If we really want to prevent dating violence and risky behaviors in our teens, we need to start working in earnest when they are in middle school.
Increasingly, that's the message we are hearing from doctors and other experts. We should probably even start earlier--a recent study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Blue Shield of California Foundation showed that one in three seventh graders was a victim of psychological dating violence and one in six had been a victim of physical dating violence. And when it comes to other risky behaviors, the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that nationwide ten percent of kids smoke their first cigarette before age 13, and six percent have sex before 13.
As a parent, this is both scary and frustrating. We like to think that we've still got time when our kids are twelve. After all, they are still kids. They are still innocent, in so many ways. It feels like rushing things to talk to them about dating and sex and cigarettes and drugs and alcohol. After all, we don't want to go putting ideas into their heads!
But as a parent, it also rings true for me.
My youngest daughter is an about-to-be middle-schooler, just done with fifth grade. Natasha has always been my easy kid, which is nice to have when you have five kids like we do. She's independent and capable, does well in school, makes friends easily and has never liked to do anything dangerous. For the past few years, she's been the one that has been easy to put on the back burner, so to speak, when one or more of her siblings have been demanding or needy. But not anymore.
Over the past few months, as puberty has hit, there have been some changes. She has become a bit defiant and dramatic and sneaky in ways that are new. Her social life has become more important to her, and school a bit less important. It has become very clear to my husband and I that she needs more of our attention.
And you know what? She wants it. See, that's the thing about middle schoolers. They are beginning their forays into romantic feelings and relationships, beginning their exploration of risky behaviors--but at the same time, they are still open to advice, still open to us as parents. Natasha still wants to hang out with us. She still snuggles. She still listens. In a few short years, that could--and probably will--change.
In that totally understandable denial and hopefulness of parenthood, it's easy to let middle school slide by without having the tough conversations. But we can't do that. We can't miss the window of opportunity that middle school gives us. We need to talk about things like healthy relationships, sexuality, peer pressure, risky behavior--because soon, they will be dealing with all of it if they aren't already. We need to summon up our courage, find that fortitude, and just do it.