Thursday, January 21, 2016

Middle school most challenging for students and moms.

Many assume that the most taxing years for mothers are during their children's infancies, but the new research shows that far more challenging is the middle school period. Aside from puberty, this is a time when the school environment becomes more impersonal, academic grades are much more public, "being popular" becomes fervently sought after and efforts to separate from parents start in earnest. All of this adds up to a tumultuous time for children, and therefore, for those who must nurture and guide them through this trying period.

Concerns about kids' risky behaviors escalate sharply at early adolescence.

"From the perspective of mothers, there's a great deal of truth to the saying, "Little kids - little problems; big kids - big problems," says ASU Foundation Professor Suniya Luthar. "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," added Luthar.

Luthar and Cicolla'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 Cicolla 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 (aged 12 to 14 years) 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," she added. "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."

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

In addition, Luthar and Cicolla 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) martial satisfaction is the lowest and strife the highest.

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

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.

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