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Family Life: My 13-year-old son's personality is changing. How do I deal with this man-boy?

Q My 13-year-old son started secondary school last September and since then his personality seems to have changed.

At a recent P/T meeting we were told that he is very distracted in class and is not applying himself.

This is very disappointing as he is a bright boy who prior to this enjoyed school and was doing very well academically. The school is in a busy area and he has access to shops after school where he loiters with his friends before making his way home.

We try to keep his day structured with several after-school activities which he now says he wants to give up. He has also become very non-communicative and constantly baits his little sister. We have tried threats and bribery but nothing seems to be working.

I have tried to sit down and talk to him but he just doesn't want to engage with me. He has a girlfriend who is 14 and spends all his free time meeting up with her and his friends, or else spending hours in his room playing on his PS3.

I really feel that I need to be tougher on him but that just leads to more resentment building up between us. Sometimes I feel I'm losing my son because I don't know how to deal with this new man-boy in my house.

My husband, thankfully, has a good relationship with him and has recently taken over the supervision of homework and study which is working out a lot better as my son seems to respect him more.

However I can't help feeling left out in the cold wondering what my role is supposed to be!

A It's possible that your query has struck fear into the hearts of many parents of pre-teens and has probably struck a chord with most parents who have passed into, or beyond, the teenage phase of their parenting careers.

The description of your son's apparent personality change seems to me to be almost archetypal. It is common, albeit challenging, when a previously warm, engaging, connected child turns, in a few short months, into a withdrawn, self-absorbed and self-centred 'non-member' of the family.

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I believe that the early teenage years are the most hazardous and complicated for both teenagers and parents to deal with. During this part of adolescence there is the most intense hormonal activity, combined with a real surge in identity formation.

Young teenagers can feel all of the desire to be independent but none of the maturity to negotiate that independence successfully.

The good news is that you are not losing your son, although he is definitely heading out into a type of wilderness and he may be there a few years!

It is good that your husband is maintaining an influential relationship with him, but don't assume that you can't do the same.

Even if you feel you don't quite know how to negotiate your relationship with him right now you can treat things a bit like a parenting tag-team. You have undoubtedly invested many hours in him and now it's his dad's turn to take on a greater role. This is one of the benefits of having two parents available and involved.

Ultimately, however, your role hasn't really changed -- you are still his mother. He still needs you to look out for him, to care for him and to care about him. What is changing is that while he is remaining your son he is beginning the process by which he will no longer be your child.

Your task is to still set limits to guide him and to protect him. This means that you might end up in conflict with him. Conflict is not always a bad thing, though, because at least it shows that you care about him (he just may not like that you show your caring by saying 'no' to him at times).

Don't feel that you have to have big 'sit-down chats' in order to stay connected with him. Enquiring after his day, his friends, his school work and such like, will continue to show your interest in him. It also gives an opportunity to be simply interested in him, rather than to be inquisitive because you don't trust him.

Remember that if you are struggling to make sense of how to relate to your man-boy then rest assured that he too is struggling to know how to relate to you at the moment.

With the complex physical, emotional and cognitive changes that your son is experiencing, he probably feels all over the place and may even feel a large amount of self-doubt.

This is why he focuses so much more on his friends and relies upon them as a reference point when he tries to work out who he is.

Don't feel you have to change yourself radically. You might make small adjustments to some of your parenting ideas, for example, to allow him more choice and involvement in decisions but, overall, try to stay stable and consistent for him.

This is not a time to change your value systems or your beliefs just to avoid conflict.

In fact, these next few years are, more importantly, a time to stand firm and give him a stable base to test out his fledgling identity in the real world.

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