Heads up, moms! The middle school years are the worst

A new study finds that moms with 12- to 14-year-olds had higher stress levels and depression than women with kids in different age brackets.

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Photo: iStockphoto

Imagine reliving those sleepless nights with a newborn, but without the tender, heart-melting moments. Or picture yourself parenting a three-year-old—in full tantrum mode—but without any lavish hugs. That’s what life is like for moms of middle-schoolers.

A new study conducted by Arizona State University researchers Suniya Luthar and Lucia Ciciolla revealed that the most difficult time of motherhood comes when kids are in middle school. It’s that tumultuous age where puberty, academic pressures and a desire for independence from parents come into play. More than 2,200 women with kids ranging in age from infants to adults were studied for their own emotional well-being and their perceptions of their kids. What Luthar and Ciciolla found was that the moms with 12- to 14-year-olds had higher stress levels and depression than women with kids in different age brackets.

Parenting younger kids is hard, but the affection and intimacy that comes with it often balances out the equation. For every temper tantrum, you get a warm hug. You are the centre of their world. However, that balance often disappears when you have a kid in middle school. Conversations that don’t start with “I need…[fill in the blank]” are few and far between. Suddenly, your presence feels like an irritation to them, and they seem to find even the sound of your voice grating. Sometimes, even your love is rebuffed. It’s all age-appropriate behaviour—a stage most kids pass through—but it’s hurtful, and yes, even depressing.

It’s not easy watching your once-happy kids struggle with school or make poor decisions in the desperate pursuit of popularity. They’ll slam bedroom doors in your face—both literally and metaphorically. Trying to guide them through their issues is suddenly more complicated and solutions are no longer as simple as the usual stickers, hugs or long chats over a bowl of ice cream.

When my kids were little I depended on my mommy group for advice and support. Luthar and Ciciolla found that reaching out to mom groups when kids are young is common for many women. But, as life got busier and the kids started to choose their own friends, that support fell away. I also feel that people are less inclined to share their adolescents’ issues when the problems are so much bigger, scarier or even embarrassing.

As Science Daily reported in an interview with Luthar and Ciciolla: “From the perspective of mothers, there’s a great deal of truth to the saying, ‘little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems,'” Luthar says. “Taking care of infants and toddlers is physically exhausting. But as the kids approach puberty, the challenges of parenting are far more complex, and the stakes of ‘things going wrong’ are far greater.”

Your fears about your baby’s sleep habits, feeding schedule and poop issues are immediate. Your fears as the parent of a teenager are larger, however—a tendency towards risky behaviour or faltering grades at school are always of concern. As the mom of teens, I’m always worried about how their choices will affect their lives down the road, both personally and professionally.

And, if most kids are anything like mine, even getting them to open up and talk to you is a challenge. After years of being able to support them emotionally, it’s frustrating not to be able to break through when they seem to be in obvious distress. Luthar has worked in middle schools over the last few years. She recommends moms model good self-care behaviours and ensure they have outside interests and “authentic connections” in their daily lives.

The good news is that the study revealed that parents of adult kids are among the happiest—so I will make that my daily reminder when another bedroom door slams in my face.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

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