It's not easy being the parent of a young teen. Having an early adolescent in your household is a lot like skipping across a minefield.
As a result, moms and dads of 10- to 14-year-olds often do things that are well-intentioned -- but that don't do much toward a smooth and successful relationship.
Here are a few of the most common ones:
Expecting your young teen to be like you. Parents often view their adolescents as extensions of themselves. They forget that their children were born with unique temperaments and characteristics.
Many parents assume that because their young teens share their homes or genes, they also share their abilities, interests, desires and feelings. As a result, they prevent their youngsters from determining their own identities -- a critical task of early adolescence.
Offering inappropriate help. Some parents rush in to assist floundering adolescents, even when they haven't asked for help. This can undermine teens' fragile self-confidence by conveying the message, "You're not capable of doing that yourself."
It also deprives adolescents of opportunities to practice problem-solving and life skills they will need in the future.
But many moms and dads take the opposite approach. As young teens begin to resemble adults physically, their parents assume they are more mature and capable than they really are. Parents sometimes bow out of their adolescents' lives too early, feeling they aren't needed any more.
In reality, young teens still require their parents' help in many areas, from solving algebra problems to shaping moral values.
Talking about adolescents in front of them. Because young teens tend to be very self-conscious, most are easily embarrassed by compliments. You may have good intentions when you brag about your daughter's winning home run or your son's lead part in the school play, but chances are your adolescent wants to keep a low profile.
Criticizing your young teen in public is not only embarrassing, it can hurt her self-esteem, which is already shaky between ages 10 and 14. If your adolescent does something you don't like, save your disapproval for a time the two of you are alone. If you wish to discuss her behavior with other adults, wait until she's not around.
Sheltering young people from adversity. Emotionally, physically and academically, early adolescence can be a difficult time. Because parents often can't stand to watch their young teens suffer, many try to walk one step ahead, smoothing over every bump on the rocky road to adulthood. As a result, their adolescents never learn how to handle hardship, solve problems or manage negative emotions, such as sadness and anger.
Let your young teen negotiate difficulties you feel she can handle on her own. Encourage her to express her feelings about them, even if you find them upsetting.
Too much rushing. Hurrying is the way of the 1990s. We rush our children off to school, to sports practice and music lessons, and to the library to complete homework assignments. Hurrying may be expedient for parents, but it prevents youngsters from observing, reflecting, daydreaming, and working on long-term projects -- activities early adolescents need to do in order to explore their interests and abilities. Rushing puts additional stress on young teens, who are already experiencing a great deal of inner turmoil.
"We need to give early adolescents time to be kids. We sometimes forget that sixth-, seventh-, and eight-graders are still children in lots of ways," says Ed Brazee of the University of Maine, editor of "The In-Between Years," a newsletter on early adolescence.
Overpraising. Young people need affirmation from their parents, but too much praise can give young teens unrealistic notions about their capabilities and hamper their self-assessment skills. Some adolescents stop taking parents' approval seriously when they get praise for everything they do. Others perform to please parents, instead of themselves, often feeling pressured to live up to the compliments they receive.
"Kids this age have a really good sense of when they're doing something that deserves praise and when they're not. They want people to be honest with them, and they can see false praise very easily," Brazee notes.
Avoiding boredom. Research shows that boredom can help youngsters develop creativity and inner resources. However, many parents never let their young teens get bored. It's easier to buy an adolescent a new computer game than to listen to him complain that he has nothing to do. But this teaches reliance on the outside world for gratification and prevents him from learning to cope with boredom, an inevitability of life.
"We need to make kids responsible for their own boredom and to model ways to deal with it," says Topper Steinman, a counselor and consultant on early adolescence in Champaign, Ill.
Intervening in sibling fights. In days gone by, early adolescents spent a lot of time on the playground or neighborhood baseball diamond, where they had lots of informal opportunities to learn how to handle conflict. But because today's young teens spend most of their time in structured activities, they have fewer chances than their predecessors to practice getting along with others.
Parents who intervene in sibling fights deprive early adolescents of opportunities to practice how to argue productively and manage anger. They also convey the message "A third party will always step in to solve your problems." It's fine to stop a fight if you sense that one of your children is in danger. But when safety is not in jeopardy, it's often best to let your adolescent and her siblings battle it out.
Living vicariously through your kids. Parents often fulfill their own hopes and dreams through their children. For example, a father who always wanted to be a professional athlete pushes his son into sports, becoming overly invested in the child's victories and losses.
Such behavior encourages kids to perform for their parents' sake, instead of their own. It pressures adolescents and sends the message "You are loved for what you do, not who you are."
Focusing on the externals. Many moms and dads are overly concerned about how their young teens appear to others. Parents harp on their adolescents' clothes, hair, manners, cleanliness, and behavior, often because they feel their kids reflect on them.
Early adolescents need to experiment with the way they look, talk and behave in order to discover who they are. Chances are good that you sometimes won't like your teen's style. But you'll be doing him a favor if you let him be himself, focusing less on how he appears and more on his inner life.
Susan Spaeth Cherry, a Chicago-area journalist, writes frequently on young adolescents. She is planning a book of parent interviews on raising teens.