How Tech Experts Monitor Their Teens on Social Media

The Wall Street Journal

How can parents keep up with smartphones? Tech executives take various approaches to managing their children’s social-media use

While investor protests about smartphones’ harmful social effects began making headlines only recently, Silicon Valley parents have struggled with the issue for a long time.

Tech executives with children share many of the same concerns other parents have about tweens’ and teens’ social-media use—that it will disrupt sleep, homework or face-to-face socializing, or expose their children to bullies or predators.

Those who are experts on the internet and information security also wonder: What hidden security threats lurk in the latest social-media app? Which of many possible paths might hackers take to invade their children’s privacy?

The routes tech-savvy executives choose to protect their tweens and teens online vary, from close monitoring to guiding them in managing the hazards themselves.

Teaching Decision-Making

Steven Aldrich foresees his 16-year-old son Jackson constantly surrounded by apps and devices designed to grab his attention.

Mr. Aldrich, chief product officer at GoDaddy Inc., a Scottsdale, Ariz., provider of internet domains and websites to businesses, and his wife, Allison, shun the parental-control apps and filters with which some parents control their children’s internet and social-media use. “No amount of monitoring is going to teach responsibility or judgment,” Mr. Aldrich says. “The kids have to learn to live in a world where that’s the reality.” Instead, he and his wife “focus on, how do we create an environment where Jackson has the chance to learn judgment, by participating in setting limits and creating boundaries for himself.”

Steven Aldrich, GoDaddy's chief product officer, says ‘No amount of monitoring is going to teach responsibility or judgment.’
Steven Aldrich, GoDaddy’s chief product officer, says ‘No amount of monitoring is going to teach responsibility or judgment.’ PHOTO: GODADDY

They started early, letting Jackson decide as a child, with parental coaching, how much candy to eat from the pantry. This has evolved to teaching him to finish a homework assignment before checking social media. Mrs. Aldrich sometimes asks Jackson to let her know when he takes breaks from homework, Jackson says, making him aware of whether he’s diverting his attention too often.

They’re helping him learn time management, such as scheduling homework, sports practice, dinner and sleep in advance so that social media doesn’t crowd them out. “We’ve seen it start to pay off in how he prepares for tests or projects,” Mr. Aldrich says.

He and his wife also encourage Jackson to think about everything he posts as part of his permanent personal brand, Mr. Aldrich says, asking him: “Think about what you might have chosen if you’d gotten a tattoo when you were 3? What if you got a Barney tattoo, and now you’re in middle school? Would you want to be walking around with a Barney tattoo?’”

They’ve used examples from Snapchat of mistakes other teens made in oversharing, and asked Jackson to imagine how the sender felt afterward.

Jackson, who uses Snapchat and Instagram and also has a YouTube channel of his own about videogames and soccer, says he has learned to ask himself before posting anything to consider how it might affect his image. “Would I want the principal, a future employer, my teachers to see this?” he says. “Once you post something, it will be out there forever.”

Keeping a Watchful Eye

The powerful allure social media holds for teens has led Michelle Dennedy to take a hands-on approach to monitoring its use by her two daughters, 11 and 16. “Once you hand that phone to your child, that is the beginning of a million micro-decisions for you as a parent, and for the child,” says Ms. Dennedy, chief privacy officer at Cisco Systems Inc., the San Jose, Calif., networking company.

 

She checks privacy settings every six months on all the apps she and her daughters use on their smartphones. If social media distracts them from homework, “the Wi-Fi goes off and the books come out,” Ms. Dennedy says.

She teaches them how marketers use free apps to get personal information. “Do you know the difference between free and paid music?” she recently asked her younger daughter. “What do you think an advertiser would want to know about 11-year-old kids?”

She refrains from making judgments about teens’ social-media habits. “Apparently if you don’t respond with a selfie fast enough, people get upset. I respect their culture. I can’t just say, ‘That’s dumb, these people are ridiculous,’ and walk away,” Ms. Dennedy says. Instead, she asks, “What is this doing to your self-esteem?’ And I have to be quiet and listen. It’s an ongoing struggle.”

She also requires her daughters to get permission before downloading apps. “Sometimes they’ll send me an app that is just ridiculous. My older daughter asked for a celebrity app, with a lot of pictures of body parts,” Ms. Dennedy says. “ I asked her, ‘Write me a memo about what this will do to improve your life, and then we’ll have a conversation.’ She wrote the memo, tongue-in-cheek, with a lot of eye-rolling, saying, ‘I like the Kardashians because they annoy my mom.’ She still didn’t get the app.”

Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer at Cisco Systems, checks privacy settings every six months on the apps she and her daughters use on their smartphones.
Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer at Cisco Systems, checks privacy settings every six months on the apps she and her daughters use on their smartphones. PHOTO: CISCO

She steps in when social media ignites too much teen drama. “One problem for my older daughter a couple of years ago was when friends were using FaceTime while doing homework,” she says. “Walking into her room, I’d see another student talking about how stressed out she was, how hopeless it was, how awful parents were to force them to get good grades.

“I had a long conversation with my daughter later: I know you want to help your friends, but some of these students may need professional help. And I ask her, is this helping you get the grades you could get and want to get?”

She encouraged her daughter to talk with her friend and tell her: “I’m worried that this conversation isn’t productive. What can we do about this?” Or, “My weirdo mother is going to call your weirdo mother. Maybe we should stop.” Ms. Dennedy does sometimes call other parents in such situations. “That can be an awkward conversation, but it’s one you have to try to have.”

Monitoring Closely

Eight-year-old Jack Arkin’s online activity so far is limited to watching children’s videos on YouTube and sending email. But his father, Brad, who is chief security officer for Adobe, the San Jose, Calif., cloud-software company, has already begun shaping his attitude toward social media.

Adobe’s chief security officer Brad Arkin says, ‘I try to teach my kids to understand the tech concepts behind what they’re doing.’
Adobe’s chief security officer Brad Arkin says, ‘I try to teach my kids to understand the tech concepts behind what they’re doing.’ PHOTO:ADOBE

Mr. Arkin and his wife, Carolyn, closely monitor everything Jack does online. They restrict screen time for Jack to 30 to 60 minutes on most days. They read Jack’s emails over his shoulder and stream his children’s videos on the family TV, setting YouTube on restricted mode and keeping an eye on content. “He gets zero privacy and zero expectations of privacy,” Mr. Arkin says.

Jack will probably get his first phone next year, but it will be an old-fashioned flip phone, so he and his parents can call or send texts while he’s walking to and from school.

Mr. Arkin doesn’t plan to rely on parental controls when Jack, and his two younger brothers, ages 6 and 3, eventually get smartphones. “At my day job as a security guy, I know that software controls can be circumvented by determined adversaries,” he says. Instead, “I try to teach my kids to understand the tech concepts behind what they’re doing.”

That includes the hidden hazards of social media: “If you post a photo, people can figure out where the picture was taken, and at what time,” Mr. Arkin tells his son. “When you think about posting something, the questions are, ‘What do you hope to achieve by publishing it? Why does this need to be viewable to the world?’”

“I’m doing my best,” Mr. Arkin says, “to make my kids savvy but not over-fearful.”

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

Before You Study, Ask for Help

The Wall Street Journal

That’s one of several ways students can better prepare themselves for tests in the new school year

ILLUSTRATION: HANNA BARCZYK

What’s the best way to study for a test?

Many students will plunge into marathon study sessions this fall, rereading textbooks and highlighting their notes late into the night. The more effort the better, right?

Not so, new research shows. Students who excel at both classroom and standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT aren’t necessarily those who study longest. Instead, they study smart—planning ahead, quizzing themselves on the material and actively seeking out help when they don’t understand it.

Carl Wilke, a Tacoma, Wash., father of six children ages 4 to 22, sees the studying challenges that students face almost every school day. He coaches his children to pick out the main points in their notes rather than highlight everything, and to look for headings and words in bold type to find the big ideas in their textbooks.

Several months ago, his 18-year-old daughter Eileen tried to study for an advanced-placement exam. Eileen says she struggled with a practice test and realized that she didn’t know how to study. She asked her mother, Catherine, for help. Ms. Wilke sat with Eileen for two hours while Eileen used an answer guide for the test to explain why her answers were wrong on questions she’d missed, then discuss the correct ones. As they worked together, Eileen says, “I was teaching her while simultaneously teaching myself” the material—a study technique that enabled her to ace the test.

FIVE WAYS TO HONE YOUR STUDY SKILLS

  • Find out what the test will cover and the kinds of questions it will include.
  • Start at least a few days before the test to plan how and when you will study.
  • Identify helpful resources such as practice tests or instructors’ office hours to assist with material you don’t understand.
  • Practice recalling facts and concepts by quizzing yourself.
  • Limit study sessions to 45 minutes to increase your concentration and focus.

High-achieving students take charge of their own learning and ask for help when they’re stuck, according to a 2017 study of 414 college students. Students who performed better sought out extra study aids such as instructional videos on YouTube. Those who asked instructors for help during office hours were more likely to get A’s, but fewer than 1 in 5 students did so, says the study by Elena Bray Speth, an associate professor of biology, and Amanda Sebesta, a doctoral candidate, both at St. Louis University in Missouri.

That activist approach reflects what researchers call self-regulated learning: the capacity to track how well you’re doing in your classes and hold yourself accountable for reaching goals. College professors typically expect students to have mastered these skills by the time they arrive on campus as freshmen.

Many students, however, take a more passive approach to studying by rereading textbooks and highlighting notes—techniques that can give them a false sense of security, says Ned Johnson, founder of Prep Matters, a Bethesda, Md., test-preparation company. After students review the material several times, it starts to look familiar and they conclude, “Oh, I know that,” he says. But they may have only learned to recognize the material rather than storing it in memory, leaving them unable to recall it on a test, Mr. Johnson says.

Top students spend more time in retrieval practice, he says—quizzing themselves or each other, which forces them to recall facts and concepts just as they must do on tests. This leads to deeper learning, often in a shorter amount of time, a pattern researchers call the testing effect.

Students who formed study groups and quizzed each other weekly on material presented in class posted higher grades than those who used other study techniques, says a 2015 study of 144 students. At home, Mr. Johnson suggests making copies of teachers’ study questions and having students try to answer them as if they were taking a test. Taking practice tests for the SAT and the ACT is helpful not only in recalling facts and concepts, but in easing anxiety on testing day, he says.

Retrieval practice often works best when students practice recalling the facts at intervals of a few minutes to several days, research shows.

Studying in general tends to be more productive when it’s done in short segments of 45 minutes or so rather than over several hours, Mr. Johnson says. He sees a takeoff-and-landing effect at work: People tend to exert more energy right after a study session begins, and again when they know it’s about to end.

No one can pace their studying that way if they wait until the night before an exam to start. Students who plan ahead do better.

Students who completed a 15-minute online exercise 7 to 10 days before an exam that prompted them to anticipate what would be on the test, name the resources they’d use to study, and explain how and when they’d use them, had average scores one-third of a letter grade higher on the exam compared with students who didn’t do the exercise, according to a 2017 study of 361 college students led by Patricia Chen, a former Stanford University researcher and assistant professor of psychology at the National University of Singapore. One participant’s plan, for example, called for doing practice problems repeatedly until he no longer needed his notes to solve them—a highly effective strategy.

Many teachers in middle and high school try to teach good study habits, but the lessons often don’t stick unless students are highly motivated to try them—for example, when they’re afraid of getting a bad grade in class, or scoring poorly on high-stakes tests such as the ACT or SAT.

When her daughter Deja was still young, Christina Kirk began to encourage her to identify major concepts in her notes and use retrieval practice when she studied. When as a teenager Deja resisted being quizzed by her mother, Dr. Kirk asked an older cousin to serve as a study partner.

Dr. Kirk also encouraged Deja to invite one or two of her more studious friends to their Oklahoma City home so they could quiz each other. After the girls worked for a while, Dr. Kirk took them to the movies. “You have to give them something positive at the end, because they’re still kids,” she says.

Deja, now 18, still makes use of study groups in her college courses.

Advice on Helping Teen Girls Thrive

The Wall Street Journal

Stumped by a teenager’s mood swings? Read the latest research on helping girls between 10 and 15 years old flourish

New research offers insight into helping teenage girls thrive. 

Screaming, slamming doors and careening from one emotional outburst to the next—all can be part of life with a teenage girl.

Although girls approaching their teens are often years ahead of boys in gaining height, language and social skills, those strengths mask some important vulnerabilities.

Questions about helping teen girls thrive are a source of interest for psychologists and neuroscientists, sparking more than three dozen studies in the past year. Here’s a guide to the findings:

Ages 10 to 11: Early signs of puberty set in sooner than many parents expect. Girls begin staying up later and having their first crushes. Many are beset by strong, volatile emotions, ending a period of relative calm from ages 6 to 11, says Lisa Damour, a psychologist and director of the Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

Some girls mature faster and begin menstruating at age 10 or 11, compared with an average of 12 to 13. Early-maturing girls are at higher risk of behavior problems and depression. Girls who look older than their years often attract older peers who may lead them into risky behaviors.

Early-maturing girls who hang out with school friends the same age, rather than older friends from outside school, fare better. Also, those who say they’re close to parents and can talk with them about many things have a better chance of thriving, research shows.

Ages 12 to 13: Girls typically are more skilled than boys at expressing their emotions and interpreting others’ moods at this stage. They’re quicker to grasp nuances of humor.

Girls are also more vulnerable to stress than boys.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

A stress hormone that has a calming effect on teen males and adults may make teen girls more anxious, based on research on female rats. And teen girls are more sensitive to rejection, showing a sharper rise in stress hormones when trained peers in laboratory simulations exclude them from conversations, according to a 2017 study of 59 children and teens led by Laura R. Stroud, a senior research scientist at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School.

Girls whose parents give them strategies for solving social problems—by suggesting they join a school club to meet peers with similar interests, for example—have stronger friendships, according to a 2017 study which surveyed 123 middle-schoolers and their parents and teachers twice over 10 months.

Girls also need help managing strong emotions, Dr. Damour says. One eighth-grade girl screamed in distress after finding out about a bad grade online, as if “she walked into a mass-murder scene,” the girl’s father told researchers in a 2016 study.

Teenage girls are hardwired for drama, according to Family therapist Colleen O’Grady, author of “Dial Down the Drama.” But there are key ways daughters and mothers can find common ground. She offers tips for keeping the peace on Lunch Break with Tanya Rivero. Photo: iStock

Parents should avoid overreacting. “The No. 1 mistake parents make when their kid is in distress is to jump in to solve the problem,” says Michael Y. Simon, an author and school counselor in New Orleans.

Simply helping a girl name what she’s feeling and talk about it can have an almost magical calming effect, Dr. Damour says. Teens who are able to ask for and receive support and problem-solving help from their mothers at age 13 tend to be more independent and better educated at 25, according to a 12-year study of 184 subjects.

Some girls try to cope by sharing too much or attacking others on social media, which tends to amplify bad feelings. Dr. Damour advises curbing social-media use and guiding girls toward face-to-face activities instead.

Ages 14 to 15: Girls’ interactions with parents can take a negative turn, and some become pessimistic in the face of challenges. Boys offered a chance to win rewards in a Wheel of Fortune-like game became excited and motivated, while girls said the challenge made them anxious, says a 2017 study of 167 teens with an average age of 14.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

Girls tend to have more negative conflicts with parents than boys. A certain amount of arguing helps teens learn to control themselves and negotiate differences, Mr. Simon says. Parents who can listen with respect and disagree calmly make teens feel as if their opinions matter, helping build a sense of identity.

Some teens, however, unconsciously dump negative feelings on a parent so Mom or Dad will feel bad in their stead, says Dr. Damour, author of “Untangled,” a best-selling book on raising adolescent girls. They also tend to make bad feelings worse by ruminating or brooding over them. Rumination is linked to depression in teen girls, who suffer the malady at nearly twice the rate of boys.

If a girl is ruminating on a problem she can do something about, help her get started on working toward a solution, Dr. Damour says. If it’s something she can’t change, help her find a happy distraction. Preteen and teenage girls posted lasting improvements in feelings of mastery and closeness with others after taking part in a one-week mountain-biking program where they were also coached on goal-setting, self-expression and team-building, according to a 2016 study of 87 girls.

Teen girls who embrace goals that involve helping others also have a higher likelihood of thriving. Such teens tend to have parents who trust them and listen when they talk about problems, says a coming study of 207 girls led by Belle Liang, a professor of counseling and psychology at Boston College.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

Appeared in the Apr. 12, 2017, print edition as ‘Teenage Girls: An Expert Guide.’

What Teens Need Most From Their Parents

The Wall Street Journal

As adolescents navigate the stormiest years in their development, they need coaching, support, good examples and most of all understanding

A Parent’s Guide to the Mysterious Teenager
New research suggests ways parents can play a positive, active role in the lives of adolescents. WSJ’s Sue Shellenbarger joins Lunch Break with Tanya Rivero and explains why parents should stay close and be more emotionally connected to teens. Photo: Getty

The teenage years can be mystifying for parents. Sensible children turn scatter-brained or start having wild mood swings. Formerly level-headed adolescents ride in cars with dangerous drivers or take other foolish risks.

A flood of new research offers explanations for some of these mysteries. Brain imaging adds another kind of data that can help test hypotheses and corroborate teens’ own accounts of their behavior and emotions. Dozens of recent multiyear studies have traced adolescent development through time, rather than comparing sets of adolescents at a single point.

The new longitudinal research is changing scientists’ views on the role parents play in helping children navigate a volatile decade. Once seen as a time for parents to step back, adolescence is increasingly viewed as an opportunity to stay tuned in and emotionally connected. The research makes it possible to identify four important phases in the development of intellectual, social and emotional skills that most teens will experience at certain ages. Here is a guide to the latest findings:

Ages 11 to 12

As puberty takes center stage, tweens can actually slip backward in some basic skills. Spatial learning and certain kinds of reasoning may decline at this stage, studies show. Parts of the brain responsible for prospective memory, or remembering what you are supposed to do in the future, are still maturing. This may be why a teen may seem clueless if asked to give the teacher a note before school.

Coaching tweens in organizational skills can help. Parents can help build memory cues into daily routines, such as placing a gym bag by the front door, or helping set reminders on a cellphone. They can share helpful tools, such as task-manager apps.

Young teens’ reasoning and decision-making skills often aren’t fully developed; parents can coach them in being organized and considering other points of view.

Young teens’ reasoning and decision-making skills often aren’t fully developed; parents can coach them in being organized and considering other points of view.ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

Parents can help foster sound decision-making, thinking through pros and cons and considering other viewpoints. Children who know by age 10 or 11 how to make sound decisions tend to exhibit less anxiety and sadness, get in fewer fights and have fewer problems with friends at ages 12 and 13, according to a 2014 study of 76 participants published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.

By remaining warm and supportive, parents may be able to influence the way their teen’s brain develops at this stage. A 2014 study of 188 children compared the effect of mothers who were warm, affectionate and approving during disagreements, versus mothers who became angry and argumentative. Teens at age 16, who had affectionate moms when they were 12, showed brain changes linked to lower rates of sadness and anxiety and greater self-control, according to the study led by researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Ages 13 to 14

Parents should brace themselves for what is often a wildly emotional passage. Young teens become sensitive to peers’ opinions and react strongly to them. Yet the social skills they need to figure out what their peers really think won’t be fully mature for years, making this a confusing and potentially miserable time.

At about this time, teens’ response to stress goes haywire, sparking more door-slamming and tears. The impact of social stress is peaking around this time: Of adults with mental disorders often triggered by stress, 50% received a diagnosis before age 15. Other research shows teens from ages 11 to 15 become sad and anxious when subjected to social stresses such exclusion from social groups, while adults don’t show a similar effect.

Parts of the brain most vulnerable to stress are still maturing, so coping strategies teens use at this stage can become ingrained in the brain’s circuitry as lifelong patterns, according to a 2016 research review in Developmental Science Review. Psychologists advise teaching and modeling self-soothing skills, such as meditation, exercise or listening to music.

Teens are susceptible to social stress at ages 13-14. Parents can help decode peers’ social cues and model healthy coping behavior, like exercise or meditation.

Teens are susceptible to social stress at ages 13-14. Parents can help decode peers’ social cues and model healthy coping behavior, like exercise or meditation.ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

Coach teens on friendship skills, including how to read their peers’ expressions and body language. Encourage them to choose friends based on shared interests, not popularity, and to dump friends who are unkind. Teach them how to repair friendships after a fight by apologizing, making amends or compromising.

Family support is a stress buffer. Teens whose families provide companionship, problem-solving and emotional support are less likely to become depressed after exposure to severe stress, according to a 2016 study of 362 Israeli adolescents in the Journal of Family Psychology.

Ages 15 to 16

Teens’ appetite for risk-taking peaks at this age, according to a 2015 study of more than 200 participants ages 8 to 27 led by researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands. The brain’s reward receptors are blossoming, amplifying adolescents’ response to dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. This makes thrill-seeking more desirable than it will ever be again.

Normal fears of danger are temporarily suppressed during adolescence, a shift scientists believe is rooted in an evolutionary need to leave home and explore new habitats. Studies have found adolescents fail to change their appraisal of risky situations even after being warned that the hazards are greater than they expect.

The ability to make and keep good friends is especially useful at this stage. Teens with friends they trust and count on for support are less likely to engage in risky behavior such as shoplifting, riding with a dangerous driver or having unprotected sex, according to a 2015 study of 46 teens led by Dr. Eva Telzer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Teens who argue often with close friends are more likely to take such gambles.

Thrill-seeking will never be more irresistible than it is for a 15- to 16-year-old, whose reward receptors in the brain are blossoming. Parents can still make a difference: Encourage healthy friendships; show warmth and support.

Thrill-seeking will never be more irresistible than it is for a 15- to 16-year-old, whose reward receptors in the brain are blossoming. Parents can still make a difference: Encourage healthy friendships; show warmth and support. ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

It is not too late for warm, supportive parents to make a difference. In a laboratory risk-taking test, teens who grew closer to their parents starting at age 15 showed less activation of a brain region linked to risk-taking and took fewer chances 18 months later, according to a 2015 study of 23 adolescents published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. The closeness to parents included having parents’ respect and help talking through problems, and an absence of arguing or yelling, according to the study, in which Dr. Telzer was a co-author.

Ages 17 to 18

Benefits of the teenage brain’s ability to change and develop are evident at this stage. Some teens show increases in IQ. Intellectually gifted teens are most likely to achieve gains in IQ scores, so teens who are already smart are likely to grow even smarter, according to a 2013 study of 11,000 pairs of twins led by researchers at Penn State University, in University Park, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Older teens can put the brakes on emotions and risk-taking; their problem-solving and strategy-planning skills are developing. They might need help deciphering ambiguous people and situations.

Older teens can put the brakes on emotions and risk-taking; their problem-solving and strategy-planning skills are developing. They might need help deciphering ambiguous people and situations. ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

In older teens, the parts of the prefrontal cortex responsible for judgment and decision-making typically are developed enough to serve as a brake on runaway emotions and risk-taking. Executive-function skills, such as solving problems and planning strategies, continue to develop at least through age 20, according to a 2015 study by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University, England.

Social skills and related brain regions are still maturing, according to researchers including Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. At this stage, teens are better at noticing how others feel and showing empathy. They still lack the ability to decipher people’s motives and attitudes in complex social situations, though, such as figuring out why a friend might suddenly change the subject during a conversation at a party.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

Moms’ Middle-School Blues

The Wall Street Journal
Mothers feel most stressed about parenting when their children are in middle school, new research shows
All mothers have their ups and downs, but their children’s middle-school years are when they feel most empty and unfulfilled, a large new study shows. WSJ columnist Sue Shellenbarger joins Tanya Rivero to discuss.

By SUE SHELLENBARGER
Updated May 17, 2016

Mothers feel more anxious, dissatisfied and doubtful about their own parenting skills when their children are in middle school than at any other stage, new research shows.
The turbulence that hits sixth- through eighth-graders often begins with the onset of puberty, bringing physical changes and mood swings. Also, many students transfer from close-knit elementary schools to larger middle schools. Childhood friends may be separated, classes are often tracked by ability and teachers are more demanding.

Mothers often lose touch with other elementary-school parents who became friends. School officials often press them to back off and give students a longer leash. As a result, some parents may withdraw from others and bottle up the stress and sadness they feel if their children rebel at home or hit a rough patch at school.

The finding that moms of middle-schoolers have greater distress and lower well-being comes from the most ambitious and carefully targeted look yet at mothers’ well-being from childbirth until their children’s adulthood. The study of more than 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers was published in January. Those with infants and grown children are happiest, says the study, led by Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Mothers were recruited for an online survey by word-of-mouth, fliers, media reports and lectures. Researchers asked them to respond to validated scales measuring anxiety, depression, stress, emptiness, loneliness, parental guilt, overload and perceptions of their children’s behavior. Researchers took pains to compare only mothers whose oldest and youngest children were in the same age group. This avoided any distortion that might result if there was also a happy baby or successful young adult in the household to mitigate the depressing impact of a rebellious teen.
Researchers expected to find that mothers of infants were almost as stressed as mothers of middle-schoolers, and were surprised by the result, Dr. Luthar says. “Infancy is of course trying, with the physical exhaustion and the nights up, but it’s also very rewarding to hold that baby. It’s magical and sweet,” she says. Fewer offsetting rewards come in middle school.

Mothers’ and fathers’ confidence in their ability to be good parents, including disciplining, influencing and communicating with their child, falls precipitously in middle school, says another study, a three-year look at 398 parents of children ages 11 to 15, published last year by researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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Jeff and Jennifer Grosman of Washington, D.C., with their children Max, now 11, and Hannah, now 14. Dr. Grosman felt isolated at first after Hannah began pushing for more independence last year. PHOTO: LISA RAYMAN GOLDFARB
Researchers knew from previous studies that parents of teens have less confidence in their parenting ability than parents of younger children. To explore when and why those declines occurred, they recruited parents of 11- and 12-year-olds from two middle schools and had them complete interviews and written questionnaires at three one-year intervals. Among triggers for parents’ loss of confidence, the study says, were puberty-related physical changes in the children, a decline in the quality of parent-child communication and a parental belief in negative stereotypes about teenagers.

“Middle school is a gray zone—that difficult time when you don’t feel like you have the skills to handle the challenge” of parenting, says Patti Cancellier, education director for the Parent Encouragement Program, a Kensington, Md.,-based parent-training nonprofit.

Jennifer Grosman felt isolated after her daughter Hannah, now 14, began pushing for more independence last year. In middle school, “parents aren’t hanging out and bonding at the kids’ birthday parties anymore, so there isn’t an informal opportunity for conversations about parenting,” says Dr. Grosman, a Washington, D.C., psychologist. It is easy to assume your child is the only one struggling, she says. “And when people say, ‘How’s your kid doing?’ you feel like you have to say, ‘Uh, fine.’ ”
She and her husband Jeff took a 10-week class on parenting teens at the Parent Encouragement Program. They learned that other parents were having similar struggles and that much of what their daughter was going through was normal.

Dr. Grosman and two other parents also started an informal discussion group for parents of sixth-grade classmates of her younger child, Max, who is 11, to give parents a chance to build trusting friendships early in middle school. About 10 to 15 participants have met monthly since last fall to discuss topics suggested by group members, Dr. Grosman says. The group has gone so well that she plans to start a similar one for parents in her daughter’s ninth-grade class.

While worry and guilt about a child’s behavior are factors in the middle-school blues, personal needs for close friends and acceptance and comfort from others are often a more powerful predictor of mothers’ distress, Dr. Luthar says.

Having close friends you see often is a potent antidote, Dr. Luthar says, but many parents lack time for friendship “because their kids are in 10,000 activities and they’re busy ferrying them across town, worrying about college admissions” and other stressors, she says.

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Colin, Kimberly, Annie, Michael and Tim Hicks. Colin is 12, Annie is 13, and Tim is 15. Ms. Hicks fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. ENLARGE
Colin, Kimberly, Annie, Michael and Tim Hicks. Colin is 12, Annie is 13, and Tim is 15. Ms. Hicks fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. PHOTO: STEVEN DYMOWSKI

Dr. Luthar is testing a workplace program for employed mothers that encourages them to build close friendships. Participants must find at least two people who will agree to be their “go-to committee,” meeting with them weekly to listen and provide mutual support, she says. “The premise is basically that the same love we give to our kids, we all need for ourselves. That’s what the women are encouraged to do for each other.”

Kimberly Hicks began feeling isolated, sad and ineffective as a parent last year after her daughter withdrew from the family emotionally during middle school, arguing and criticizing family members and spending more time in her room alone, says Ms. Hicks, of Burtonsville, Md. She enrolled in a parenting class and learned that stepping back and letting her daughter make more decisions for herself might ease her rebellion.

Ms. Hicks, who is trained as a counselor, battled the urge to bottle up the stress. When she told a friend that “deep down, I’m afraid I’m not doing everything I’m supposed to do as a parent,” Ms. Hicks says, she took comfort in the friend’s empathetic reassurance that she’d felt the same way with her own children.

Ms. Hicks also fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. She attends a weekly women’s group at her church. She also gets together every week or two with a friend, another middle-school parent who has similar views on child-rearing. As they work for two or three hours together on household projects, such as cleaning the garage, “we’re talking the whole time,” she says.

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Al Watts, a dad in South Elgin, Ill., has found his kids’ middle-school years harder than he expected. He doesn’t talk about the challenges with other dads as often as he suspects a mother would, he says, but he calls other dads or joins message boards to share problems. Left to right, Anna, 13; Ben, 9; Macy, 11; Rachel, 7; Shirley and Al Watts. PHOTO: KATHY ELKEY
Men share parenting problems, but they tend to be “much more direct and to the point,” says Al Watts, an author in South Elgin, Ill., who stays home to care for his four children, ages 7 to 13.

Mr. Watts says he worries about keeping communication open with his two oldest children—Anna, 13, and Macy, 11. “I thought middle school would be easier, and I was totally wrong,” he says. “The problems are much more complicated.”

When a boy asked Macy out on a date, Mr. Watts called his brother, who has a son in sixth grade, for advice. His brother’s response: “I’m glad I don’t have that problem.” Still, Mr. Watts says, talking it over helped him stay calm.

He enrolls in parenting classes offered by his school district. He also logs onto a Facebook group run by the National At-Home Dad Network, a fathers’ group, frequently, to read others’ posts and comments.

Mr. Watts has trouble finding time to see friends. When a close friend from Nebraska recently came through town, however, he made a point of meeting. “Dads need that connection too,” he says.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com