Why Parenting Still Matters When Kids Reach Middle School

Some girls grow up fast, but they don't outgrow their parents' ability to help.

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Middle school is a minefield for many children, a volatile mix of sexuality and social cliques that can be overwhelming for kids who sailed serenely through grade school. That's particularly true for the 25 percent of girls who go through puberty early and are at greater risk for problems like delinquency, eating disorders, and depression. While these girls may look grown up, the bottom line is, they still need involved parents.

"There is a lot of pressure on this age group from media and peers to look older, act older, dress older," says Sylvie Mrug, a psychologist at the University of AlabamaBirmingham who has studied 10-to-12-year-olds around the country. "But mentally and psychologically, they are still immature compared to a 15-year-old."

Parents can help pave the way to teenagerhood by maintaining communications with their children, being warm and nurturing, and knowing where their kids are and who their friends are, Mrug has found. She and her colleagues interviewed 330 fifth-grade girls and their parents to find out what helps them make for a smoother passage through middle school. Her conclusions:

• Girls who have a warm, nurturing mom were less likely to have problems, perhaps because by providing support and encouragement, the mothers helped their daughters develop coping skills.

• Having parents who are good communicators and know where their children were was particularly helpful in reducing social aggression, such as excluding others, that so often mars girls' interactions. That may be because discussing difficult situations and possible responses may give the girls more options.

• Knowing where kids are and who they're hanging out with is critical, because the "wrong crowd" can really lead vulnerable preteens astray. Girls who mature early are more likely to attract older boys, despite the fact that the girls don't have the social skills or maturity to deal with them.

I found the fact that parents' influence is still hugely important to be fascinating, because middle school is a time when children often withdraw from parents and become obsessed with their friends. (Cue eye-rolling and pained sighs here.) Mrug's study, which is published in the August Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, makes clear that just because kids think parents are obsolete, it doesn't mean those guardians aren't useful. It may also encourage parents to hang in there through the pain of being rejected and dissed, with the knowledge that they're still doing vital work—and things will get better.

Although this study looked at girls specifically, the advice should also prove useful for parents of preteen boys, and for parents of girls who are in no rush to act like a 16-year-old. Mrug suggests five way to apply the principles of positive parenting.

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