What is the Ugly Duckling Syndrome?

Remember that story about the ugly duckling? It’s a good metaphor for the time period from when kids emerge as little chicks and the time they finally grow into swans.  There is that awkward middle period where they are not quite sure who they are or where they fit in. Symptoms of this difficult age might include the gangly arms and legs they haven’t quite grown into yet, or baby fat they haven’t quite outgrown, voices that range from squeaky to scratchy, acne, and personality changes that seem to come and go in your child daily.  

We have all experienced this ugly duckling stage (if you need proof, go ahead and pull out your old yearbook). But this awkward and clumsy period in your child’s life may be more important than you remember from your own childhood. Now more than ever, the middle school years are crucial for developing into a healthy teenager and adult.  It seems the issues and challenges that were facing teens in high school are now being introduced to kids in junior high, or even before! In today’s world, parents need to foster and build a healthy relationship with their kids in the formative years, because that is when they need it the most. Here are some things to consider.


Studies show the tween and teen years are some of the most influential in a child’s life. The question is, how can we use this time to make the greatest impact? Without hesitation, I would say that parents can have the biggest influence by giving their kids undivided attention. Focusing attention on your child is like investing in Google stock. It has great value now, and will only keep growing. When you drop what you are doing to listen to your daughter talk, you are demonstrating that she has worth and importance in your life. When you set aside time every week to take your son out to dinner, you are indicating that time with him is precious. There is no substitute for the undivided attention of mom and dad in the life of a child.

Youth groups, sports, clubs and school have their place. But they are poor replacements for a caring parent. There is a temptation to think that coaches, pastors and teachers are better equipped and better trained to speak into the life of your kid. But that’s not true! Those other adults can be great allies but can never take the place of a parent. It is vital that moms and dads grasp their unique position in relation to their tweens and actively engage with their children.


Another way parents can positively impact their child’s formative tween and teen years is to let go of those unrealistic dreams and expectations for their kids. It is very natural to have plans for your child. We envision what our son will look like, talk like, act like. Our daughter will play volleyball, go to college, get married, give us ten grandbabies.

However, often times our kids don’t turn out the way we thought. Perhaps in these ugly duckling years your kid puts on a little weight. Your son shows no interest in sports. Your daughter would rather play the accordion than the piano. Your middle-schooler wants to be a forest ranger instead of an architect. It is safe to say that the things you envision for your child may not come to pass.

Instead of pushing your expectations upon your children, use ugly duckling years to build your relationship. Let go of your dreams, and work to understand and appreciate the person your son or daughter is becoming on their own. Show an interest in what interests them. Ask good questions that display your desire to know about their lives. Cheer them on in their successes, and help pick them up in their defeats. The majority of conflicts that happen in the home are the result of our expectations shattering. But when we focus on relationships and learn to appreciate our children for who they are, the struggles between parents and adolescents diminish, and the home becomes a much more peaceful place for kids to grow up.


Lastly, parents can invest in the lives of their tweens and teens by frequently employing the use of two phrases; “I’m sorry”, and “I forgive you.” Trust me, it can be done!  When parents make mistakes (and you do), you need to be the first ones to apologize. And when our kids make a mistake (and they most certainly do that!), moms and dads need to be quick to extend grace. By asking for and offering forgiveness regularly, you’re imprinting on young minds the importance of forgiveness and the understanding that there is no epic fail or blunder that will ever stop you from loving each other. There’s great freedom for a child in knowing that no matter how goofy, clumsy, moody or unruly they become, they are still loved.

Take advantage of these in between years and begin shaping your child into the responsible and mature teenager and adult they will become. The ugly duckling stage doesn’t last long. But it’s a powerful time period where your child needs your undivided, gracious attention more than ever.

Sound hard?  Truth be told, it can be!  But you don’t have to do it alone.  Don’t hesitate to give us a call to see how we can help.  

Written by Lisa Smith

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