We are writing you to ask for your help in answering the question that is giving us sleepless nights: What happened to our adorable son??
Our 9-year-old son is the eldest of three children. Until last year, he was well behaved and a pleasure to have at home. Now, he is often moody and sullen. I get one-word responses when I ask him how his school day went, and often, it seems like he just wants to be left alone.
It is getting exceedingly difficult to get him to do his homework, and with the new school year coming up, I almost dread the long, cold winter.
Any insight you can give us would be most appreciated.
Susan and Mark
I hope that this doesn’t sound like I lack empathy for your dilemma, but … buckle up and welcome to the world of parenting teenagers. I know that your son is only nine years old, but it sounds like what you are experiencing is, in all likelihood, a case of the “Tweens.”
Tweens is a term coined by mental health professionals to describe the period from eight to twelve years old – when children are moving from childhood to adolescence. (Don’t panic. This is not a four-year phase. Rather, many children usually go through some form of tween stress for a limited amount of time during the eight-to-twelve-year-old time frame.) It is during that transitional period that many children experience a mini-teenage phase during which they exhibit some of the behaviors traditionally associated with adolescence.
In trying to understand what is transpiring in your child’s life, the key word to focus on is “transition.” For it is the transition between developmental phases in the lives of our children that creates the discord and stress – in their lives and ours.
Why is transition stressful? Think of the time that you renovated your home or moved to a larger apartment. Even though this change must have resulted in an overall improvement in the quality of your life, it was undoubtedly a challenging time for your family. We have come to understand that children, too, experience transitional stress as they develop and explore new horizons.
There are basically three phases where there are ‘growth spurts’ in the advancement of children from birth to adulthood. The first is when they begin speaking and exploring the world outside their cribs and strollers. We call that phase The Terrible Two’s – when it often seems that their favorite word is ‘no’.
The second stage is when they begin to become more aware of their individuality and gain a level of freedom that they did not have previously. They are allowed overnight sleepovers at the homes of their friends and get to ride their bicycles around the neighborhood. This is the tween phase that your son is probably experiencing. Finally, the third stage in this evolvement is adolescence, when young adults experience far more freedom – and assume more responsibility in their lives.
Along with the excitement that comes with new horizons, comes the fear and concern of uncertain futures. In many instances, this stress and shifting of roles results in the ‘moody and sullen’ behavior that you noted.
It is beyond of the scope of these lines to give you meaningful advice on raising teenagers. (I may do so in future columns, as I received more than a few questions regarding teen matters.) But as this is your eldest child, I suggest that you do some research into tween and teen parenting tips. Read books on the subject. Speak to friends of yours who have already raised teenagers. Make an appointment to meet with your son’s rebbi/teacher to discuss his performance in school. This will help you decide if the moodiness you described at home is occurring in school as well, and perhaps impacting on his chinuch and education.
I commend you on being proactive and searching for solutions. Enhanced knowledge and understanding almost always translates into more effective parenting – and happier children.
Several years ago, I published a [fictional] letter from a teenage girl to her parents. I hope that you find it helpful in gaining a better understanding of teen issues. Y.H.
Dear Mommy and Daddy:
Imagine how you would feel if you were told that in two years from today, our entire family would need to relocate to a different part of the country. You would certainly be quite concerned – for good reason. Think of all the questions that you would have. Here are just a few of them:
- Where will we live?
- Will we be able to find jobs in the new location?
- Will we be prepared for those new positions?
- Will we make new circles of friends?
- How about our old friends – will we still stay close?
- What will our standing be in our new community?
Now, imagine what your anxiety level would be like if you would not be able to answer a single one of these questions.
Welcome to our world.
Mommy, Daddy, I only posed these questions to you so that you would gain some understanding into my world. You always say that you remember what it was like to be a teenager. I think that you may remember on some level, but please don’t take this personally – I don’t think you really ‘get it.’
Come to think of it, I only asked you some of the questions that go through my mind. There are so many more.
- Will I get into a good High School and Seminary?
- Which one?
- Who will I marry?
- Will I marry?
- How am I supposed to figure out whom to marry?
- Will I have a great marriage or will we fight all the time like some of my friend’s parents?
- Will I have children?
- What will they look like?
- Will I be able to afford to give my kids the things that we have at home?
These past few months you both have been complaining about how “I am changing.” You say that you don’t recognize me any more. We are arguing more than we ever did.
Well, I am changing!! My body is changing, my mind is changing, and my life is changing. We all have to deal with that. I am not eight years old any more. I still love you very much, but I need to move on and get my own life.
And the thing that frustrates me is that I can’t seem to discuss things with you without a full-blown argument over my clothing, my friends, my language; whatever!
I thought that writing things down in a letter might help you understand the big picture – what it is really like to be a teenager.
I am hoping that you will come to understand why my friends are so important to me, why I ‘zone out’ sometimes. Why I get moody and impatient, and roll my eyes (sorry about that) when you lecture me.
I hope you will read this carefully. It was quite difficult to write this letter, but I’m hoping that it will be a good first step in improving our relationship.
© 2006 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved