Why the tween years may be the hardest (on moms)

So far, so good?

As a parent, you’ve made it through the sleepless nights of infancy, the foot-stomping whirlwind of preschool, and the (hopefully) relative calm of the elementary school years. Perhaps you were a bit nervous about the ages between ten and thirteen, that uneasy shift from childhood to the tumultuous reign of the adolescent. Maybe you were a little worried about free-flowing hormones, changing bodies, and confusing social dynamics. But the real tough stuff (drug use, full-out rebellion, other scary unknowns) lay ahead, you hoped. In high school. Or, even better, there wouldn’t be any tough stuff.

Maternal stress levels rise during middle school

While no one can guarantee that any time for a parent is easy, one study indicates that the middle school years are the hardest on mothers, specifically well-educated mothers (or more specifically, given the sample, generally white, suburban, married, and employed mothers, about half of whom had graduate degrees). Levels of maternal depression and stress were highest for these moms during the middle school years. The study did not look at the experiences of fathers.

What’s going on?

Researchers offered a few reasons for this rise in maternal stress levels. One is the rippling effect of a child’s shifting attitude towards parents, that all-too-familiar tween sullenness, studiously detached but often experienced very personally. Another is a natural sympathetic parental response to a child’s middle school social and academic stress at a time when there are fewer supports for both parent and child. The third possibility, based on the sample, is that many moms of middle schoolers are going through their own sort of tween years, the physical and emotional transition to midlife. All of these factors can overlap and intensify feelings of maternal dissatisfaction and depression.

Unanswered questions

As a therapist who works not only with tweens, but also with parents and young adults, this study brought some questions to mind. Do the results apply across the board for most parents of tweens? Are these feelings the same no matter a mom’s income and education level, age, ethnicity, or marital status? If not, what are the experiences of moms from a variety of backgrounds? What about fathers? How does a parent’s family history affect how they feel when a tween pulls away? What are the effects of these rapid changes on the parental relationship? And what are the longer-term effects on the tween as he or she grows up?

These are the kinds of questions I think about, too, when I am working with clients. Studies can provide insight on our experiences, but the individual details of our lives are the most important. Maybe parenting a tween has been the hardest time for you as a parent. But it could have been when the ADHD symptoms emerged, when you got divorced, when you lost your job, when you had three kids under five, that was the hardest.

Your experience

What about your experience as a parent? How have the tween years treated you? Comment if you'd like to share.

Jennifer