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Moms, you think babies are tough? Wait until middle school

New study shows as kids ride the roller coaster of early adolescence, so do moms

Shadows stalking some grass.
January 21, 2016

Ask 10 people what the most taxing years of motherhood are and there’s a good chance the consensus will be “children’s infancies,” when distressed babies adjusting to the world are too young to explain what’s bothering them. It’s a strong answer, but not the right one, according to new research.

A new study conducted by Arizona State University researchers Suniya Luthar and Lucia Ciciolla showed that the most challenging period of mothering comes during the child’s middle school years, when a mother’s investment in her child’s well-being is compromised by the confluence of puberty, the dynamics in a new school where the burdens of popularity and academic achievement are heightened, and the instinct to branch out from parental rules.

It all adds up to a tumultuous time for the children, and those who must nurture and guide them through this trying period.  

For Cindy Dee, a medical professional in Chandler, Arizona, who did not want to be identified by her real name, her teenage son seemed increasingly dismissive of what she had to say, like during a striking conversation on how Advil worked.

“I’m a doctor. I know how Advil works, but he was telling me I didn’t know,” she recalled. “It is hard when they look at you like you have this innate stupidity. It used to be that I was all-knowing.”

Escalating concerns about kids’ risky behaviors in early adolescence only add to the mothers’ tumult.

“From the perspective of mothers, there’s a great deal of truth to the saying, ‘Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems,’ ” said Luthar, an ASU Foundation Professor in the Department of PsychologyThe Department of Psychology is part of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.. “Taking care of infants and toddlers is physically exhausting. But as the kids approach puberty, the challenges of parenting are far more complex, and the stakes of ‘things going wrong’ are far greater.”

Luthar and Ciciolla’s paper, “What it feels like to be a mother: Variations by children’s developmental stages,” is published in the January issue of Developmental Psychology.

Luthar and Ciciolla studied more than 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers with children ranging from infants to adults and examined multiple aspects of mothers’ personal well-being, parenting and perceptions of their children.

When considering disturbances in mothers’ own adjustment, the study showed “an inverted V shape in feelings of stress and depression, with mothers of middle school children (ages 12 to 14) consistently faring the most poorly and mothers of infants and adult children doing the best,” Luthar said.

Why are the early teen years so tumultuous?

“Several factors come together in a perfect storm,” Luthar said. “One, the kids are dealing with puberty and all that this implies — hormones, acne and changing bodies. Two, they are drawn toward experimenting with alcohol, drugs or sex.

“They are also coping with transition to a relatively impersonal school environment, with large buildings and different teachers for each class, as opposed to the relative safety of smaller elementary schools with the same teacher all year. Their academic performance is now evaluated in a much more public way than before, as are their extracurricular talents. Finally, as they strive to separate from their parents, the peer group takes on enormous significance; early adolescents are very invested in ‘being popular,’ desperately wanting to fit in and be admired by their peers. That is a lot to deal with simultaneously.”

“Moms are essentially the ‘first responders’ to the children’s distress, and now they must figure out how best to offer comfort and reassurance, as the old ways — hugs, loving words and bedtime stories — no longer work.”
— Suniya Luthar, ASU Foundation Professor

As the children struggle to negotiate all of these major challenges, so too must their mothers as their primary caregivers.

For Dee, sometimes the old soothing methods still work for her son, sometimes they don’t, and she is both perplexed and worried about how best she can protect him.

“Sometimes a hug is helpful,” Dee said. “But sometimes not at all. There are times when they don’t even want to be seen with you in public. They want you to drop them off away from the drop-off point.”

“Moms are essentially the ‘first responders’ to the children’s distress, and now they must figure out how best to offer comfort and reassurance, as the old ways — hugs, loving words and bedtime stories — no longer work,” Luthar said. “They also have to walk a very fine line in setting limits. On the one hand, moms want their children to be open in sharing what they do with their friends, and on the other hand, there is the real concern that such honest exchanges might seem like they are tacitly condoning risky behaviors, if disclosed. 

“Decisions about what to allow, where to draw the line, how to effectively draw the line — all of these bring confusion and even fearfulness. And then, of course, there is the hurt, from the eye-rolling, distancing and even blatant scornfulness, from the same child who was unequivocally adoring just a few years earlier. That rejection hurts, it can hurt deeply.”

In addition, Luthar and Ciciolla cite other studies showing moms of early adolescents are likely experiencing their own developmental challenges as they begin to recognize declines in physical abilities, cognitive functioning and increased awareness of mortality. It also is a period when (according to other studies) marital satisfaction is the lowest and strife the highest.

All of this adds up to stressed-out moms of middle school children.

So what can moms do for relief?

Luthar suggests two interventions that can be done to minimize mothers’ stress. One is information dissemination to be done not just when the child enters middle school but in earlier years so they know what is in store for them. The second is providing ongoing support for the mothers, once the children do start middle school and continuing through graduation of high school.

“It is not enough simply to educate the mothers about the teen years; they must be ‘refueled’ themselves as they shepherd their children through this often tumultuous time,” Luthar said.

“We have learned that if mothers are to retain their equanimity as parents and as individuals, they need to receive nurturance and tending themselves. This new study shows it is during the hectic middle and high school years — perhaps more than ever — that mothers must deliberately prioritize the regular receipt of ‘authentic connections’ in their everyday lives.”

The juggling of everyday activities has taken its toll on Dee and her son. In order to meet their schedules and let him still do competitive climbing, they agreed her son would take one online math class. But he didn’t keep up with the work early on in the course and nearly failed.

“He was super panicked and super upset about it,” she said. “I was really upset with myself because I thought that had I been a better mother I wouldn’t have let him fall that far behind. If I had been more on top of things this wouldn’t have happened.

“But when we sat down and discussed it I said, ‘If you take the time and work really hard you are going to do OK.’ He did. He worked hard and got a B in the class. So what started out with me feeling like I failed, ended up being a very good lesson for him. But it all happened during very trying times."

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