“I don’t know what to do with him! He used to be my little boy, and he would come to my room every day to tell me what he does in school. Nowadays he doesn’t even want to eat dinner with us. It’s the phone. He takes the phone and goes into the room and closes the door. I don’t know if my son is even the same person anymore!”
When she came to my counselling room, Mrs Chan* was an emotional wreck. She talked non-stop about how her 14-year-old son Jeremy* spent hours on end playing Internet games. And it affected him so much that all his grades suffered.
Jeremy no longer had a desire to do anything other than play games, and even when the family went on a recent trip to Australia, he was on the phone for most of their car journeys, and even bugged them to return to the hotel room early so he could get back to his games.
On the surface, Jeremy’s issues centre around gaming addiction. And I have referred him to a centre known for their work in this area. However, there are also deeper issues that stem from his parents’ lack of understanding on how to manage their children as they negotiate the difficult transition from being a tween to a teen.
Human development theorist Erik Erikson identified 8 stages of psychosocial development that all individuals go through. The 4th Stage, “Industry vs. Inferiority”, occurs during childhood (from 5 to 12 years old). During this stage, children begin to do things on their own and their peer group starts to gain greater significance.
As children move into the 5th Stage between the ages of 12 to 18 – Erikson described it as a tension between “Identity vs. Role Confusion” – they become more independent, and begin to look at the future in areas such as relationships with families and friends.
There are also deeper issues that stem from his parents’ lack of understanding on how to manage their children.
This is a crucial stage where the child learns the roles he will occupy as an adult. There is a heavy emphasis on identity and on discovering exactly who he or she is. Successful development leads to a strong sense of identity, while inadequacies result in a poor self-image and role confusion.
To help children manage this difficult transition between stages 4 and 5, parents need to support their child in negotiating the complex issues of peer influence, relationships and identity.
1. Help Them Manage Peer Influence
Friends are a major influence on a child’s life. And the process apparently starts during the pre-school years. I happened to be outside a childcare centre one evening after they had organised a Christmas party. I observed a girl who was dressed in a lovely princess dress. As the child was picked up by her father, one of the other mothers made a comment, “Quite pretty. But I think my girl’s dress is nicer.” It dawned on me then that sometimes the competition between children stems from their parents.
Some years back, my niece told me that she was the only one in her Primary 2 class without a handphone. She was in a top school, and it seemed like everyone in her class had the latest phone. But her parents refused to give her a phone. Though her classmates had made fun of her then, my niece refused to bow to peer pressure. I think it’s because she understood the reasons why her parents did not want her to bring a phone to school.
When our children understand the purpose behind us making certain decisions, and imbibe the underlying values, they are in a better position to stand up against peer pressure.
2. Model Healthy Relationships
Like peer pressure, a child’s notions of relationship are largely formed when they interact with their friends in pre-school and in primary school. Sometimes, an unintended consequence of adult teasing is that children begin to believe that boys and girls cannot be good friends without the presence of romance and love.
Children also form an understanding of these concepts from the media and entertainment they consume, where there tends to be an over-emphasis on the physicality of the relationship. In addition, the media does not present a full picture of love, and often fail to accurately depict conflict and conflict resolution.
It is therefore imperative for us to address these gaps; the best way to do this is to model what relationships are about through our day-to-day interactions. For example, we tell our kids that Daddy and Mummy love each other very much. But there are times when we don’t agree on things, and may quarrel with each other. However, at the end of the day, we choose to talk to each other about how we feel, and try to come to a common understanding on what to do about the problem.
3. Give Them Space to Express Their Identity
Identity formation is one of the most important struggles of a teenager. Most of the parent-child battles that occur in the tween-to-teen years arise from this struggle to understand, and express, who they are. This is characterised in terms of their physical appearance, emotional and spiritual preferences, as well as their expected role and place in society. Pop singer Britney Spears said it best in her song “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.” While I’m not a Britney Spears fan, I feel that sentence encapsulates what a tween/teen is going through.
To help children in their quest of self-discovery, we can practice the concept of “loving boundaries”. As adults, we have to set the boundaries of the exploratory process. How far would you allow your child to go in the process of finding himself or herself? It would not be wise if there are no limits, and the child ends up wandering off a cliff in the search for his or her identity.
Identity formation is one of the most important struggles of a teenager.
At the same time, we also need to provide warmth, a listening ear, and a touch of love. When the child is young, a strict parenting style might be effective in terms of achieving compliance. However, as the child approaches adolescence, a more measured response is preferable. We may find that a more collaborative approach in the way we communicate with our kids, rather than barking out instructions, more effective in the long run.
4. Support Their Decisions
As our children grow up, they begin to make more and more important choices that will affect their future. As parents, we can empower our kids in their decision-making. On one hand, we want them to be independent to make their own decisions. Yet on the other hand, we want them to make the “right” choices. Sometimes these two paths do not cross, so we need to be at peace with whatever choices that our children make, even when they may not appear to be the best.
A collaborative approach in the way we communicate with our kids, rather than barking out instructions, is more effective in the long run.
There will be ups and downs in this journey as your child grows and enters adulthood, but remembering that you’re on the same team will help your relationship to thrive. Here are some tips you can practice today!
- Don't take rejection personally. Understand that they're going through challenges of their own.
- Do less talking and more listening.
- Assure them you are there when they need to talk.
- Schedule regular one-on-one dates, whether it’s for a walk, or for coffee.
- If limits need to be set, broach the subject when you’re both calm and are not in a rush. Brainstorm together for solutions, rather than directing. Communicate your concerns and feelings about the issue at hand.
- Give your teen room to grow and make mistakes.
* Names have been changed to protect clients' privacy.
Mark Lim is Consultant & Counsellor at The Social Factor, a consultancy and counselling agency which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, mentoring and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 9 and 7.
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