We all know how challenging it is to parent 13-15 year old’s. That should tell us that it is equally challenging to be a young teen. Jonathan is starting high school. He is neither athletic nor an above average student. He has a couple of friends, but mostly they just hang out, listening to music his parents can’t relate to, and play video games. Jon doesn’t say much about his day. Understandably you think it’s because his life is rather empty. Most likely there is a lot on Jon’s mind but it’s the kind of stuff that he shares only with his friends.
Amy is in middle school. She is responsible about her school work, talks on the phone a lot with her friends, and likes to read. Amy spends a lot of time in her room and it has become harder to engage her with the rest of the family.
Much is written about the children who are over committed, busy with many interests and activities, stressed out about wanting to be as successful as possible, often sleep-deprived and seemingly self-motivated. Much is also written about children who are challenging parents and teachers with defiant behavior. This article is focusing on the child in the middle: young teens who are not demonstrating their strengths or showing any strong interests, yet are not causing any trouble. Some of these children aren’t actually ready for adolescence and find it overwhelming. If they are lucky, they find a couple of other young teens at a similar level of development and they stick together, watching wide-eyed as their once innocent friends begin talking about and getting active with sex and drugs.
Talking to Jonathan and Amy often produces similar complaints. There’s nothing to do around here. They express a sense of boredom, feel their parents don’t understand them and often ask to do things that parents feel are still beyond their level of maturation, e.g., go into Boston with a friend. Sometimes they would like to get a job but there’s not much available until they’re 16. They don’t like being driven everywhere by their parents but there’s not much public transportation in suburban towns. The list of programs at the community centers and town rec departments doesn’t strike a chord. Actually, they are not sure what else might really interest them but they crave something exciting or new in their lives.
Yes that means there is some risk here because maybe they will be drawn toward a peer group that is into something undesirable but attractive to a Jon or
Amy simply because it creates some novelty , excitement, or belonging in their lives.
These quiet young teens present an interesting challenge to parents and to the community. They are a great potential resource that often goes untapped. A few generations ago they were busy helping out in the fields or the family’s shop. But most of that has disappeared and the problem is that we haven’t replaced those roles with anything of value. So we essentially ask these kids to just wait until they are older, wait until their world can begin to expand to the point where they might find something of interest or something productive to do. As a substitute, many turn to the Internet to meet others and expand their worlds. Some will begin to do this for many hours. But some new research suggests this can contribute to depression because electronic relationships don’t replace live ones.
Which brings me to the issue of what can we do for these children that will give their lives more meaning and satisfaction during this challenging age of transition? I encourage parents to center on the issue of isolation and the goal of helping these teens discover that they have value to others. There are two parts to the process. One is the ability of at least one of the parents to enter into their child’s world. Try to see it through their eyes and understand what they are thinking about. This means being able to be available when they are ready to talk but also creating opportunities for that to happen, which means some one-to-one time doing an activity together. Do chores together, run errands together, ask for help on something interesting you are doing – note there is less of telling the child to go do something and more focus on a joint activity.
Teens tend to talk more when doing something with you, especially while in the car and when no one else is around. When you do have that moment that you’re allowed into their private space, be interested rather than critical. Don’t use it as an opportunity to nag or complain. Encourage some fantasizing: If you could do anything you’d like with your time, what would you like to do? What do you think you are best at? What do you picture doing in a couple of years? Sure, you make get the traditional, “Nothing.” response. But if you’ve been listening and watching, you may be able to discover an interest that they are afraid to express because they don’t believe they have the skill to do it or that their interest will be taken seriously.
The second part of the process of easing these children into the world requires finding a place for them to make a meaningful contribution. If possible, build off the interest that they have shared with you. Often this entails trying to arrange some type of volunteer opportunity – similar to the old system of apprenticeship. Helping out a few hours a week in an animal hospital, electronic repair shop, a day care center, a law office, a framing store, an art studio – some place where they get to slowly demonstrate an intelligence or skill that may not show up at home or school. It may require getting a friend to do a favor. If you weren’t successful in identifying a skill or interest, then I would strongly encourage time spent helping others. Volunteering with seniors, reading to the blind, serving food at a homeless shelter, or helping out at an after school day care center are a few options. Here is where I think community agencies need to do some planning and create more options for young teens to do something significant. By reducing the isolation and experiencing a sense of pride and value in helping others, these quiet teens may find a place where they can feel special and needed, providing them with a helpful transition through one of life’s more difficult stages.