Middle school represents an awkward and difficult transition time. These youths are no longer in grammar school. They are not little kids. But they are not yet teenagers either. They are in-between child and teenager, hence the term “tween.”
Not only are tweens confused about where they fit in – not with young children and not with older teenagers – they are also confused about what they think and why they think as they do. This uncertainty about personal values persists throughout the teenage years as young people are developing a sense of individual identity. It also means that tweens who’ve not had time to process their beliefs are vulnerable to outside influences.
In 2012, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report which stated that tobacco use among teens had dropped since 1994. Even though the figures were better, the number of kids who are smoking in this country continues to be notably high. Smoking is detrimental to health, but when it starts young, it can set a pattern for lifelong tobacco addiction. According to the Surgeon General, 88 percent of adult smokers started smoking before they were 18 years old.
The Surgeon General’s report was based on a study of around 400 tweens ages 10 through 12. The tweens were asked to comment on computer images of cigarettes and alcohol. The tween could choose positive or negative words to associate with each image. The research teams labeled choices as either conscious evaluation or impulse responses. Those word associations were then converted into a probability math equation.
The study found that 10 to 12 year olds initially label alcohol and cigarettes as bad, but that their opinion is highly malleable. The tweens showed signs of confusion about their own negative and positive assessments. With a little bit of pressure, the children chose contrary to their own bias. Tweens were found to be especially vulnerable to impulsivity. Kids this age feel in their heart that smoking and drinking are bad, but they are not sure why and don’t know how to process past a pressure situation that demands a response.
The report makes it clear that prevention must begin early. By the time the tween enters high school and is confronted with opportunities to accept or reject these substances, the chance to teach important reasoning may have passed. Parents and teachers can’t change whether Hollywood glamorizes alcohol and tobacco use, but they can talk with tweens about what is being portrayed and what harsh realities are not being portrayed. They can also use these years when the tween is still willing to listen to instruct him/her in how to recognize impulses and overcome them.
Before kids enter high school is the time to focus on how to resist peer pressure. While they are still willing to engage in parent-child discussion is the time to help them think through why tobacco and alcohol are bad. All too soon, the teenager will be more interested in what the peer group has to say on the subject rather than mom, dad or the classroom teacher. It is easier to influence tweens toward rejecting their own assessment than it is to strengthen their bias against these substances, so every effort should be made to reinforce the truth that underage drinking and smoking are unwise choices.
What we believe determines how we behave. On the other hand, it is hard for young people to know how to hold true to what their heart tells them when there is outside pressure to conform in a contrary way. Younger children enter into their teen years predisposed to consider alcohol and tobacco use as bad or negative behaviors. But as the study showed, those attitudes are not firm and are highly susceptible to outside influences. Until we can change the positive cultural messages being sent out concerning these substances, responsible adults will need to be more proactive in discussing the dangers and training young people to resist temptations.