Our son is in middle school now, and it’s been quite a transition. Our respectful and happy little boy has become a moody and unpredictable pre-teen. So I’ve been doing a lot of reading, trying to answer the question “what can I do to connect with my pre-teen?” My book of choice at the moment is “Getting to Calm” by Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt. It combines parenting advice with science, and is a great resource for those who want to understand why kids behave as they do and how to parent them through the challenging pre-teen and teen years. But I also compared the recommendations in this book with those in recent parenting studies (I am a consummate scientist after all) to see how consistent their suggestions were. Amazingly, those studies came to the same conclusions that Kastner and Wyatt did: the most influential thing we can do to parent pre-teens is to build and maintain strong and connected relationships with them using an authoritative parenting style; exercise control thoughtfully and judiciously; be empathetic of your child’s feelings and developmental needs; communicate effectively so that your child is left feeling considered and respected. Such relationships have an enduring influence on their choices in friends, their actions, and their behavior. Parental involvement (such as asking questions, voicing opinions and keeping tabs on what they’re doing) is also important, but its influence is not as enduring as that of strong family relationships. Alarmingly, the influence of their friends increases as they age, while our influence decreases. So keep that in mind when planning playdates, parties and sleepovers.
What the research says:
Our son is in middle school now, and it’s been quite a transition. Our respectful and happy little boy has become a moody and unpredictable pre-teen. One minute he’s building a fort with our 9-year old or wanting to sit on my lap, and the next he’s biting my head off for asking how his day went (“FINE! You ask me that every day, gosh!”) and wanting to Instagram his friends. So I’ve been doing a lot of reading in an effort to help myself cope.
The book that’s helped me the most recently is titled “Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens + Teens” by Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt. The book is an engaging combination of parenting advice and science, and it is a great resource for those who want to understand why kids behave as they do. For example, the book explains that the neural impulses of teens are stimulated in the amygdala, instead of the prefrontal cortex where they are stimulated in adults. This explains why “teens misread signs of emotion”, and why they misinterpret our concern for anger. The book also connects the “emotional reactivity, impulsivity, and risk taking of the teen years” with “the neural remodeling process that begins around 12 or 13 years of age”. Don’t worry; you don’t need to know what an amygdala or neural remodeling process is. But realizing that there are anatomical and scientific reasons for their behavior is helpful, as you start to understand that their behavior is not premeditated and doesn’t mean you’re lacking as a parent.
I found some interesting suggestions in this book:
- Parenting rule number one is “keep a mostly positive relationship”. That doesn’t mean you don’t discipline or set limits. But it does mean that you choose which battles to fight, you fight those battles respectfully, and you collaborate with your child on a resolution.
- Authoritative parenting is the most effective style, as compared to permissive parenting (caving to their teens’ desires to avoid conflict) or “give/go” parenting (“I give the orders, you go do it”). Authoritative parents exercise control thoughtfully and judiciously to “teach, guide and support their kids”. They are also warm, being empathetic of their child’s feelings and developmental needs, but are not smothering. Lastly authoritative parents communicate effectively, with your child feeling considered and respected. “Not that we always agree and approve, but we’re willing to listen and empathize with their position, especially when the exchange is appropriate and respectful.
- To successfully be authoritative parents, “our minds need to be calm so that we can solve parenting problems astutely”. “Riled up by an incident, an attitude, or some infuriating experience, we’re not biologically programmed to cool off and regulate our emotions in a split second. Most of the stupid moves we make as parents and later regret spring from moments when our buttons are pushed, our adrenaline is rushing, our brains are flooding, and we neglect to zip our lips”. When I read that paragraph, it was like they were talking to me specifically. They suggest using the CALM technique (Cool down, Assess options, Listen with empathy, Make a plan) to accomplish this. “Only then can we choose our approach wisely and show empathy and understanding for our loved ones”.
I love this book and use it as a continual reference. But being the scientist that I am, I wondered if their suggestions were supported by the research. Were there clinical studies supporting their recommendations?
Do clinical studies support the recommendations in “Getting to Calm”?
I found several papers published in the last year that were very interesting and that answered questions that every parent has probably asked.
How can you keep your child from falling into the wrong crowd?
A study conducted by Tilton-Weaver et al. tried to determine which parenting methods were most effective at helping children not associate with “the wrong crowd” . The study included more than 1500 kids, and investigated whether a) asking questions, b) parental engagement (based on the degree to which parents monitor their children’s behavior when the parents aren’t physically present to supervise their activities), or c) communicating disapproval were effective in influencing a child’s choice in friends. More specifically, the researchers wanted to assess whether those factors affected the child’s desire to either befriend and be influenced by delinquent peers. Researchers concluded the following:
- For young adolescents (less than 14 years old), the most important determinant was whether the kids felt overcontrolled by their parents. If they did not, parental engagement influenced their choice in friends. However, if they felt overcontrolled, parental engagement was more likely to result in them choosing “delinquent” friends.
- For middle adolescents (kids in the 14-16 age range) , communicating your disapproval of friends increased the likelihood that the child would befriend the delinquent friend. In other words, parents could actually push them into the wrong crowd by trying to discourage their choices.
- By late adolescence your influence returned, with parental engagement reducing the odds that your child would choose delinquent peers. However, voicing disapproval regarding their choice of friends was tricky, as parent’s opinion had the opposite effect in kids who considered themselves non-delinquent.
So, our influence on our children’s choices varied with both their age and their perception of being overcontrolled. This is consistent with the suggestions in “Getting To Calm”, which advised against rigid, controlling parenting in favor of authoritative parenting, and suggested maintaining a positive relationship that is built upon mutual respect and collaboration. This study shows that, as your child ages, questioning their choices in friends undermines your influence, but maintaining a strong and positive relationship maximizes your influence.
How do you keep them from succumbing to substance use?
The focus of a study by Van Ryzin et al.  was to quantify family and peer influences on substance use. In this study, 998 adolescents were followed from age 12 to age 23. Researchers looked at the effect of parental engagement (based on the degree to which parents monitor their children’s behavior when the parents aren’t physically present to supervise their activities), family relationship quality, and association with deviant peers on substance use. The researchers found the following:
- The influence of family members on substance use shifted, with parental engagement being important early on but the quality of the family relationship becoming more important during the transition to high school and afterwards.
- Unfortunately, peer influence was relatively consistent across this period, and deviant peers were the only significant predictor of substance use in early adulthood.
So, parental engagement and monitoring were important when it came to substance use, but the more enduring influence was the quality of the family relationship. These results are very similar to those generated in the Tilton-Weaver et al. study above, and they’re consistent with the recommendations in “Getting to Calm”. These results also emphasize the importance of your child’s choice in friends, as the influence of peers was consistent throughout adolescence and was singularly important in early adulthood. We know that parental influence on their choice of friends is maximal during early and late adolescence , and afterwards the influence of their friends is as important, if not more important, than ours. So subscribing to an authoritative parenting style that includes engagement and building strong relationships was again suggested.
How do you maximize your influence on your child?
A study by Fosco et al.  examined the roles of parental engagement (based on parental monitoring) and family relationships on behavior. They followed kids from 6th through 8th grades (young adolescents), focusing on “antisocial behavior, substance use, and affiliation with deviant peers as key outcomes”. The researchers concluded that:
- Parental engagement was associated with lower levels of antisocial behavior and deviant peer relationships, as well as greater connectedness with their mother and father.
- The child’s connectedness with his/her mother was associated with less sibling conflict.
Once again, parental engagement and monitoring were associated with positive outcomes. In this case, those outcomes were better behavior, less association with deviant peers, and a greater connectedness with parents. All great things when trying to raise happy, healthy and successful kids.
What does this all mean to you?
As recommended by Kastner and Wyatt in “Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens + Teens” and supported by recent studies, the most influential thing we can do to maintain our influence with our kids is to build and foster strong and connected relationships. Such relationships have an enduring influence on their choices in friends, their actions, and their behavior. And that influence lasts well into adulthood. Parental engagement, such as asking questions and keeping tabs, is also important, but its influence is not as lasting and can be diminished by many factors (including the child’s perception of being overcontrolled). Maximizing parental engagement and relationships are important while they are still choosing their friends and are open to our opinions (early adolescence), because their friends have a lasting influence on their choices.
My take-home is to remember the big picture, which as Kastner and Wyatt put it is to “look out over the horizon at the relationship you hope to have with your teens when they’re grown and start making it happen now”. Not controlling the small, day-to-day decisions as we used to do when they were younger. But helping them make good decisions while maintaining a positive relationship. Honestly, my goal is to raise kids that make good decisions independently as adults. But I’m also working to strengthen our relationship so that they will call to get our opinions on the major decisions. And parenting with that end in mind is predicated on remaining calm. Not something I’m great at, but something that I work on everyday. At a minimum I’m going to read “Getting to Calm” every so often or when I’m at my wit’s end, to remind myself of the big picture.
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