Voices in Education

Talking with Parents about Adolescent Transitions
I’ve noticed that when many educators speak about adolescents (the people) or adolescence (the developmental era), we often do so in terms and tones that suggest angst, despair, struggle, or volatility. We frame the era as a phase to “get through.” We look at teens and all we see is their “raging hormones.” It’s as if the transition from childhood to adulthood is always something to endure and never something to celebrate. We make adolescence sound like chicken pox—an inevitable, feverish sickness that might provide a good story or two, but mostly leaves us with scars.

Much of my work as a teacher educator is focused on helping preservice teachers resist these stereotypical views of youth, reclaim the thrills of adolescence, and learn to anchor their teaching in a developmental understanding of adolescents. But those classrooms filled with somebody else’s kids can be pretty scary for new teachers, and the temptation to pathologize students to compensate for one’s inadequacies as a teacher can be immense. This is why it was so refreshing for me, recently, to work with parents instead. With them, the option to claim that the kid is the problem simply wasn’t there. With moms and dads, we weren’t talking about “a student”—the adolescent in question was somebody’s pride and joy.

Michael Nakkula of the University of Pennsylvania and I have been working with folks in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) in Austin, Texas. The AISD along with several local and national organizations, including the Public Education Network, United Way, the Ready by 21 Coalition, and Austin Voices, have channeled significant talent and resources into meeting the needs of middle-school aged youth, and their efforts are paying off.

To help bring parents into the conversation, we held a series of meetings with moms and dads to discuss some of the transitions adolescents face when they move from elementary to middle school. We focused our presentations on the psycho-social demands associated with the transition into middle school and what parents might do to support their kids to achieve academically, thrive socially, and grow personally. Here are a few of the insights we shared with the hundreds of parents who attended those meetings:
  • Adolescents are theory-builders. Frequently used phrases like “what if,” “that’s not fair,” and “it depends” are all indicators that teenagers are considering what’s possible as much as they assess what is. With new capacities of mind that don’t just allow for abstraction but actually crave it, adolescents are building theories about their world. And a strong theory is a tested one. Experimentation, exploration, and investigation are core activities of the youthful mind, and they often involve the testing of boundaries, assumptions, and rules. Sometimes that testing is simply seeing what one can get away with. This may be why, for teachers and parents alike, pushing the envelope may look and feel a lot like pushing buttons. If we can remember the link between theory-building and theory-testing in the developing adolescent, we can see how moments of “youthful rebelliousness” are opportunities to participate in meaning-making, even if such moments necessitate being sent to one’s room!
  • Independence isn’t always separation. It’s true that when we grow up, we need to learn to do things ourselves, to direct our own decisionmaking, and to take responsibility for our actions. This transition can be hard for parents (even when it can be a hoot for teens!) because deep, caregiving, loving connections must sometimes loosen to allow the adolescents to discover their world on their terms. In my work, I have found that moms and dads frequently confuse their child’s need for independence with a perceived need for separation. Painful as it can be to feel one’s child depart for the world without them, it’s important for parents to realize that a teenager’s desire to be distinct does not necessarily require them to disconnect. Departure is not separation—it’s exploration, and all explorers need a good homebase to which they can return and where they can reflect and recharge. Though peer groups can become enormously important due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is a shared experience of exploration and experimentation, peer relations can be exhausting and stress inducing for many teens ascending to middle school. This is why coming home is just as important to teens as going out. It’s less about severing ties with home as peer influences intensify and more about complementing parental bonds with relational connections outside the family.
  • Showing up matters. They may complain about your presence and be embarrassed by what you say and do (and wear!) when you’re there, but it matters to teens when their parents attend games, performances, parent-teacher conferences, back to school nights, science fairs, and any other events associated with their hard work and learning. To enhance their feelings of independence, youth sometimes overcompensate by making sure they never appear needy. Hearing a teenager say something like “Dad, will you please attend my soccer game on Thursday because it’s important to me that you see me play and interact with my teammates?” just isn’t going to happen. But they may toss their game schedule on the kitchen counter so it’s in plain view, or they may ask for a ride to a drama performance, or they may obligatorily hand you the back-to-school night announcement while feigning disinterest. Couched in a casual disregard for parent-stuff, these little gestures might be best read as invitations. Seize them, because staying connected means being there when things happen. In my years as a middle school teacher, there were at least ten students who wanted their parents more involved in their lives for every one student that expressed a (doubtful) desire to be free from his/her parents’ influence. From academic, athletic, and artistic events at school to special outings to museums, parks, or restaurants, the simple act of showing up communicates presence, interest, and commitment, which can be powerfully stabilizing and comforting experiences for teens immersed in so much change.


About the Author: Eric Toshalis is assistant professor of secondary education, California State University, Channel Islands. He is the coauthor of Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development for Educators. A former middle and high school educator, he has worked with youth and adults in schools as a coach, mentor teacher, community activist, teachers union president, afterschool group leader, and curriculum writer. You can learn more at www.understanding-youth.com.
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