Careless Preteens

Getting angry will not help kids learn responsibility

Thinking abstractly

Ten-year-old Lisa walks in after a busy day of school and socializing. But something is missing. “Lisa? Where’s your jacket? I ask. She looks around hopefully, as though she expects it to suddenly materialize.

“Umm — maybe I left it at Sandy’s house. No, maybe I left it on the bus. Are you sure I wore a jacket this morning?” Five minutes later, her big brother comes in the door. “Hey, Lisa, how did you do on your report card?”

Report card? It’s report card day? Lisa gives me a sheepish look. “Um, I think I left that at Sandy’s too.” Today, Lisa is very organized and efficient, but during those preteen years — not so much.

Certified family communications coach Wendy McDonnell of Guelph, Ont., says this isn’t unusual. “When children are seven or eight, they are often very fastidious and want everything in order. But during their preteen years, they are moving from a stage when their thinking is concrete to being able to think more abstractly. They’re starting to see the world differently, and their brain is working on all these different possibilities — leaving fewer brain cells to focus on sticking to a routine and keeping track of mittens.”

This, McDonnell says, can often come across to others as carelessness or forgetfulness. She urges parents not to label their preteens as careless because it’s a description the child may take to heart. Most preteens, she points out, aren’t careless all the time or even most of the time. Her own 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, is “at one minute extraordinarily helpful and organized, and the next minute she’s freaking out because she can’t find the sweater she wants to wear or the book she was supposed to take back to the library.”

Strategies

So what can a parent do? McDonnell suggests these strategies:

• Recognize that your child is probably a bit frustrated and confused by this too — and may be embarrassed about the times he showed up at school without gym clothes or papers that needed to be signed. Let him know that you want to help, not criticize.

• Brainstorm solutions. For example, can you designate a particular spot in the front hall for signed papers and permission forms to be taken back? Can you help him memorize a checklist to run through before leaving a friend’s house (coat, hat, mittens, backpack)? Would it help if he called you before leaving so you could remind him about the checklist?

• As you evaluate the solutions you’ve come up with, be upfront about what you will or won’t do. If you aren’t able or willing to bring in a left-behind lunch, let her know that. Maybe a granola bar or two could be kept in the backpack as emergency rations? If you like the “logical consequences” approach, you may opt to let your child know that you won’t be bringing in any forgotten items, with the goal of helping her learn to remember.

• Be prepared for the reality that solving one problem (such as getting the child’s gym bag to school on gym days) won’t help prevent her from leaving jackets and mittens on the school bus. That’s OK. It gives you more chance to practise problem solving, and that’s a useful skill, says McDonnell.

Remember, she adds, you don’t need to solve the problem. Just keep asking questions, offering suggestions and listening to your child’s concerns so that she can figure out a solution that will work for her.

Another kind of carelessness

Many preteens (or kids in the early teen years) are going through the rapid growth spurt and physical changes that mark the beginning stages of puberty, points out family communications coach Wendy McDonnell. “This often leads to clumsiness and a lack of coordination until they figure out how to manage their changing bodies,” she says. As a result, kids this age may break plates and cups when assigned to dishwashing duty and knock ornaments off shelves as they pass by. This often looks like carelessness, but really it’s a matter of not having the coordination and body control that they used to have.

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