The Negative Attitude
One of the first signs of early adolescence is what parents often describe as “the bad attitude.” They can't understand it. Here is a child who used to be so positive about life, so enthusiastic, and now it's like someone has pulled the plug and all that positive energy has been drained away. Now the child just lies around, frustrated and bored and restless, complaining about having “nothing to do.” But no matter what suggestion you make for an activity, you are told that your idea is a bad one and that you just don't understand.
So then you decide that since your child doesn't know what to do, and there is plenty of work to be done around the place, maybe what you need to do is put that large, capable body to work. “Not now! Leave me alone! Can't you see I'm tired?” comes the offended response. Then the phone rings, and suddenly there's plenty of energy to go hang out with a friend.
Now negative energy begins to build. As a child, your daughter probably accepted that her personal freedom depended on your permission, and more often than not, that was okay with her. Now, however, with childhood closing down and the exciting grown-up world opening up, your limits and demands are becoming a major grievance.
“What do you mean you won't let me? That's not fair! Who gave you the right to tell me what I can and cannot do? You're not the boss of the world!” But you are the boss of the early adolescent's world, and now she doesn't like it. It is this negativity, caused by the loss of old enthusiasms and the onset of new grievances, that creates the negative attitude.
The negative attitude begins the process of adolescence. People do not want to personally change unless they are dissatisfied with who and how they are. Now the early adolescent wants a change. He or she doesn't want to be defined and treated as a “child” anymore. Early adolescence can coincide with the onset of puberty, but it doesn't have to. When it does, early adolescence is considerably more intense. But the primary motivator for early adolescence is the dissatisfaction generated by the negative attitude.
Two common disciplinary problems created for parents at the negative attitude phase of early adolescence are taking negativity out on others and throwing away childish things.
Taking Negativity out on Others
No wonder your early adolescent feels negative. She's rejecting the idea of being a child and the interests and attachments that went with it, and doesn't yet have anything positive to replace the loss, so her self-esteem drops. More in life seems to be going wrong than right.
So, after a socially difficult day at school, your 11-year-old comes home brimming with negativity, immediately picking on a younger brother or sister, driving the child to tears, just to take out bad feelings on someone else. Now negativity about self has turned into meanness toward others, just as it does in peer relationships at school at this age.
Because the early adolescent wants more independence but still wants to be taken care of, parents can get mixed messages at this confused and confusing age. “Leave me alone; keep me company.” “Let me do it; do it for me.” “Don't make me come; don't leave me behind.”
Trying to feel better by trying to make others feel worse, however, is not an acceptable way for your early adolescent to manage negativity. Therefore, you need to confront, discourage, and redirect this behavior. “It is perfectly all right for you to get down about your life, but it is not okay to act those unhappy feelings out on others. I'd like you to talk them out instead. Please know that whenever you have a down mood or a bad day, I am always willing to listen, and to help you find a way to feel better if that is what you'd like. But using others as your whipping post at home is not allowed.”
Throwing Away Childish Things
In the spirit of rejecting the childish part of himself or herself to declare independence from childhood, your early adolescent may want to quit an activity that has historically been an important source of self-esteem. Since you want your son or daughter to have as many pillars of self-esteem as possible, to give one up at this fragile time does not seem like a good idea.
Rather than get into an argument about whose activity it is, however, and who should have the right to make the decision, be willing to consider quitting on condition that the boy or girl agree to a delay. “Let's both think about it for three months. If at the end of that time you still want to give up the sport, we will talk seriously about it. In the meantime, think about all the ways you have enjoyed it — from the pleasure of playing to the company of friends.”
During this transition, you may have to put up with a hard compromise. Every practice, your son or daughter complains about going, you insist, there is an argument, you still insist, the boy or girl grudgingly gives consent, and once at practice he or she has a good time. This is the compromise: He or she gets to protest going there, you get blamed for causing a “childish” activity to be continued, and the early adolescent is then free to continue an old activity that can still be enjoyed because you “made” him or her go.
Finally, at the end of the period you've agreed on, if your son or daughter still wants to give up the activity, then agree by imposing another condition. “If you really want to give up this activity, that is okay with me so long as you substitute a similar activity we both agree on in its place.” You want a new support of self-esteem to replace the old.