How to Respond to What They’re Really Saying
He’s talking back. She’s sassy and moody. He’s embarrassed when you hug him in public. She can’t believe the way that you dance to her music. If your kiddos are between 10 and 12 years old, there’s a good chance they are exhibiting the signs of the tween stage.
No longer young children, but not quite teenagers, tweens often catch parents off-guard with their attitudes and behavior, according to Jill Thurber, a child and adolescent psychologist.
“There’s a real shift in their attitudes that parents don’t expect to see until they are 13. So when their kids start to push the limits, they’re not sure how to respond appropriately,” says Thurber.
Going through the tween stage is a “task” needed to develop identity and independence, Thurber says.
“They compare and contrast their thoughts, beliefs and values with those of their parents. The struggle is that they simultaneously want to be independent adults while they have the emotional maturity of a dependent child,” she explains. “It is the parent’s job to help them navigate through these years by providing support and encouragement as well as limits and structure,” says Thurber.
To help moms and dads make sense of the essential stage between childhood and adolescence, Thurber has identified five common tween attitudes and suggests ways parents can respond to them. Another therapist, Julie Waters, who is an adolescent and adult psychologist, also offers her insight into this crucial developmental period.
“You don’t understand me.” Translation: “I don’t know who I am yet.”
Maybe a son or daughter is struggling with a social conflict at school or he or she really wants to fit in with a peer group. As they face such stressful situations, it’s difficult for tweens to believe that a parent understands their struggles, Thurber says.
“Remember to validate that they are unique and that you don’t completely understand them,” she advises. “But ask them to help teach you who they are, so that you can understand.”
As they develop their identity, they may make fun of interests they used to love and may want to change their room, Waters says.
“Tweeners are seeking out information about the world around them, including what’s out there that’s different from what they know and what they’ve been told,” she describes. “Though this stage can be frustrating and difficult, remember that it is helping your child figure out who they are, to be firm and assertive about their identity and to navigate the world effectively.”
“You are trying to ruin my life.” Translation: “I don’t want you to continue to make all of my decisions for me.”
Firsthand, Thurber has experienced the conflict that can occur when a tween wants something and a parent won’t allow it. For instance, her 11-year-old daughter disagrees with waiting until she is 13-years-old to get a cell phone. Thurber is willing to negotiate the age if her tween continues to responsibly use her IPod Touch.
“Let the tween have some sense of control and autonomy by being more collaborative when you can in the decision-making process,” she says.
When faced with dramatic tween attitudes, it’s important to keep a sense of humor and get support from other parents, Waters says. Last year, when she was chatting with moms at a soccer party, she realized she wasn’t alone in her frustration.
“Out of the seven mothers, five of us had heard some version of ‘You’re ruining my life,’ from our tween daughters on the way over to the party,” she recalls. “As I looked at that group of harried, hard-working moms, it was good to get a good belly laugh out of the situation.”
“You are not fair.” Translation: “I see that sometimes what I do doesn’t have the effect that I want it to have.”
Whether tweens complain about their bedtime, access to the Internet or other perceived injustices, they often have a difficult time accepting life’s unfairness. These moments can help them learn healthy coping skills and build the confidence that they need to overcome obstacles, according to Thurber.
“It’s a good time to help them see that things don’t always work out, no matter how hard people try,” she suggests. “You can help them think of examples from their extended family and friends.”
“Everything is boring.” Translation: “I’m afraid of change.”
Boredom encourages creativity and change, Thurber says, such as learning a hobby, rediscovering long-lost toys, playing a board game with a sibling, tossing the ball outside with a parent or even doing chores. However, she discourages electronic media as a remedy to boredom.
“Resist the pressure to schedule every minute of your tween’s time,” she says. “Life doesn’t have to be filled with ‘productive’ tasks.”
It’s natural for parents to experience fear as their big kid is pulling away from them. While moms and dads might be tempted to dress or act like their tween’s peers in order to be more relatable, what they really need is stability, Thurber says.
“Parents do not have to be cool or be their child’s friend,” she says. “Instead, remember your job is to raise a healthy adult. That means sometimes being uncool and setting limits. Tweens are going through so many changes themselves, and even though you are uncool, they need to know that you are staying the same.”
From Tween to Teen
Because every child’s brain develops uniquely and at a different pace, there’s no magic age for when they transform from a tween to a teen, Waters says. But generally, they are considered young adolescents from ages 13 to 15.
“As a tween, they defined themselves against being a child, and now they are defining themselves against their parents,” she explains. “In doing so, they begin to ask us very difficult questions about ourselves and our choices and are harshly judgmental about our perceived short-comings. It is our job as parents to stay connected to our tweens and teens and to gradually give them more freedom and responsibility, in equal measure.”
Lisa Y. Taylor is a San Antonio freelance writer and mother of three daughters.