Family Life with Middlers
"I don't get along with my parents or my brothers. We yell at each other all the time." --Thirteen-year-old girl
We, our middlers, and other children are dependent on one another for love, appreciation, and a sense of well-being. Family life only runs satisfactorily and rewardingly when everyone pulls his or her weight. Families raising children between the ages of ten to fifteen get pulled down by the challenges of living with temperamental, high-flying, and unpredictable middlers.
Today's households are more than ever a melting pot of gender, race, and ethnicity, rarely resembling a Norman Rockwell portrait.
Practically one in two households (49 percent) differ from the traditional father, mother, and child model.
One in three families with children under eighteen is headed by a single parent, and not exclusively mom. Since the 1970s, father-only homes have increased threefold to 2.8 million.
There are twenty million stepfamilies in America.
Every year 50,000 children are adopted, approximately 20 percent school age or older children.
Grandparents head households that include 3.4 million children according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
Four million gay and lesbian couples are raising eight to ten million children, says the Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition in Washington, D.C.
As we turn the century's corner, families--and their middlers--all have unique challenges. They share a common denominator: family stress. Young adolescents grappling with identity, independence, and separation issues disrupt every home, even though these filter through each family lens differently.
Family therapists, parents, teachers, and middlers add insights here to equip you to deal delicately with family fallout. Don't skip over any of our family forms because they often intertwine. "I am a divorced mother with one son. I recently married a man with two children. His preteens live with his ex, their mother, who adopted a Korean baby. My ex now lives with a man, a Brazilian who wants a surrogate to bear his (their) child." That quote is fictitious yet typical of the tangled family web we weave.
The Standard-Issue Middler
Control is the touchstone. "I am about to marry a man who has custody of his fifteen-year-old son. The boy has no supervision because my fiancé works. He runs wild, and doesn't follow our rules. What is the correct approach to get some control over this?"
We asked middlers, "When you and your parents disagree, what happens?" A fourteen-year-old boy from the Midwest answered, "I do what my parents think is best." We threw that one in to boggle your mind. Most of us live with a less agreeable version. In a 1998 State of Our Nation's Youth poll, 17 percent of fourteen- to eighteen-year-olds surveyed admitted having difficulty getting along with mom, 22 percent with dad. In our survey middlers quipped, "I wish we wouldn't all fight so much," and, "I'd make my mom nicer if I could." "I would describe my family life as basically unhappy because we don't get along," admitted a fourteen-year-old girl.
Real middlers wear us out. They are engineered to do so.
The psychological task of ten- to fifteen-year-olds is to find out who they are. Our job as parents is to set the boundaries for their field test. As our young boomerang towards adulthood, they push the limits and push our buttons. They audition our values by breaking our rules to decide whether or not those ethics are worth adopting for themselves. Young adolescents have to resist, dismiss, and even defy us, in order to create distance.
It's called a "battle for independence" because we are at cross purposes. Parents guide and mold; young adolescents experiment and rebel. In other words, parents and middlers are a volatile combination at best, wrestling for power.
More Middlers, More Challenges
The mother of two boys, ages eleven and fifteen, pleads, "How do I handle my younger boy's accusations that his older brother always gets more--more leeway, later curfews, fewer rules--especially because he's right. The older was easier to raise; the younger can't be trusted and needs a shorter leash."
If engineering one child through these testy times isn't challenging enough, many parents shepherd more than one middler. Others juggle children from a cross section of age brackets. Every parent knows that no two children are alike, but the more vexing reality is that children need to be raised differently. Charges ("He got to sit in the front seat last time!") escalate into more weighty and complex debates ("He was allowed to date at fourteen, why can't I go out alone?"). Parents know why, but explaining it to indignant middlers requires a smooth talk most can't sell and few young adolescents buy.
Sibling rivalry heats up substantially during the roller-coaster years. Brothers and sisters grate on one another. Ordinary sibling-to-sibling teasing feels extraordinarily vicious to fragile middler egos where worth is calculated by peer review. Favoritism appears more glaring to ten- to fifteen-year-olds who see it everywhere. Rules sting with injustice.
If your household is a civil war zone, use the acronym SPAT as a guide:
S is for Special. Ferret out and tell your child what special qualities and strengths she possesses. Treasure the positive in each developmental stage. (If you can't get in touch with the positives of the preteens, read our first book, The Roller-Coaster Years.) Remember most rivalries are a contest for your time and attention.
P is for Partnership. Middlers need to belong. The concept of being part of the family is appealing. Compliment your child when she is a team player. Discipline all the fighters not just the one who started it. That saves you from the blame game and who do you trust.
A is for Accountable. Inform each child that privileges and freedoms are earned by a person's responsible behavior and maturity. They are not entitlements that come with a certain age or a specific gender.
T is for Temporary. Paint the long view for your young adolescent. She is always locked in the present. Make affirmations like, "Someday you and your sister will appreciate each other more" or "In time you will be able to do all the things you are not quite old enough to do now." Point out that sibling relationships are the most enduring relationships of all, outliving and outlasting those with parents, friends, and even spouses.
The SPAT strategy can defuse mutiny, at least temporarily until the next episode of sibling strife.
"I feel I am losing control of my child occasionally," admitted 52 percent of parents in our survey. "Frequently," confessed a war-weary 6 percent. If you are stretched to your limit, don't despair. Remember that our middlers are younger than we are, and stronger.
All families struggle. Once upon a time, there was an American family with a workaholic dad and an alcoholic mother. Dad didn't make enough money and worked extra jobs (less time for the boys) while mom added antidepressant pills to her booze to cope. Their boys grew up neglected. The parents, inflexible and unaware, exiled the boys to bed at 6:30 each night and forbid them to exit until 7:00 a.m. the next day. Grandma had been notoriously over-protective, leaving the father sexually hung-up. Mom's dad had syphilis. A lot of poor role models, wouldn't you say?
The dad was none other than Dr. Benjamin Spock. Thomas Maier's book, Dr. Spock: An American Life notes, "Though millions turned to him for answers for family dilemmas, he could not find solutions for himself or his loved ones."
"I don't know many parents, in any kind of family, who are confident that they've got it right," family historian and author of The Way We Never Were and The Way We Really Are Stephanie Coontz says. We intend to provide real strategies to ease your family's tension. Let's review particular crises that afflict different family forms.