by James Dobson, Ph.D.
As we all know, the period of early adolescence is typically a painful time of life, marked by rapid physical and emotional changes. This characteristic difficulty was expressed by a seventh-grade boy who had been asked to recite Patrick Henry's historic speech at a special program commemorating the birth of the United States. But when the young man stood nervously before an audience of parents, he became confused and blurted out: "Give me puberty or give me death!" His statement is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Many teens sincerely believe they must choose between these dubious alternatives.
The Terrible 13s
The 13th and 14th years commonly are the most difficult 24 months in life. A preadolescent child of 10 or 12 suddenly awakens to a brand-new world around him, as though his eyes were opening for the first time. That world is populated by age-mates who scare him out of his wits. His greatest anxiety, even exceeding the fear of death, which is remote and unthinkable, is the possibility of rejection or humiliation in the eyes of his peers. This ominous threat will lurk in the background for years, motivating kids to do things that make absolutely no sense to the adults who watch. It is impossible to comprehend the adolescent mind without understanding this terror of the peer group.
Related to this social vulnerability are the doubt and feelings of inferiority that reach an all-time high at this age. An adolescent's worth as a human being hangs precariously on peer-group acceptance, which is notoriously fickle. Thus, relatively minor evidences of rejection or ridicule are of major significance to those who already see themselves as fools and failures.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of having no one to sit with on the school-sponsored field trip, not being invited to an important event, being laughed at by the "in" group, waking up in the morning to find seven shiny new pimples on your oily forehead, or being humiliated by the boy or girl you thought had liked you. Some adolescents consistently face these kinds of social catastrophes throughout their teen years. It makes some of the most strong-willed among them downright mean at home.
Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner, who retired from Cornell University [and later died in 2005], identified early adolescence as the most destructive period of life. Bronfenbrenner recalled being asked during a U.S. Senate hearing to indicate the most critical years in a child's development. He knew the senators expected him to emphasize the importance of preschool experience, reflecting the popular notion that all significant learning takes place during the first six years of life.
However, Bronfenbrenner said he had never been able to validate that assumption. He agreed that the preschool years are vital, but so is every other phase of childhood. In fact, he told the Senate committee that the middle school years are probably the most critical to the development of a child's mental health. It is during this period of self-doubt that the personality is often assaulted and damaged beyond repair. Consequently, Bronfenbrenner said, it is not unusual for students to enter junior high school as happy, healthy children — and then emerge two years later as broken, discouraged teenagers.1
I couldn't agree more emphatically. Both physical and emotional dangers lurk everywhere at this time. I'll never forget a vulnerable girl named Diane who was a student when I was in high school. She attended modern-dance classes and was asked to perform during an all-school assembly program. Diane was in the ninth grade and had not yet begun to develop sexually. As she spun around the stage that day, the unthinkable happened! The top of her strapless blouse suddenly let go (it had nothing to grip) and dropped to her waist. The student body gasped and then roared with laughter. It was terrible! Diane stood clutching frantically at her bare body for a split second and then fled from the stage in tears. She never fully recovered from the tragedy during her high school years. And you can bet that her "friends" made sure she didn't.
Middle school students are typically brutal to each other, attacking and slashing a weak victim in much the same way a pack of wolves kills and devours a deformed caribou. They act this way because they are afraid of being bullied themselves, according to Dorothy Espelage, the author of a study of 558 students at a Midwestern middle school. "Kids don't have the skills to stop [bullying]," Espelage said. "They also fear that if they try, attention will turn to them. They also have a sense that it's all in fun — but to the victims, it's not funny." Espelage and her colleagues found that 80 percent of the students in their study said they had engaged in physical aggression, social ridicule, teasing, name-calling and threats within the last 30 days.2
Middle School Bullies
Another study, done by researchers at the University of Georgia and the University of Minnesota, found that bullying peaks when youngsters make the move from elementary to middle school. Their findings suggest that teasing and threatening are just part of the search for status. "Once the dominance is established and their place with their new friends is secure, the aggression subsides," the study's authors wrote.3
I have witnessed firsthand the brutality of the young. When I was in my 20s, I had the privilege of teaching in a public middle school. For two years, I taught science and math to 225 rambunctious troops each day, although I learned much more from them than they did from me. There on the firing line, my concepts of discipline and child development began to solidify. The workable, practical solutions were validated, while the lofty theories dreamed up by academics exploded like so much TNT when tested on the battlefield each day.
The Link Between Self-Worth and Rebellion
One of the most important lessons I learned in those years was the linkage between self-worth (or self-hatred) and rebellious behavior. I observed very quickly during my teaching career that I could impose all manner of discipline and classroom rules for my students, provided I treated each young person with genuine dignity and respect. I earned my students' friendship before and after school, during lunch and through classroom encounters. I was tough, especially when challenged, but never discourteous, mean or insulting. I defended the underdog and tenaciously tried to build each child's confidence and self-respect. However, I never compromised my standards of deportment. Students entered my classroom without talking each day. They did not behave disrespectfully, curse or stab one another with ballpoint pens. I was clearly the captain of the ship, and I sailed it with military zeal.
The result of this combination of kindness and firm discipline stands as one of the most pleasant memories of my professional life. I loved my students and had every reason to believe that I was loved in return. I actually missed them on weekends (a fact my wife never quite understood). At the end of the final year when I was packing my books and saying good-bye, 25 or 30 teary-eyed kids hung around my gloomy room for several hours and finally stood sobbing in the parking lot as I drove away. And, yes, this 26-year-old teacher also shed a few tears of his own that day. It is no wonder that one of my favorite movies, released in 1996, is Mr. Holland's Opus, which portrays a teacher who embodies the characteristics I have described. (Please forgive this self-congratulatory paragraph. I haven't bothered to tell you about my failures, which are far less interesting.)
If you can communicate kindness to your oppressed and harassed teenagers, even to those who are sullen and difficult, then many of the usual disciplinary problems of adolescence can be circumvented. That is, after all, the best way to deal with people of any age.
This material is excerpted from Dr. Dobson's book The New Strong-Willed Child (copyright © 1978, 2004 by James Dobson, Inc.), published by Tyndale House Publishers, and is used by permission.
1 Urie Bronfenbrenner, "The Social Ecology of Human Development," Brain and Intelligence: The Ecology of Child Development, ed. Fredrick Richardson (Hyattsville, Md.: National Educational Press, 1973).
2 K. Bosworth, D.L. Espelage, and T.R. Simon, "Factors Associated with Bullying Behavior in Middle School Students," Educational Research 41, no. 2 (1999): 137-153.
3 Maria Bartini and Anthony Pellegrini, "Dominance in Early Adolescent Boys: Affiliative and Aggressive Dimensions and Possible Functions," Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (2001).