Category Parenting Queries

How should I handle profanity?

All ten-to thirteen-year-olds use profanity at times. They may curse, as adults do, out of frustration, anger, or sudden pain. They may use profanity when they’re with friends as a way to feel part of the group or to act older. It’s easy for kids to learn profanity—they hear it on TV and CDs, in movies, and from peers and parents.

Most adults don’t like to hear kids swear. They may tolerate their own child’s occasional outburst but otherwise feel that cursing at these ages is rude and disrespectful. Many parents set firm limits: “You’re not allowed to use that language here.” “I don’t talk that way and I don’t want you to.” “Don’t ever use those words around adults.”

Children who are generally secure and know their parents’ expectations are not likely to use excessive profanity. One twelve-year-old said she wouldn’t curse a lot, even if her parents said she could: “I know you don’t like it.” Some ten- to thirteen-year-olds ask permission before using profanity: “I have to tell you what this kid said in school. Can I say the ‘b’ word?” After a losing soccer game, a frustrated player asked, “Is it all right to cuss now?”

Parents can usually limit profanity at home, but they have less control when their child is with peers. Experimenting is common, and he wants to be like his friends. If they use profanity, he will also.

One eleven-year-old told his mother, “Kids cuss all the time at camp. Everyone does it when they aren’t around their parents.” After school vacation, another child said, “I’ll be back with my friends, so I’ll probably start cursing again.” It’s common for kids to tell each other dirty jokes and to use profanity, especially with friends of the same sex. However, most children of these ages know it’s unacceptable to speak the same way in front of adults.

Some kids, though, don’t get clear messages about cursing. Their parents might use a lot of profanity themselves or may not communicate values. Children who don’t learn limits at home are likely to be reprimanded by other adults, including teachers, coaches, and their friends’ parents, “Please watch your language.”

If you generally feel good about your child’s behavior, try to accept occasional profanity. Continue to set limits and discuss standards of behavior. Remind him that cursing is not appropriate social behavior. Modify your own language. If you frequently curse, he will follow your example. Also, limit his exposure to movies, TV shows, and music that contain bad language.

 If he continues to use profanity, ask yourself if underlying problems are causing him anger and stress. He may be cursing in order to express his frustration. If he’s having trouble with schoolwork, peers, family members, or self-esteem, setting limits on profanity will not improve his situation. You’ll have to identify and begin to resolve his basic problems in order to see an improvement in his language.

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Will we always argue about movies, music, video games, the computer, and TV shows?

“Your music’s too loud!”

“Turn the TV off!”

“That movie is way too violent.”

“Get off the Internet.”

As kids get older, they struggle with parents over control of leisure activities. Kids want to relax with TV, satisfy their curiosity by watching R-rated movies, listen to popular music, explore the Internet, and play video games until they win. To a child, these are enjoyable—and at times fascinating—activities. She gets to do what her friends do, stay busy, find things out, and avoid stressful situations. She doesn’t always think about the value of these pursuits. She just wants to pass the time, get involved in something interesting, and have fun.

Parents do think about the consequences. They know that time spent in front of the TV or playing video or computer games is time taken away from schoolwork, physical activity, socializing, reading, and creative hobbies. And they worry that exposure through the computer and the media to violence, sex, profanity, alcohol, drugs, and questionable morality will have a harmful effect on their child.

The main issue for parents is deciding what to let their child see and do, and for how long. They must set limits, but they also have to compromise, allowing her enough freedom so that she won’t pursue forbidden activities behind their backs.

If you have rules about TV-watching, make exceptions for special programs, nights when homework is done early, rainy days, and other circumstances. Allow her to spend more time on a videogame when a friend is over or when the game is new. If she’s begging to watch a rented video that you consider marginal, watch it with her and then talk about it. And let her play her music loudly at times when no one will be greatly disturbed.

Provide alternative activities for your child based on her interests. Enroll her in classes; encourage increased involvement in extracurricular activities; have books, magazines, art materials, and games available. Suggest she read the paper. (She can find movie, music, TV, and concert reviews there.) Spend time doing things as a family. Plan trips to museums, stores, or parks, and have your child bring a friend along.

Follow your instincts. You know what’s appropriate for your child and approximately how much time she needs for homework, physical activity, socializing, and relaxing. Decide what you’re comfortable allowing her to do, and decide on your “absolute no’s.” Then don’t be swayed by what other children are permitted to do. Families rarely have identical values.

If you and your child argue about movies, try to read as much as you can about the ones she’s interested in. Talk to people who’ve seen them. If a movie seems acceptable, let her go. But if you believe it will frighten her too much, be too intense, or expose her to sights and ideas you disapprove of, say no. Don’t rigidly depend on the ratings. Some R-rated movies may be acceptable if you don’t mind your child hearing profanity, while some PG movies may glorify immoral acts and characters.

 Choose home videos as you would theater features. If a movie’s not right for your child, don’t let her see it. Restrict access to cable movies, using the control feature on the cable box if necessary, and let your child know what kinds of movies she should and shouldn’t watch when she’s at friends’ homes.

Handle TV-viewing in a similar way. Let your child watch programs that are good or at least harmless. Preview an episode of a questionable series or read about made-for-TV movies ahead of time to see if they’re acceptable. Let your child watch some music videos if she’s interested, and at times discuss the contents with her. Use electronic parental control mechanisms when appropriate. If you have a job outside the home, keep a copy of a TV schedule at work so you and your child can talk by phone about afternoon shows. Monitor how much time she spends watching. TV should be a minor entertainment, not a major occupation that takes up a disproportionate amount of time. Your child should save TV-watching for the short breaks between the truly important activities in her life.

Video and computer games, by their nature, require a lot of playing time. It’s OK to let your child occasionally spend several hours at a time at a videogame, as long as she doesn’t do it regularly and she’s devoting enough time to schoolwork, socializing, and outdoor activity. Since you won’t approve of many games, question your child closely and read reviews before making buying or renting decisions. One mother told her ten-year-old son, “You can get a game, but not one that shows any torture or killing.”

You probably view your child’s computer use as a mixed blessing—you’re glad for the time she spends on homework, research, and exploring her interests. The Internet offers amazing learning opportunities. You also may accept time spent on instant messaging as a good alternative to phone use. But you may be concerned about extended Web-surfing and on-line chatting, and justifiably worried about the harmful or dangerous content she may encounter. Again, use whatever electronic parental controls you find appropriate and limit computer use in the same common sense way you limit TV and video game time.

Finally, like many parents, you may argue with your child about her choice of music. Try to be patient. Occasionally listen with her and let her play her music in the car. She’ll appreciate your interest, and you’ll learn something about her taste and thinking. You may be surprised to discover positive messages in music you’d previously considered harsh or even harmful. In general, let her listen to the music she likes, but keep her from buying CDs you strongly object to. Educate yourself by looking for reviews and questioning other children and adult listeners. It’s hard to control what your child hears, especially on the radio, but you can express your displeasure with certain lyrics and ideas.

As long as your relationship with your child is strong and she’s doing well in school and with peers, you don’t have to worry about lyrics having a negative influence on her. If she’s having trouble at home and elsewhere, she may be more susceptible to the negative messages in her favorite songs. Rather than censor the music, try to make positive changes in her life. Strict limits alone may only encourage her to lie about what she’s doing.

When you set limits on any of your child’s leisure activities, are calm and don’t make fun of her choices. You want to criticize a program or product, not your child. Instead of shouting, “Only a stupid person would waste time on such trash,” say, “Don’t you think this program makes girls and women seem unintelligent? I don’t like our family watching shows with that message.” She might be more willing to follow your suggestions and rules if you explain your objections and treat her with respect.

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Why is my child a show-off?

“Hey, watch me!”

“Look what I’ve got!”

“I’m buying a better one!”

“See what I can do!”

All kids, particularly at ten and eleven, show off. They demonstrate their skills or show possessions they’re proud of. Bragging can be a way to get peer approval or to feel equal to others. It’s also done in fun. As long as a child is generally caring and responsible, occasional showing off is not a problem.

Some parents actually encourage their child to be a show-off. A parent who repeatedly says, “You’re the only skilled one on the team,” or, “You’re much prettier than the other girls around here,” will reinforce self-centered ways. A child who’s not taught to consider other’ feelings won’t realize that most adults and children find showing off offensive.

While some kids are encouraged in their negative behavior, most who constantly boast and act silly do so because they’re insecure or unhappy. A child who behaves this way may feel unpopular with his peers or may lack sufficient support or guidance from his parents. He may show off in order to hide disturbing feelings.

Such a child often creates problems. At school he may be the “class clown,” and at home he may argue frequently with his siblings. With friends, he may be silly and disruptive. Such acting out is a way for him to release frustration and seek attention.

If your child consistently shows off, try to find out why. Begin by asking him what he thinks, although you may find him confused and unable to explain his feelings. Ask yourself these questions: Do I spend enough time with him? Do I encourage and compliment him? Does he feel overshadowed by his siblings? Is he jealous of them? Does he have friends? Does he do well in school? Is he compensating for what he sees as a defect, such as being overweight or small for his age?

Also ask yourself if you are somehow encouraging your child to show off. Do you talk about respecting other people? Do you make it clear that bragging is unacceptable? Do you set a good example for him? If you haven’t been setting firm enough limits, let him know what your expectations are. Talk to him about the importance of being considerate, modest, and patient.

 If you have been setting limits on showing off, becoming stricter won’t necessarily change your child’s behavior. He may feel angry, pressured, and upset at not being able to please you. He may continue to show off and become louder and more boisterous to rebel and express his frustration.

Instead, help him deal with the problems that cause him to show off. If he’s doing poorly in school, work with him on lessons and assignments and talk to his teachers. If he has few friends, make it easier for him to join a team or have classmates over.

If the problem is his relationship with the family, work on changing the way you treat him and his siblings. Concentrate on his strong points rather than his weak ones. Don’t compare him to his siblings. Try to give him enough positive attention so that he feels good about himself and has less need to brag.

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How can I encourage self-confidence?

One of the most important tasks parents have is to consistently let their child know she’s capable, loved, and worthy of attention. Her self-esteem is based largely on feedback from her parents. If they show they value her, she’ll generally feel good about herself. If they concentrate on her faults, she may develop a poor self-image.

It’s normal for ten- to thirteen-year-olds to have changing opinions and fleeting self-doubts during this self-conscious stage. One moment they boast about their skills and the next moment put themselves down: “I’m a good hockey player.” “I can’t sing.” “I’m too tall.” “I’m smart and do really well in school.” “I can make people laugh.” “I stink at lacrosse.” “I’m so fat and ugly.” “I do everything wrong.”

Because kid’s feelings about themselves fluctuate, it’s important for parents to emphasize strengths rather than weaknesses. The attitude a child develops about herself during pre-adolescence, whether positive or negative, helps determine the direction she’ll go in when she enters adolescence, a period of even greater uncertainty.

Some parents are not supportive. In an effort to improve their child’s behavior or to express frustration and disappointment, they speak harshly: “You’re such a slob.” “Why can’t you be like your sister?” “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you speak up?” “You run too slowly.” “You’ll never get to college at this rate.” A child who hears these messages feels she can never please her parents or live up to their standards. Her grades, her appearance, her abilities, or her personality will never be good enough. In such circumstances, it’s hard for her to develop confidence.

Some parents who speak negatively were themselves criticized as children and may have grown up with a lack of confidence. Even though they once struggled against harsh words and treatment, they though repeat the pattern with their own children.

Other adults, particularly teachers, can influence a child’s self-Schools rarely work hard enough at building confidence or offering praise. More often, students are reprimanded for turning in work late, making mistakes, or talking. One child may get a poor grade on a project even though she put in hours of hard work. Another who is forgetful may be embarrassed in front of the class: “You’re always turning your work in late.”

Coaches, too, can affect a child’s sense of confidence. An encouraging coach can make a child feel good, regardless of her athletic ability. A demanding coach can make even a skilled young athlete doubt herself: “One more bad pitch and you’re out.” “What’s wrong with you? Go after the ball.”

You probably know if your child lacks confidence, since a poor self-image is hard to hide. She may frequently put herself down or say, “I can’t,” “I’m no good,” or, “I’m the worst on the team.” You can tell a lot from her body language, especially if she slouches, doesn’t make eye contact, or carries her in an overly self-conscious way. If you detect a consistent pattern of negative thinking, you need to help her feel better about herself.

Start by evaluating the messages you give her. Do you encourage her self-doubt? Are your expectations too high? Do you respect her feelings? Are you too demanding? Do you say things that make her feel inferior? Do you tell her you love her? Are you hard to please? Do you dwell on her weaknesses but take her strengths for granted?

Give her more verbal rewards. Praise her accomplishments and point out her talents and endearing traits. Talk often about her successes and ignore or minimize her faults. Encourage her and offer support when she takes risks such as trying out for a school play.

Talk, as a family, about what you like in yourselves and each other, and what you have to offer: “Your smile makes other people feel happy.” “Why do you think Alison and Megan like you so much?” Discuss issues that contribute to your child’s lack of confidence: “Would being taller really make you a better person?” “What’s wrong with being shy?”

Help your child find activities in which she can succeed. If she’s not good at team sports, have her try an individual sport such as swimming, tennis, karate, or gymnastics. Encourage her to pursue special interests in computers, music, art, or dance. Involve her in community service—she’ll feel good about helping others.

If she’s discouraged about her schoolwork, help her with difficult lessons and assignments, consider hiring a tutor, and investigate special programs that might make her feel better about her abilities as a student.

Once you start treating your child in a more positive way, you should see changes in her behavior and attitudes. She may seem more confident and begin to smile more. She also may start to treat friends and family members in nicer ways as she begins feeling better about herself. In all areas of her life, improved self-esteem will help her feel happier, more satisfied, and more successful.

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How can I help my child be a better sport?

Most parents want their child to be a good winner and loser. They want him to try his best in every situation and accept any outcome with grace. They have a strong stake in his sense of sportsmanship. They believe his behavior reflects on them, and if he’s a poor sport, they’re not only disappointed and angry, but embarrassed.

Kids like to win games, have the highest grades, get the starring roles, be first in line, win elections, and get prizes. Most of the time, though, a child is not number one. Defeat and mistakes are inevitable. Occasionally a coach or teacher will give a good sportsmanship award or credit a child with trying. But there are few rewards for those who lose.

A child who is a poor sport loses control easily. He may be moody or angry. He may have outbursts and throw a tennis racket, tear up a paper with a poor grade, kick a chair, or curse at an opponent. He also may be disrespectful to a teacher, counselor, umpire, coach, or parent as he vents his frustration. On a team he may belittle his peers: “Why can’t you hit the ball?” “What kind of throw was that?” “It’s your fault we’re losing the game.”

Sometimes a child will get down on himself and question his abilities: “I’m never entering another stupid art show again.” “I always lose the camper contests. I must be the worst kid here.” “I’ll never get on a select soccer team.”

While no one likes to lose, there are several reasons why some kids become poor sports. A child may have unreasonable expectations and become upset when he fails to live up to them. His parents may encourage his high standards by overemphasizing winning: “I hope you beat this kid because I hate the way he plays and I can’t stand his father.”

Parents may be impossible to please: “You’re not trying hard enough.” “I know you could have won the science fair if you had put more time into it.” “Too bad you came in second.” Some parents don’t set firm enough limits on their child’s displays of bad sportsmanship. They encourage his misbehavior by not trying to stop it. Poor sportsmanship is sometimes a sign of low self-esteem. A child who lacks confidence may get easily upset when he doesn’t do well. Lack of sportsmanship may also indicate that he’s in over his head, frustrated because he’s competing in situations where he doesn’t stand a fair chance. A child who doesn’t enjoy competition may not react well no matter how much support he receives.

Most pool sports are aware of being out of control and would like to behavior. However, they don’t know how to handle difficult situations. They need help and guidance when they make a mistake or lose a competition.

Tell your child about how important good sportsmanship is. Talk about how other people- friends, acquaintances, famous competitors—react to success and adversity. “She lost the election, but she still promised to support her opponent.” “When that tennis player threw his racket and cursed, everybody booed.” Let him know that it’s also important to be a good winner, one who is gracious rather than cocky.

Before he enters a competition, remind him about his behavior: “You look better when you show control.” “Have fun.” “I don’t want to hear you yell or complain.” Set limits on his negative actions and discuss consequences: “If you keep throwing your helmet, I won’t let you play.” “If you can’t control your emotions, you’ll have to quit the swim team.” Praise signs of good sportsmanship. If he handles himself well reward him with a hug, a pack of baseball cards, a note, or a treat.

Evaluate the competitions he participates in. Perhaps they’re too stressful. Some kids are spurred on by competition, while others are upset by too much of it. Your child’s sportsmanship may improve in a less intense atmosphere.

If you suspect that his attitude is rooted in a poor self-image, think of ways to increase his confidence. Spend more time with him, have fun together, encourage him in all his activities.

Don’t let winning or losing affect your love and acceptance of him in any way.

Try to be a good sport yourself. Do you react angrily when things don’t go your way at work, at home, on the road, or during leisure time? Do you congratulate others on their successes? Are you gracious when you succeed? Do you put too much pressure on your child? If you change your attitude, you are likely to see a difference in his behavior.

Talk to coaches or teachers about helping your child become a better sport. Suggest they hold a team or class meeting on the values and characteristics of good sportsmanship. Look for books or articles on the subject to share with your child.

At times, he may have a legitimate reason for feeling “things aren’t fair—I shouldn’t have lost.” An umpire may make a bad call. A teacher may make a mistake. Another player may cheat. One girl became upset in gym class as the teacher continually called on the most skilled girls to demonstrate volleyball techniques. When she asked why, the teacher said, “I don’t want the other girls to be embarrassed if they miss the ball.” Your child may have a right to complain, but he should learn, with your help and guidance, how to handle situations without acting like a bad sport.

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I want my child to be more honest. What can I do?

“It wasn’t me who left food in the basement.”

“There wasn’t any change from the money you gave me for the movies.”

“You never told me I was supposed to feed the cat.”

Kids lie for many reasons. The main one is to avoid getting into trouble. A child who fears punishment may lie, hoping she’ll avoid the consequences of misbehaving. The harsher the possible punishment and the stricter and more inflexible her parents are, the more likely she is to bend the truth.

Kids also lie to get out of chores or schoolwork (“Can I stay home today? I have a really bad stomachache”) or to feel part of a group (“Yeah, I saw that video too”). Kids may use lies to impress others and prop up a poor self-image: “I got an A on that test.” “I go to Florida all the time.” “The coach said I was the best on the team.”

Some kids lie because they’re able to get away with it. Their parents fail to set adequate limits and don’t teach the value of honesty. And finally, twelve- and thirteen-year-olds sometimes lie to protect their friends. At these ages they become more secretive and show great loyalty to friends, even ones who smoke, drink, cut classes, or do other things parents don’t approve of.

To get your child to become more honest, be unambiguous about your expectations: “I won’t accept lying.” “People in a family have to trust each other. If I can’t trust you, I can’t let you do the things you ask and I can’t count on you to be responsible.” “I always expect you to tell me the truth.”

Be a good role model to your child. Since your child will know when you’re lying to her, be honest about everyday events as well as important issues such as illness, separation, and unemployment. Show your distaste for acquaintances, celebrities, politicians, and publications that exaggerate or distort the truth. Don’t make excuses for people who lie.

Make a clear distinction between acceptable white lies told outside the family and the need for honesty within the family. She can understand that white lies are sometimes necessary for safety or to keep from hurting someone’s feelings: “I had to tell her I liked her hair. She just had it cut.” “If someone calls when I’m not home, just say I’m in the shower.”

Set firm limits and let her know there will be consequences if she doesn’t tell you the truth. Punishment can include grounding, or loss of allowance or privileges. Use a firm, calm tone to discuss the seriousness of lying.

You may find that punishment isn’t needed at all. If you emphasize your disappointment and hurt, she may decide that the consequences of lying —including feeling ashamed and guilty—are worse than the consequences of confessing to the original misbehavior. Appealing to her conscience this way will work best if you have a good relationship and if she values your approval. An important way to get her to become more honest is to strengthen the ties between you.

When she does tell the truth about misbehaving, praise her honesty. If she lies but later offers a genuine apology for doing so, accept the apology. You will still have to decide if the original misbehavior requires punishment. Being honest shouldn’t wipe out the consequence of negative actions, but you may decide to be a little more lenient to encourage her honesty.

Don’t put yourself in a bind by offering to forgo punishment in exchange for the truth. You’ll lose no matter what your child says. Either you’ll give up the option of punishment even if you find out it’s necessary, or you’ll change your mind once you hear the truth and come down harshly, in which case she will see you as dishonest yourself. Instead of being lenient or manipulative, simply demand the information you want, make guesses until you arrive at the truth, or punish your child if she won’t tell you want you want to know.

If your child regularly lies and exaggerates, try to find out why. Are you too accommodating? Too inflexible? Does your child feel jealous of a sibling? Do you spend enough time with her? Do you give her enough positive feedback and encouragement? Is family discord causing stress? Does she have low self-esteem? If lying is a symptom of deeper problems, limits and punishment won’t improve her behavior, you’ll need to change the circumstances that keep her from being truthful.

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How can I be more patient?

Parents’ impatience takes several forms. One is situational—they lose their tempers and snap at their child for his misbehavior. A second form is more general. They lack the patience to listen to him, get involved in his interests, accompany him to activities, watch him play sports, or help him with schoolwork. Both kinds of impatience can have a negative impact on children and make parents feel guilty.

All parents lose patience at times, especially when they’re rushed or busy or feeling badgered by their children’s demands: “I’ve got to get to work.” “I’m trying to pay bills. Don’t make so much noise.” “I can’t drive you to Glen’s again.” Parents experiencing stress at work or at home are especially likely to snap at their child.

Such impatience due to circumstances is often mild and temporary. More harmful is constant criticism and rudeness. Parents with a low tolerance for frustration may routinely yell at their children, ridicule them, and call them names: “Don’t be so stupid! I’ve told you a hundred times not to leave the front door open.” “All you do is whine.” “I’m not a servant. Make your own lunch.”

Parents with high expectations and a strong desire to be in control can become intolerant when things don’t go their way. They expect perfection. If their child can’t meet their standards, they react with harsh impatience. In the process, they may hurt his self-confidence, harm family relationships, and cause him to become less, rather than more, cooperative as he copies the treatment he’s received.

In less dramatic ways, parents also show impatience when they neglect to make time for their child. It takes a reordering of priorities to put aside adult concerns and answer a child’s question, look at his model rocket, walk him to the basketball court, listen to his music, go to his school assembly, or read a book to him. Even the busiest parents can stop what they’re doing several times a day to concentrate on their child. But some parent’s even ones with time to spare —don’t make their child’s needs and interests a priority.

Becoming a more patient parent takes purposeful effort and may require a change in attitude, priorities, or behavior. If you’re easily frustrated, try to make your life less stressful by easing up on your expectations. It’s more important to spend time with your child than to have a clean house. It’s better to stay calm during the early evening than to prepare a complex dish for dinner. If work or family problems are difficult to cope with, you may find stress-reduction techniques useful. You can learn about them from books, magazines, or classes.

Think about your tone of voice when you talk to your child—try using the same tone you’d like him to use. Instead of shouting, “Hurry up!” or, “Get going!” say, “Please hurry or we’ll be late.” The more you take your child’s feelings into consideration, the better his behavior is likely to be. In the long run, he’ll respond more positively to your calm words than to rude orders.

Make a decision to spend more time with him. Put your book or work down periodically, stay off the phone at night, forgo some evening plans, and get involved with him. This is not always easy, since it means giving of yourself without necessarily receiving an immediate return. But there are definite benefits. He will have you as a model of more tolerant, patient behavior. He’ll feel better about himself because you’re interested in him. And the relationship between the two of you will improve, making it easier for you to react to his behavior in a mature way. 

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How should I discipline my child?

Parents wish their pre- and early adolescent had more self-control and better judgment. They want to spend less time supervising and disciplining their child. Yet, kids these ages continue to be irresponsible at times. They may make bad decisions, spend too much money, stay out too long, show disrespect, curse, skip a class, or neglect chores.

In some families, discipline becomes a major issue. Kids misbehave frequently or in serious ways and parents struggle for control. In other families, misbehavior is minor, and discipline is not a source of stress. The difference often lies in the nature of the parent-child relationship.

Parents who show continual love and respect for their child, spend time with her, and communicate their values give her a strong incentive to behave well. She values her relationship with them and wants to please, not disappoint them. In addition, the guilt she feels if she lets them down helps keep her from doing something wrong, even when they aren’t there to supervise.

To improve your child’s behavior, begin by strengthening your relationship with her. The closer you are, the more effectively you can influence her conscience and help her become self-disciplined. Take an interest in her activities and include her in yours. Let her know that you care about her opinions and feelings, and that your love—although not necessarily your approval—is unconditional.

If she does something wrong, show your anger and disappointment, but don’t yell insults or use put-downs and sarcasm: “I told you that you couldn’t watch TV until you finished your homework and I expect you to listen to me.” It can be useful to stir up some feelings of guilt or shame to help her remember how to act: “When you didn’t call, I was worried that something happened to you.” You want her to think about the consequences of her behavior. She may act more responsibly next time in order to avoid feeling bad. One twelve-year-old said, “Feeling guilty is worse than getting grounded.”

Talk to your child about her misbehavior: “Why did you go home with Jeremy when I told you not to?” Listen to her side, and then explain what was wrong with her actions and what the consequences will be. A discussion is more effective than a lecture, especially because at these ages she feels that her good intentions should count as much as her actions: “I went home with Jeremy because he needed my help with homework.” She will tune you out or react angrily if you do all the talking and she’s forced to listen to long, negative comments about herself.

Don’t slap or hit her. Her behavior will become worse rather than better. She’ll be so angry that she’ll continue to misbehave or she’ll aim her resentment at siblings and peers, becoming aggressive, rebellious, and selfish.

Although physical punishment is not effective, let her know her misbehavior will have consequences. Use whatever seems to work best: grounding; taking away allowance or privileges; refusing permission to use the phone, computer, or TV.

Be sure the consequences you pick will have the desired effect—to get your child thinking about and improving her behavior. If you always ground her for a day or two, she may continue to misbehave, knowing the punishment is short-lived and not severe.

On the other hand, don’t be too harsh or strict. If she’s grounded for weeks or months or constantly loses her allowance, she’ll focus on her unfair treatment. She’ll be unwilling to change her behavior, and if she’s forced to, she’ll misbehave in other ways. She may become sneaky, resentful, or withdrawn.

In general, be flexible about consequences. If one technique doesn’t work, try another. You may need to talk more and punish less. Or, if you depend too heavily on reasoning with your child, you may need to set firmer limits with heavier consequences. If you’re having trouble finding an effective punishment, ask her what she thinks a fair consequence for her misbehavior would be. While her suggestions may be too mild or too harsh, you may get some useful ideas.

Remember that setting limits alone won’t solve ongoing behavior problems. Continually work on establishing better communication and understanding. Look for the causes of inappropriate behavior. Are there frequent family conflicts? Is she dealing with your divorce? School difficulties? Does she feel neglected or less favored than a sibling? You may need a therapist’s help to find the roots of discipline problems.

Finally, set a good example. Show her, through your actions, how you expect her to behave and treat people. Try to be thoughtful, concerned, and courteous with others as well as with her.

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Does my child need therapy?

Because ten- to thirteen-year-olds change so rapidly, it can be hard for parents to distinguish between emotional problems and the normal upheavals of pre- and early adolescence. Is a child depressed or just moody? Seriously unmotivated or merely preoccupied? Deeply angry or beginning the inevitable separation from the family?

Parents won’t necessarily find answers to such questions in discussions with their child. Kids these ages often avoid sharing their thoughts with adults, whom they may see as sources of criticism, lectures, and unwanted advice. Parents may be left to evaluate their child’s situation based on their own observations.

Identifying serious, persistent problems is usually not difficult. Most parents know to seek help if their child shows clear signs of drug or alcohol abuse, an eating disorder, depression, or dangerous or illegal behavior.

Beyond such clear-cut cases, many parents are confused. They don’t know if their child needs help (“It’s just a phase. Everybody gets depressed sometimes.”) And they don’t know if they “believe” in counseling for any but the most critical problems. Some parents associate therapy with shame and embarrassment. They fear the implication that something is wrong with their child, and they worry that counselors will blame them for their child’s problems. They also may worry that he will speak badly of them or reveal family secrets. Such fears keep many families from getting the help they need.

If you are unsure about your child’s situation, ask yourself these questions: Has the troubling behavior been going on for a long time, despite your attempts to help? Do teachers, coaches, or other parents complain about him? Is he frequently angry? Does he regularly put himself down and act discouraged? Does he do poorly in school? Does he have trouble making friends? Is he consistently jealous of his siblings? If he has continuing difficulties in several areas of his life, he can benefit from professional help and possibly from medication.

He also can benefit if his problem is an unreasonable fear or phobia. A counselor experienced in treating phobias can desensitize your child. One boy who greatly feared elevators was able to ride them alone after six counseling sessions. A child who feared airplanes flew off on vacation with her family after only a few weeks of counseling.

You might turn to therapy to help your child deal with recent or continuing trauma, such as the death of an immediate family member or close friend, divorce, or a frustrating step-parenting situation. During counseling, he can express his pent-up anger, fear, and doubt to a sympathetic, experienced listener.

If you decide to try therapy, ask your pediatrician, family doctor, or local medical bureau for referrals. Set up an appointment with the therapist for a consultation without your child present. Describe your concerns and ask for advice. You may hear that therapy is not necessary and you may get helpful suggestions for improving your situation at home.

If the therapist does recommend counseling, talk to your child about it. Explain what therapists do: “There are some problems we can’t solve on our own.” Let him know there’s nothing wrong with seeking therapy. In fact, he may already know of friends who are in counseling, and some of the celebrities he admires may be quite open about seeing someone. Tell your child about the benefits of therapy: “Dr. Graham will help you feel happier and better about yourself.” “Susan is used to talking to children about their fears.” If your child resists, don’t give up on counseling. Ask the therapist for the best approach.

Therapy can take a number of forms: individual, group, or family counseling. Any one, or a combination, can be effective. If he is seen individually, schedule occasional consultations with the therapist so you can learn more about your child’s situation. You also may want to join a parents’ discussion or support group in which your questions and concerns can be addressed.

Therapy in any form can be prohibitively expensive. Most health insurance companies and HMOs cover a percentage of the cost. Local and state government agencies as well as some nonprofit organizations offer therapy at reduced or sliding scale fees. In addition, many private therapists are willing to lower their fees when patients are unable to pay the full rate.

Although it can be difficult to start therapy, it’s wise to work on emotional problems while your child is ten- to thirteen-years-old. As he gets older, his situation and behavior only will become more complex. If you get help for him now, your family will have a much easier time as he moves through adolescence.

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I think my thirteen-year-old smokes cigarettes. What should I do?

Parents become quite upset if they suspect their child has been smoking. Kids constantly hear that smoking is unhealthy. Many have urged their parents to quit: “I’ll never smoke! It’s ugly and bad for you!” “People who smoke cigarettes are stupid!”

But some kids change their minds when they hit early adolescence. Peer pressure, curiosity, and the media can make smoking seem attractive. Kids who smoke at these ages are often just experimenting. They force themselves to inhale, then cough, feel nauseous, and stop. That’s usually the end of it.

However, some thirteen-year-olds begin to habitually smoke. They may be children with difficult home lives, little interest in school or activities, and a weak identity. Or there may be less obvious reasons why they’re attracted to smoking.

Sometimes a child will talk at home about classmates who smoke: “Just don’t tell their parents.” A child who speaks often about smokers may be testing her parents’ reaction. She doesn’t realize that, while her parents may be only mildly interested in another youngster’s smoking, they would be furious if their child started.

Aside from a desire to experiment, kids these ages may smoke because they think it makes them seem “cooler” and older. Slick advertising campaigns tend to further this myth. A child may know about the health risks associated with tobacco, but she’ll smoke anyway because she doesn’t believe bad things will happen to her.

Young adolescents are focused on the here and now. They think, “Teenagers don’t get lung cancer.” The more support a young smoker has from her peers, the less likely she is to think about future problems.

If you find out your child has experimented with tobacco, express your firm disapproval, talk about the harmful effects, and then—if she’s stopped smoking—let the matter drop, although you need to keep a watchful eye on her.

However, if you suspect that your child is becoming a regular smoker, treat her habit as a serious problem. Verify her smoking by searching her room for cigarettes and matches. Most children don’t hide things very well. Confront her: “I smell smoke when you come in the house”. “I found a cigarette lighter in your jacket pocket.” If she lies, don’t accept what she says, even though you might prefer to avoid the issue.

Set firm limits and consequences: “I’m very angry and disappointed.” “You made a bad choice and I won’t accept it.” “Smoking at your age is terrible.” Take privileges and allowance away if you think that will be effective. Talk about the major risks of smoking, and about the other problems smoking causes, such as stained teeth, an unpleasant odor, and lack of wind for sports. These immediate effects might impress her more than long-range threats to her health.

If necessary, change some of your own behavior. Give up smoking. Spend more time with your child and work on creating a strong, positive relationship with her. Monitor her activities and friendships, and consider telling her friends’ parents about the problem. Be persistent—the temptation to smoke will only increase as your child moves through adolescence.

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