by Dr. Laura Markham
Parenting preteens, or tweens, can be a challenge. Discipline, school, homework, time with family — everything is renegotiated. Hormones kick in as puberty approaches, and the pressures of the peer group magnify. Many moms and dads react to their tween’s moodiness, focus outside the family, increasing independence and maturing physical body by distancing somewhat from their child. But tweens need to feel they have a secure nest as they launch themselves into the exciting but scary world. Kids who feel disconnected from their parents lose their anchor and look for it in their peer group.
The only way to make it through the tween years with a firm foundation for the teen years to come is to fiercely maintain a strong bond with your child, even while you encourage age-appropriate freedom. In fact, much like the toddler years, parents play a major role in whether the tween years are turbulent or terrific. How?
- Stay connected
by having dinner together every night, or as often as possible. Kids who have dinner with their parents do better in school, are less likely to use drugs or alcohol, are less likely to have sex while in high school, and are less likely to experience depression or anxiety.
Check in with your tween every single day by spending some private time together; many parents find that fifteen minutes at bedtime is grounding and most intimate. But car rides run a close second, probably because kids feel less threatened when you aren’t looking right at them.
Schedule regular longer alone-time with each parent, such as monthly brunch with Dad or weekly walks with Mom. Don’t expect your son or daughter to invite closeness or volunteer vulnerable emotions at each interaction, or when you expect it. But if you set up enough regular opportunities to be together, it will happen.
- To reduce rebelliousness, recognize and work with your tween’s need for independence.
Be aware that as we feel less powerful as parents we often compensate by becoming overprotective. Instead of breathing down his neck, agree on and enforce standards. Set reasonable limits (no texting during dinner and after 9pm, no online chatting or TV until homework is finished) and be sure to offer empathy when they hate your limits. It’s their job to test limits, and yours to set limits based on your values.
- Re-think your previous ideas about discipline.
Power-based punishment strategies stop working as soon as your child gets big enough to say “You can’t make me.” Even consequences will only work a short time longer, because many teens simply refuse them. You never win a power struggle with your child. The only leverage we really have with our tweens and teens is their love for us, which becomes a more potent motivator over time. That means the best way to get your tween to follow your rules is to maintain a strong bond with him.
- Don’t underestimate hormones.
Your child’s body is changing, creating mood swings, distractibility, competitiveness, and preoccupation with the opposite sex. What’s more, their brains are undergoing an extensive re-wiring, which can make them emotionally volatile. Tweens can even find themselves in a full-blown tantrum without understanding how it happened. Kindly tell your tantrumming preteen that you see how upset they are and you want to give them time to pull themselves together before you discuss it. Ask them if they want you to stay, or to leave the room to let everyone calm down. Your preteen doesn’t understand his or her moods any more than you do right now. Later, give them a big hug, and really listen to what they have to say. Even if you can’t agree with their position, acknowledge your child’s perspective, and work to find a win/win solution.
- Don’t take it personally!
When your tween yells at you to drop dead, don’t over-react. When they hurt your feelings and you’re tempted to withdraw, take a deep breath and stand your ground calmly. That doesn’t mean you don’t kindly demand civility, and it doesn’t mean you can’t use strategic withdrawals as a chance to regroup, but that you continue to reinforce your love for and connection to your child. Your best way to get your tween to act respectfully towards you is to extend respect to her, and to calmly expect it in return.
- The tween years are the perfect time to teach values
…which is best done not by lecturing, but by asking questions. To get your child talking, become a brilliant listener, empathizer, and question asker. Tweens are usually curious about your own early years, those can be great opportunities to reassure them that even their parents were insecure, as all tweens are. It’s also an opportunity to teach; don’t be afraid to share real life examples of teens who died from drinking and driving, or became addicted to drugs. It’s best, though, if stories about your own life set a positive, rather than negative example, such as having struggled and overcome obstacles.
- Be aware that the more popular culture your child is exposed to, the more risk she runs
…of drug and alcohol use, depression and early sexual experimentation. Tweens want to feel grown up, so naturally they ape adult popular culture. Yes, they have to fit in with their friends, but they count on their parents to keep them safe and let them know what’s age appropriate. They aren’t ready for the attention they get when they wear revealing fashions or sing that inappropriate song at the recital. They need you to enforce strict rules regarding internet use and what movies are appropriate. Tweens want and need your guidance, even if they can’t show it.
- Tweens are actively shaping their identity.
Support their experimenting and exploring, even when they’re into a new fad every few weeks. Don’t comment on their fashions as long as their body coverage is appropriate, and keep an open mind about their music. Especially support the deep passions into which they really pour themselves; those are protective during the tween and teen years.
- Stay aware of your tween’s schoolwork
…offering help as necessary in developing time management skills, insuring that homework gets done and big projects are worked on over time. Be aware that how hard your tween works at school will depend on whether his peers do, and try to have him attend a school where the kids consider good grades cool. Maintaining high expectations and insuring that homework doesn’t get neglected in favor of evening screen and social time is critical.
- Teach your tween good physical self-management:
at least nine hours of sleep every night, regular protein and low glycemic snacks, regular exercise. Instilling these habits can take real creativity on the part of parents, but they greatly reduce moodiness and you’ll be happy they’re well-established when your child hits the teen years.
- Don’t be surprised if your preteen son or daughter develops some anxiety or dependency.
It’s not at all unusual for preteens to get scared by all the changes in their bodies, the peer pressures to grow up, or the fear of separating from mom and dad. This is most often expressed as separation or sleep anxiety, and if you empathize and let them cling to you a bit, it probably will not last long.
- Be aware of the special needs of your son or daughter as they grow into adults in a culture that perpetuates unhealthy attitudes about men, women, and sexuality.
Girls will need your help handling media images of women, cultural expectations about attractiveness, the pressure to be sexy, her relationship with food, the concept of consent, and her body. Remember that girls naturally fill out before they shoot up, and be careful not to impose society’s insistence that only thin is attractive. Notice any issues you have as her body blossoms. Be aware of the research showing that most tween girls are very anxious about the bodily changes ahead and the sense they have from the media that becoming a woman puts them in danger from men. Girls particularly need their fathers to continue offering physical hugs and open admiration for what a beautiful daughter they have, in an atmosphere of total safety and appropriate boundaries.
Boys need help integrating their sense of connection, tenderness and vulnerability — which are a part of all human relationships — with societal images of manliness. It’s normal for boys approaching their teen years to act cool, indifferent, and invulnerable with their peers, even when they’re actually highly sensitive kids. A responsible, affectionate father or uncle can be a critical teacher as a tween boy learns how to be a good man — while fitting in with the guys. And mom needs to keep warmly talking and listening with her son about his interests and experiences, while staying aware that he needs to see himself as competent and independent in solving his own problems.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.