, but not tell them what they should feel. “Accept their feelings,” says Lewin, “even though those feelings may be very intense.”
Lewin also recommends being honest with your kids, but sharing information in an age appropriate way. When answering your child’s questions remember to consider: what the child wants to know, what the child needs to know, and what the child can understand.
Death is tragic and kids need to know that it is okay to express emotions and be sad. Modeling grief is good for your kids. “Children benefit from seeing adults cry. Tears validate the deep emotions the child has and gives them permission to cry too,” explains Suzy Yehl Marta.
Grieving is hard on the surviving parent and tough to manage without the help of family, friends and outside resources. Reaching out to school counselors, teachers, and support groups will help you and your child feel that you are not alone. “A tween needs trusted adults to teach them how to grieve and provide them with compassionate companions that offer them the opportunities to mourn out loud,” says Yehl Marta
Creating a New Normal
Although life will never be the same, if children are allowed to fully mourn their loss, they can experience a positive childhood and even find deeper meaning in life. Unlike grownups, kids’ feelings of grief are intense and sporadic. At each stage of development, kids will revisit their loss and take new meaning from it. ” They will miss their parent in different ways and for different reasons as they grow up,” explains Jennifer Edwards, an expert in stress management.
While important for most children, it is crucial for preteens to meet and socialize with other kids going through a similar experience. Preteens need to feel “normal” and that they “fit in”. “This loss makes them different and sets them apart from their peers,” says Dr. Lippman. Preteens often have the sense that none of their friends understand what they are going through, which can make them feel intensely lonely. Jana Glass, Program Director of Kate’s Club, adds, “Socializing with other kids in similar situations is critical. Sharing feelings with peers breaks down the sense of isolation.”
It is important to integrate memories of the deceased parent into daily life. “Talking about the dead person may be painful at times, but is also a crucial part of the mourning and healing process,” says Deirdre Lewin. Roberta Temes, author of Solace: Finding Your Way Through Grief, suggests engaging in family projects, such as making a slideshow of photographs or collage, or writing a song, story or poem. Temes advises, “Don’t pretend the person never existed. State that you are sad when you are sad, and that you are thinking of the deceased when you are thinking of the deceased. Admit your distress and then demonstrate that you are going on with your life even though you feel so sad.”
Signs of Healthy Grieving
Dr. Robin Goodman considers it important for children to engage in different grief-related tasks. Over time, you should expect your child to:
- Accept the reality and permanence of death.
- Experience and cope with difficult emotional reactions.
- Adjust to changes in their lives and changes in their identity that result from the death.
- Develop new relationships or deepen existing ones.
- Maintain a continuing, healthy attachment to the deceased person through remembrance activities.
- Find some meaning in the death and learn about life or oneself.
- Continue through the normal developmental stages.
It’s puzzling and scary for Ryan’s parents. It seemed as if overnight their once happy, social 10 year old did not want to leave home to go to school, or go out and play with friends the way he used to. Ryan can’t explain it himself. “I just get nervous about it and then my stomach hurts, I get cramps, and feel like I have to go to the bathroom.” Now Ryan worries about getting a stomachache whenever he’s away from home.
Tiara who is 11 was always a shy, cautious child who had separation anxiety every year when school first started, but managed to eventually adjust. But this year, she’s having a tough time with math and the homework load often overwhelms her. Tiara worries almost all the time about school and that she may be called on to go to the board to do a math problem, or that she’ll never be able to understand the homework. Though she goes to school without complaint, Tiara suffers in silence.
Symptoms of Anxiety Pack a Wallop
Both Ryan and Tiara are developing chronic anxiety. And once a child experiences the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety, and it happens over and over again, it’s understandable why they don’t want to go out the door. First the physical symptoms of anxiety are powerful and disturbing:
- It starts with a heart-pounding adrenaline rush which includes other stress hormones.
- Breathing becomes rapid and shallow making it tough to catch your breath, often leading to feelings of being smothered or trapped.
- Dizziness, numbness and feeling faint are common symptoms.
- Muscles tense causing headaches, or chest pain and body aches.
- Voiding of bowel and bladder occurs, causing cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
- Sweating occurs as the body cools itself, a hot flush may occur too.
The mental symptoms pack a punch, too, playing havoc with cognitive functioning making it difficult to think clearly, reason and learn. Anxious children may complain about feeling frightened, helpless, and out of control. Some kids feel like they are having an out of body experience, others get angry or feel ashamed and isolated.
Symptoms vary from mild to severe, but even milder symptoms can be distressful. Avoiding places and situations often seems like the only option for an anxious child. Look at it from Ryan’s point of view. He says to his parents, “If I go to school or a friend’s house I may get a stomachache, but when I stay home I feel better.” Tiara feels better on Friday afternoons. . “On Friday after school I can take a break and not have to think about math or school at all.” But when Sunday afternoon comes around, Tiara begins to worry about Monday morning and her anxiety starts to build.
Worry is a Culprit
A main ingredient of anxiety is worry: thinking or obsessing about past experiences and worrying that they will happen again. When Tiara thinks about being in school she replays embarrassing moments in class when she couldn’t work out a math problem on the board, or failed a math test. Then she projects those memories into the future: “What if my teacher calls me to the board?” “What if we have a math quiz again?” Ryan worries too. “What if my stomach hurts and I feel like diarrhea in class and I can’t leave the room?” “What if it happens at a friend’s house?” And it’s worry that jump starts the fight or flight–one ounce of worry and the symptoms are raging.
What’s Happening to Me? It’s the Fight or Flight
A first crucial step in helping your tween is to explain why the symptoms are occurring. Symptoms occur because of something called the “fight or flight response” that is an alarm system located in the nervous system. It warns the body of physical danger and activates a reaction to avoid injury or death. In anxious children, this alarm goes off when a perception of danger is present, for example a math test. It’s only a false alarm though because the brain cannot distinguish between a real physical threat to life and limb, or to the fear of something benign.
The fight or flight has allowed humans to survive to this day. But its purpose is to act as a short-term response to a physical threat, not as a continuous state of mind and body leading to chronic anxiety. And when your child’s fight or flight revs up while she’s taking a test, or sitting in the classroom, there’s no outlet for this response, no relief, no running away, no battle to win. Your child has to sit there trying to deal with an internal hurricane.
The False Alarm Explanation
An easy way to explain the fight or flight is by using a home smoke detector. Show your child that you can set off the smoke detector either by frying something in the kitchen or by pushing the button on the detector. Say, “See, the detector thinks there is a fire and the alarm is going off, even though there is no fire. But the detector doesn’t know we’re fooling it. It gets the message that a fire is occurring and does its job. That’s what happens to your brain, it thinks the math test (or other fear) you’re worrying about is a real physical danger and the alarm goes off to protect you.”
When Ryan understood what the fight or flight was, and he began to make his way out to play with friends again, when he felt anxiety begin he learned to say to himself, “I don’t like the way I feel but it’s nothing more than an adrenaline rush.” This helped him to take control of his fears of the symptoms. Hearing the false alarm explanation helped Tiara too. When she felt anxious she pictured little firemen (or firegirls) running around inside of her, seeing no fire, and turning off the alarm.
In the end, for many children it’s the fear of the symptoms that turns anxiety into a chronic condition and makes kids want to feel better and safe by staying home. Also tell your child, “I know that what you feel is disturbing and can be frightening, but these are just feelings and they can’t hurt you.”
Tweens and teens will be flocking to the theater this weekend to see the movie New Moon. The Twilight Saga books, the movie is based on is the second, have become a national phenomenon making fans of preteen girls to women in their fifties. So, what is all the fuss about? Kristine Gasbarre, author and celebrity editor of LimeLife.com says, “The relationship between Bella and Edward is the epitome of young romance. They ignore all obstacles in their way because their longing for each other is so overpowering.” Add Edward’s masculine strength and his desire to protect Bella and you have the formula for a thrilling romance.
Many girls fantasize about being completely desired and adored in a romantic relationship. One of the most compelling aspects of Twilight is that Edward cannot fight his urge to be with Bella even though he knows that as a vampire everything about their relationship is unnatural and fraught with risk. According to Sari Cooper, a New York City Sex Therapist, this type of fantasy is normal. “The experience of being desired is a huge turn on for women and Edward can’t get enough of Bella.”
However, understanding the difference between fantasy and reality is key. Sari points out that the wonderful thing about daydreaming is that the person fantasizing is in control, which makes it safe. “No one is going to get hurt.” In Twilight, Edward saves Bella from a gang of men about to attack her. He is so furious that it takes all of his will power not to avenge Bella by killing them. In a book this may seem romantic, but in real life it would be terrifying. Sari recommends that parents not only read the books or see the movies, but also ask their daughters how they would feel if the situations described happened in reality. “It’s exciting to watch someone get rescued in a movie, but we would not necessarily want to experience it in real life.”
Critics of the Twilight series have raised concerns about girls confusing the fantasies of romantic love in the books with the realities of abusive relationships. Gina R. Dalfonzo writes in her essay for National Review:
He [Edward] spies on Bella while she sleeps, eavesdrops on her conversations, reads her classmates’ minds, forges her signature, tries to dictate her choice of friends, encourages her to deceive her father, disables her truck, has his family hold her at his house against her will, and enters her house when no one’s there — all because, he explains, he wants her to be safe. He warns Bella how dangerous he is, but gets “furious” at anyone else who tries to warn or protect her. He even drags her to the prom against her expressed wishes. He is, in short, one of modern fiction’s best candidates for a restraining order.
By romanticizing Edward and Bella’s relationship, girls run the risk of not recognizing signs of abuse in boyfriends once they start dating. The Twilight Saga offers an important opportunity for parents to have an ongoing dialogue about the series with their daughters. In an age-appropriate way, parents can discuss thepositive and negative attributes in different types of romantic relationships.
So, what can parents do to help their daughter’s develop healthy relationships? Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl, says that girls first need to focus on establishing positive relationships with each other. “Girls first learn how to be emotionally intimate with their friends. Through their experience of love between best friends, girls can experience profoundly attached intimacy. Other than the lack of physical attraction, the mechanics are no different.”
Friendships give girls the opportunity to develop positive communication skills, have respectful disagreements, be interdependent, and share mutual empathy. Girls need to gain an understanding of themselves, their feelings and their boundaries in order to achieve these skills. To have a positive sense of self, girls need both self-respect and the respect of their friends. They need believe that their needs and interests are integral to the friendship. This involves the ability to be simultaneously proactive about their wishes while also respecting their friends’ boundaries.
Inevitably, girls will “break up” with some of their friends. Rachel Simmons points out, “Heartbreak happens in all friendships. When a girl looses her best friend she is entitled to be devastated, write bad poetry, listen to sad music, and eat ice cream. After awhile it is important for her to get back into the world and “friend-date” again.” By realizing that they have the resilience to get through the ups and downs of these early relationships, girls gain the confidence they need to expect appropriate boundaries in their romantic lives. By asserting their needs in both friendship and love, girls are more likely to find someone who fulfills their inner desire to be adored for their true selves.
The vision of a super busy person isn’t a new concept; it’s certainly familiar to all of us. In fact, it can sometimes be perceived as a badge of honor. Perhaps it’s because the more we’re involved in, the more we believe it says about our own drive and achievement orientation, right? Why should we expect our preteens to march to the same drum? Maybe it’s part of the picture that focuses on keeping our tweens busy while we’re occupied or making sure our kids aren’t, gasp, bored. Or, maybe it’s a drive to push our kids to be the best they can be. Or, maybe we want to give our children what we didn’t have access to when we were their age. Or…maybe we just haven’t paused our own lives long enough to really think about it. Our guess is that it’s some combination of the above.
We’re All Busy!
The parallels with adult life are apparent. Compared with 1960, the average American family is working 160 hours more each year (that’s an additional month of average work weeks each year!). In the past 20 years, some important family activities have been on the decline (family dinners have declined 33% and family vacations have decreased by 28%). On top of the dramatic increase in work, there are different stresses in the world than when we grew up. First, we live in a society where safety, on many levels, is a real concern. Second, most families don’t have childcare readily accessible from within their family and community. Also, we’re in a state of significant financial insecurity; gone are the days of retiring after 40 years with the same company.
Everyone Needs Balance!
One thing is certain. There’s a great deal of debate over where to draw the line between a child being busy enough and being too busy. The balance that needs to be achieved will be different for every child on the basis of his/her academic needs, temperament, environment, and the family’s needs.
Too Many Activities?
Some experts contend that children who are involved in a near constant flow of activities don’t have the opportunity to learn to be at ease when they’re alone. Having lived by activity schedules and often being around other people, they aren’t able to learn the joy of solitude and they aren’t given an opportunity to express creativity, daydream and self-reflect. More important, perhaps, they haven’t realized the value of making time for fun. This, along with achievement pressure and a decrease in family time are the frequently cited issues.
Research has shown that an overbooked child can lead to a less active teenager. Simply put, over-scheduled children may become burned out later in life. Research also suggests that children who have played a sport with intensity for an extended period of time eventually tire of the activity as it becomes routine and the love of the sport is lost (which might explain why 70% of kids quit playing their favorite sport by their teens!).
Too Much Free Time?
On the flipside, Susan M. McHale, Ph.D., of Penn State led a study that monitored how fourth and fifth graders spent their free time. Her team examined school grades, depression levels and parental reports at the beginning and end of a two-year period. Devoting more free time to structured and supervised activities such as hobbies and sports appears to enhance a tween’s academic, emotional and behavioral development at this age. Spending more time playing outdoors and hanging out, in contrast, appear to have a negative impact on development. Contrary to popular belief, recent research rejects the notion that most kids are over-scheduled and are suffering as a result. In fact, less than one in ten could be described as over-scheduled and involvement in those extracurricular activities can be linked with positive social, behavioral, and psychological outcomes. Other research also indicated that extracurricular participation up to ten hours per week was almost always positive, and participation up to 15 and even 20 hours per week was generally associated with positive development. Academic performance and emotional stability levels off or declines after extracurricular involvement beyond 20 hours per week (as a point of reference, only 3-6% of the child and youth population participate more than 20 hours per week).*
Determine the Balance
It’s important to consider what the right balance is, so that your tween has enough to keep him/her stimulated and challenged, but not so much that they’re overwhelmed.
Experts suggest that, with your guidance, let your preteen choose their after school activities, along with how busy they want to be, but watch for signs of burnout. To help you think about whether your tween may be participating in too many activities, consider the following:
• Does your child go from one activity to another with little or no enthusiasm?
• Is he/she having trouble sleeping at night?
• Does he/she complain of not having enough time to spend with friends?
• Is the phrase “hurry up or we’ll be late” used excessively?
• When did he/she last participate in “quality” family time?
• Does your child have time to explore different interests (other than activities) that they may have?
• Does he/she enjoy the activity or is he/she particularly self-critical as an outcome of some/all activities?
Beyond the sheer volume of activities, we also need to focus on the participation impact to our preteen. The intense and critical focus on performance in these activities may be the greater impact, causing stress and other issues. While the research says extracurricular activities provide a positive outlet for children and lower the likelihood of risky behavior, over-scheduling a child can introduce other stress factors that might potentially lead to a burned-out child. Remember, some of the best interactions with our tweens occur during downtime-just talking, preparing meals together, working on a hobby or art project, playing sports together, or being fully immersed in childhood.