Underarm stank. Cracking voice. Food stuck in braces. Uncontrollable growth spurts. It’s not easy being a 12-year-old boy. It’s hands-down one of the most awkward ages and stages of growing up. But new evidence shows it’s not just the embarrassing pangs of puberty that are affecting these boys. Research says the brain changes that prompt impulsive decision-making (which we often associate with the later teen years) actually occurs much earlier, like around 12 years old (go ahead parents, take a gulp). These factors combined make parenting 12-year-old boys an especially challenging task, and one not for the weary. To help parents muddle through, we tapped a few parenting experts for tips on how to navigate these early teen years.
“Age 12 is significant because it represents the early stages of individuation,” says Allen Wagner, a family therapist based in Los Angeles. “It’s here that the influence tends to shift from parents to peers, making parenting a challenge because the teen now has multiple sources of information being processed and assessed.”
So what do you do?
1. Know your child’s friends
Knowing your kids’ friends is key to understanding the risk factors they may be facing, says Wagner. “It is well within social norms to insist on meeting your boy’s friends, and it would not be absurd to check in with the parents,” he says. Make the meeting a fun social interaction, such as over a ski weekend or a family game day in the park. “Even just knowing there is a flow of information between parents can reduce likelihood of risky behaviours on the part of the teens,” says Wagner.
2. Keep open channels of communication
Nowadays, most 12-year-olds have a smartphone, but make sure they also have a solid communication plan. That includes answering all incoming calls (no matter how embarrassing) and insisting they use the phone to provide information on whereabouts, says Wagner. Seeing that “safety” is the reason smart kids claim they need the phone, it’s absolutely acceptable that they have to comply with the agreement or lose the privilege.
3. Don’t be a helicopter parent
When you hear that brain changes driving impulsive decision-making start as early as 12, your urge may be to up your involvement. Especially since one Temple University study found that teens take more changes and risks when surrounded by peers and that the mere presence of peers made them less cautious. Beware of over-involvement, says Sr. Susan Smith Kuczmarski, cultural anthropologist who authored Becoming a Happy Family. Instead, experiment by trying to see your teen as someone else’s, so you can relate to him with more lightheartedness and even humor. Try to view your child as closer to a mature adult instead of closer to a helpless child. When you see more mature behaviour, encourage it.
4. Compromise is a two-way street
When disagreements and conflicts arise, and we all know they will, practice the art of compromise. This means taking a step back and listening to your son’s point of view and reasoning and then presenting your own. It may sound very hard to do (you did catch him trying to sneak out the basement door with his friend, after all), but try to respect and honor your son and trust him to make good decisions. The important thing, says Dr. Kuczmarski, is you want to let kids learn from mistakes, and understand that mistakes happen. “Try to go easy on the inflexible rules, the demands and the questions. And encourage your son to let his feelings out. Just hear him out without trying to validate or change them.”
5. Change the dynamic
Slowly reduce the number and kind of limits on your teen son, and increase the freedoms, says Dr. Kuczmarski. And though you may be met with eye-rolling or awkward silence, you can’t tell your child enough that you love and support them at this age. As much as they may pretend otherwise, they are listening. The best parent-teen communication is direct, clear and straight, says Dr. Kuczmarski. “Avoid talking at your teen, and instead observe and listen. And as hard as it may sound, don’t give unsolicited advice to your teen. Give advice when your son asks for it. If you have seen concerning behaviour, you can normalize this by sharing anecdotes, either third person or personal, “anchored in concern” says Wagner.
6. Be a storyteller
Though we may laugh about the presentations in later adult years, the truth is that one of the best ways to parent is to highlight values by sharing stories from your own past or about “friends” and the mistakes you saw and learned from. This is a far better tactic than forbidding certain friends, which can lead to dishonesty and defiance, says Wagner.
7. Have a parent networks
Talk with other parents, even branch out and invite them to your home — a hospitality Wagner says we just don’t see enough of these days. You are all in the same boat, and “having a sense of humour” about the pitfalls the teens face and overcome is good. At the end of the day, he says, parents have to realize that teaching your kids to overcome is one of the most powerful lessons you can give them.