Parenting Tweens: Navigating the Changing Currents

Mom and tween girl walking to school

Why can the tween years be such a turbulent time for our children and for us? As children are taking on more responsibility and greater independence in school and social situations, they are also experiencing tremendous emotional and physical changes.

Pediatrician Carol A. Forster notes, "The fastest and most dramatic change of life occurs when a child enters puberty. Aging happens slowly, but puberty comes on with such suddenness that it often catches preteens and parents unaware."

How can you handle your tween's emotional roller coaster?

  • Help with school and extracurricular activities. An otherwise competent elementary school student may feel overwhelmed by a larger school and more challenging academic work. Assist with the struggles of schoolwork and help him feel socially connected by exploring different classes or sports in your community. Soccer, computer, or art classes may help your child make friends in a smaller setting and feel better about herself. Help your child find something that gives him or her a sense of competence. Stay involved with your child's school. Continue to volunteer in the classroom, go on field trips, or join the PTA.
  • Create family rules (and stick to them). Create family rules or a behavior contract that lays out the possible actions that would create consequences. You and your child can even sign the contract. For some children, written agreements help them stay more focused, since they know the rules and their consequences. Preteens, like toddlers, find security in specific expectations and even feel more empowered in peer pressure situations. Consequences can include the loss of phone or TV privileges, lack of allowance, or missing an event.
  • Try to avoid the "everyone" battle. Everyone "wears make up," "has a cell phone," and "has certain clothes" are phrases you may often hear from your tween. Try to draw lines in the sand and stick to them. Talk to other parents and try to break down the power of "everyone."
  • Remember the distinction between explanation and negotiation. Children deserve explanations. They don't necessarily deserve the right to challenge and negotiate your decisions.
  • Try to stay out of power struggles, and remain calm. Tweens can drive us crazy and provoke showdowns. Remain calm and try to model the behavior you want your child to emulate. Ignore argumentative comments, and walk away if necessary. Offer your child choices as often as possible, but set expectations for which issues are negotiable. If something is not negotiable, say so. If your child is out of line, put a stop to it and send him to his room to cool off. After he's calmed down, let him know what behavior upset you. You may need a timeout yourself. Explain that you need a break in order to be able to communicate more clearly, and return in a few moments when you feel calm.
  • If you do lose your calm, apologize and move on. Everyone loses it, and when that happens, acknowledge it and make amends. Remember that you and your child are both human and are coping with developmental forces and situational pressures.
  • Teach coping skills. Talk to your child about sad and angry feelings that arise due to things that are not working out in life. Try to help her deal with frustration and rejection in a positive way. Identify activities that help them relax and feel good. Music, art, or sports activities are healthy outlets that can help a child let off steam and cope with stress. Help her identify how she can feel good in a healthy way. Support areas where she can build on experiences of success.
  • Make family a priority. Even though this is a time of greater independence for your child, continue to make family time a priority. Have family dinners and family fun times. Insist that your child participate. Encourage him to bring along a friend if he feels he is missing social time. Give your child responsibility at home. Chores can build feelings of importance within the family.
  • Praise your tween. Praise your tween as much for her efforts as for her accomplishments. If your child does make a mistake, help her get back on track. Do not condemn her for her behavior. Instead, condemn the behavior and continue to believe in your child. Let her know you are proud of her. Let her see your failures, too, so she realizes you aren't infallible.

The dilemma for parents and tweens is directly related to control. Tweens seek more control—it's a developmental necessity. But, they are just not ready for the freedoms and responsibilities of adolescence. We have to maintain a high level of involvement, authority, and control, while letting our tweens slowly make more decisions and take on greater responsibility.

Book Resources

  • "Get a Clue!: What's Really Going On With Pre-Teens and How Parents Can Help" by Ellen Rosenberg
  • "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" by Mary Pipher
  • "Surviving Ophelia: Mothers Share Their Wisdom in Navigating the Tumultuous Teenage Years" by Cheryl Dellasega
  • "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys" by Michael Thompson Ph.D. and Dan Kindlon Ph.D.
  • "Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children" by Michael Thompson
  • "Raising Confident Boys: 100 Tips for Parents and Teachers" by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer
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Mom and tween girl walking to school