If you think babies are tough - wait until the early teenage years

New research suggests it's not the baby years that are the hardest for mums.
New research suggests it's not the baby years that are the hardest for mums. Photo: Getty Images

New research suggests it's not the baby years that are the hardest for mums: the real challenges come later.

Most mothers will agree that the infancy years are incredibly demanding: steep learning curves, severe sleep deprivation and coping more generally, with the transition to parenthood. And yet, new research suggests that it's the middle school years (ages 12-14) that are the most challenging for mums.

In a study conducted by Arizona State University and published in the journal Developmental Psychology researchers were interested in whether mothers' wellbeing varied across their children's developmental stages. Specifically, they looked at infancy, preschool, elementary school (primary school) middle school (early high school), high school and adulthood.

Over 2,200 mothers completed an online survey "Mums as people." The questionnaires looked at aspects of wellbeing including stress, depression, anxiety and satisfaction with life as well as the mothers' experience of parenting, and perception of their children. All respondents had kids ranging in ages from infants to adults.

Results found that it wasn't, in fact, their children's infancies that mothers reported as most demanding, but the early high school years (ages 12-14). Mothers of infants and adult children reported the highest wellbeing of the developmental stages assessed.

So, what is it about the early teenage years that are so challenging? The authors note that besides the hormonal changes of puberty, early adolescence is a period where children begin to test limits, engaging in "rule-breaking" behaviour including drug and alcohol use and sexual activity. Additionally, they start to seek independence from their parents as they develop their own identities. As concerns for their children's safety come to the fore, it's little wonder that mothers find this stage particularly stressful.

Study author Suniya Luthar explains that mothers are essentially the 'first responders' to their children's distress. And yet, one of the challenges of adolescence is that the old methods of offering comfort – hugs, bedtime stories and reassuring words no longer work. Consequently, mums are left trying to find new ways to support their kids. "And then of course, there is the hurt from eye-rolling, distancing…from the same child who was unequivocally adoring just a few years earlier. The rejection hurts,' says Luthar.

Bree is the mother of a 13-year-old boy and can relate to the challenges highlighted in the study. "One moment he was my little boy and now he is a teen," she says. "I know I have to let go, but my instincts keep telling me to hold on."

Bree is also finding that she needs new ways to navigate the change, explaining, "What I find helpful is to keep a focus on open communication between my son and I. As he grows his communication with me, as well as his actual desire to engage at all, has changed. I need to remain conscious of that and not try and expect too much when talking with him, otherwise I can become pushy and he will just shut down. By backing off a little and relaxing, he is much more likely to engage with me, even if it is in a different way to before."

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And yet it's often not just their children who are experiencing changes around this time. The researchers suggest that mothers may find parenting early teens most demanding as it coincides with their own transition into "midlife" and its associated cognitive and physical issues. They cite previous studies suggesting that marital satisfaction is often at its lowest in this age group, also.

Based on their findings, the study authors highlight the need for mothers to nurture and receive support themselves as people, and not just caregivers, as they parent their children through the demands of adolescence.

So the takeaway is: prioritising "me time" and accessing additional support when needed, isn't just important in those early years of motherhood. The need to focus on mothers' wellbeing remains paramount through each developmental stage, especially the tumultuous adolescent years.

And, given wellbeing climbs once again when children leave the nest, there's always the age-old parenting mantra, oft used during the baby stage: "this too shall pass."

Do you agree? Do you find parenting teens more challenging than the baby years?