Question: Our son is going to be 13 next year, and we're trying to be proactive about the coming storm. He's been a good kid and relatively easy to raise, but we've heard the horror stories and dread what might be around the corner. Do you have any tips?
Answer: The notion that biological changes going on during early adolescence predispose the young teen to all manner of difficult behavior is a myth belied historically, cross-culturally, and by the fact that plenty of young teens are respectful, obedient and hard-working. That last fact is conclusive evidence to the effect that despite hype to the contrary, there are no changes going on in the young adolescent brain that make problematic behavior inevitable.
In his 1830s study of the new colonies, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville praised the American teen's good citizenship. In developing countries today, many teens are responsible, trustworthy and possessing of a work ethic that would put even a good number of American adults to shame.
Granted, too many of today's young teenagers are disrespectful, oppositional and irresponsible. I am convinced this is due to a lack of proper authority during what I call the "Decade of Discipline," which begins around the third birthday and ends around the 13th. During that critical 10-year period, too many of today's parents strive for relationship instead of providing proper formative leadership. The inevitable result is children who reach adolescence lacking good decision-making and self- control skills. The resulting difficulties are not a matter of changes in the child's brain; it's the proverbial pigeons coming home to roost.
This is the very child who is most susceptible to negative peer influence. Absent a sense of loyalty to his or her parents, which is fostered through loving leadership, the youngster is likely to fall under the sway of kids who also lack that same sense of familial loyalty. In the extreme, the youngster's drifting loyalty attaches to the street gang, which becomes a surrogate family that provides authority the child has never consistently experienced.
If to this point in your son's life you've been authority figures first and friends a distant but promising second, then you have little to worry about. Under those circumstances there's little likelihood that your son is suddenly going to morph into Master Hyde.
Contrary to yet another myth, the child who is provided proper leadership during the Decade of Discipline is primed for optimal rapport with his/her parents as a teen. In short, leadership is the horse that pulls the cart of a wonderful parent-child relationship during the child's teen years. Shorter still, put first things first.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his Web site, Rosemond.com.