At my 10-year-old son's soccer game recently, one of the dads sat down beside me. "Ready for middle school?" he asked in a tone that made me think I had something to dread. When I seemed puzzled, he explained that that was when his son's behavior took a turn for the worse.
"I'm not really worried," I told him. "My David is such an easy kid."
He smiled knowingly. "So was Zach," he said.
Like me, many parents who've been enjoying their pleasant, cooperative third- and fourth-graders think that they have a few more years of smooth sailing before the challenges of raising teenagers set in. But experts say it's often during the middle-school years that kids begin acting out. As they straddle the fence between childhood and adolescence, they can become secretive, moody, and defiant. "Preteens are starting to assert their independence, and that can create tension between them and their parents," says John Davis, author of Don't Take It Personally: A Parent's Guide to Surviving Adolescence. So if you've got a child heading off to middle school this fall, brace yourself. Here's what's in store.
He'll Just Say No
You ask your son to clean up his room, and instead of assuring you that he'll get to it, he flat out refuses your request. "I don't feel like it," he says.
At this age, a child is struggling to be in charge of his own world and views his bedroom as a space over which he should have complete control. He also may be testing boundaries by defying your requests. But while this may explain his defiance, it doesn't justify it. "You need to set clear rules about what you expect from your preteen--and to establish consequences if those rules are broken," says Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., author of The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting. Let your child have some input into what those rules and consequences should be. Involving him will make him feel his views are respected—and that goes a long way at this age. But don't hesitate to lay down the law if your child wants to do something that you feel is unsafe, unhealthy, or counter to your values.
She'll Want You to Butt Out
Your daughter spends all her free time talking with her friends, either on the phone or on Instant Messenger. And as soon as you walk into the room, she begins to whisper or closes up the window on her computer screen.
Connecting with friends is on top of the agenda as your child tries to establish an identity apart from her family. Privacy is also important as she struggles to carve out space of her own. There's no harm in allowing her to talk with her friends—if she's finished with her homework, chores, and other responsibilities. And unless you have a concrete reason to feel concerned, it's a good idea to give her some privacy for those conversations. When your daughter does want to talk to you about her social life, be a good listener. If she says, "My friend is mean to me," don't criticize her pals or tell her to find new friends. Instead, listen without making value judgments and offer suggestions on how she can cope.
He'll Go Bonkers On You
When you tell your son it's time to turn off the TV, he storms off to his room, slamming the door and screaming, "I can't stand you."
Preteens are under a lot of stress. Physically, their bodies are starting to change, and that can be unsettling. They're facing an increasingly heavy workload at school, and they're trying to find their place on the all-important social ladder. When they're feeling overwhelmed, they'll often take it out on you. Still, you need to make it clear that you won't tolerate being treated with disrespect. "Say to your child, 'I want to hear what you have to say, but it's not okay to raise your voice,'" says Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D., author of Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure.