TEMPE, Ariz. — The first year or two of child’s life can be a great source of fatigue and anxiety for many bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived moms. Research reveals, however, that the middle school years are actually most likely to be the period of parenthood when a mother battles emotional and mental difficulties.
The study out of Arizona State University involved 2,247 mostly well-educated mothers with children ranging from infants to adults. Participants were surveyed them about parenting and perceptions of their children. The women were also polled on their overall well-being.
Researchers write that the middle school years posed as significantly more difficult for moms because the “tween” years tend to be the time when kids “generally begin to experiment with risk-taking behaviors including substance use, rule-breaking, and sexual activity.” The change in maturity can cause confusion for moms, and bring about feelings of rejection when their children exhibit rebellious or moody behavior.
Mothers of tweens also tended to feel “lonely, empty and dissatisfied,” experienced the lowest level of maternal satisfaction compared to mothers of infants, and even more stressed out than new parents, writes NPR’s Juli Fraga in an extensive piece on the struggles of motherhood during the middle school years.
“Ever since my daughter was 10 or 11, I’ve found myself feeling sad and irritable because I don’t know how to help her fit in at school or resolve conflicts with her girlfriends,” 40-year-old mom Samantha McDonald told Fraga. “And even if I did, she doesn’t trust that I know the right thing to do, or that I can comfort her, and that’s heartbreaking. I put my career on hold because I always wanted to be a mom. It used to feel fulfilling, but now I find it unrewarding and stressful.”
Not surprisingly, mothers of adult children experienced the most life satisfaction in the study. “Regarding the later years of motherhood, our findings support suggestions that the ’empty nest’ syndrome is largely a myth,” the study explains. “Mothers of adult children reported the least role overload, and on measures of stress, parenting experiences, and negative perceptions of child, they fared significantly better than mothers of middle-schoolers.”
So, for parents dealing with the stress of toddler temper tantrums and other extremes of the “terrible twos,” prepare yourselves for the emotional labor of the more turbulent tween years.
The study is published in the journal Developmental Psychology.