You survived the “terrible twos” (and threes!) and figured you’d catch a break – with at least a little less drama – until the years of teenage rebellion and angst hit. Right?
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If the answer is a resounding, “no,” you’re not alone, says adolescent medicine specialist Ellen Rome, MD, MPH.
While not every middle schooler struggles with the transition between childhood and adolescence, tweenhood is a real phenomenon that is easier handled once properly understood.
Tweenhood is a difficult period
Pre-adolescence, roughly between ages 8 and 12, is a distinct developmental period not only physically, but also psychologically. Your child may start questioning everything (including you!)
The middle school challenge is figuring out, ‘Where do I fit in in the pecking order at home and at school?’ This means if your child feels a lack of control in one realm, it can actually cause a problem in the other.
“If at school there isn’t an opportunity for self-realization, like developing or achieving one’s full potential, it becomes easier for them to say ‘no’ to you at home or to behave stubbornly,” says Dr. Rome. “It’s appealing. On the other hand, kids who feel self-actualized at school may not need to act contrary at home.”
If your child is headstrong and willful, there’s a silver lining in leadership potential if you help them develop their EQ (emotional intelligence) as well as their IQ. That means helping promote delayed gratification strategies, or being able to do the right thing in order to get the better reward. This can be hard for many children.
Growth mindset also matters, with parents emphasizing and praising effort rather than results. Youth with a ‘fixed mindset’ focus too much on outcomes which then can develop a fear of failure, not getting the perfect grade, be the best at their sport or not try as hard because of this fear of not measuring up. Instead, focusing on effort, the parent or caring adult can help instill the desire to try harder and have the journey be at least as rewarding as the result.
“Behavior may have a biological basis,” she adds. “Early puberty can also kick up hormones sooner than you might think, resulting in confusing feelings and even more confusing behavior. While girls are typically affected by raging hormones earlier than boys, that’s not always the case.”
No, one size doesn’t fit all
Like so many parenting predicaments, there’s no one right way to defuse a ticking tween bomb. However, Dr. Rome’s best advice is to truly make sure you know your child.
1. Explore what you know about your child. “Of course, I know my kid!” This might be your gut reaction, but how well do you actually know your kid? Ask yourself not only the easy questions – like his or her best friend and favorite music. Dig deeper and ask, What embarrasses my child the most? What’s my child’s biggest complaint about our family? What one accomplishment made my child the proudest?
2. Don’t beat yourself up. If you struggle or don’t know the answers, simply learn from it. Given busy lives, how rapidly children change and a tendency to not always notice what’s right under their noses, parents may periodically need to invest extra time reconnecting.
3. Have family dinners (or any meal!) If family dinners aren’t regular, have them most nights a week. Or, if you have regular evening activities, make it breakfast instead. Finding time to eat together gives us a chance to reconnect, even if it’s for 30 minutes. Remember to put phones away during this time, too.
4. Build a support network. The good news is that tweens are still pretty dependent on their parents. They don’t have their driver’s licenses yet and aren’t typically getting around independently. It takes a village to raise a child, so build that village of parents and friends with whom you spend time who you like as support cast and good influences on your children.
5. Figure out which battles are worth picking. If you can deal with it – for instance, clothing choices (as long as it’s not too revealing or they’ll freeze outdoors), consider letting it slide.
6. Catch them doing something right. And then suggest they do more of that. If you need to discipline, use the sandwich method of feedback. Tell them a positive, followed by the criticism, followed by more praise.
7. Put everyone (you included!) in time out. If tempers are flared, no message will be heard. Give yourself – and them – a cool-down period and then give discussion another shot. You are role modeling good behavior then, instead of reacting in the moment and losing your cool in a not-so-useful way. It’s also important to remember to not take it personally if your tween is striking back with harsh words. Be calm and take a few deep breaths before speaking.
8. Don’t let important things go. When it comes to more serious issues, act without delay. If your child is experimenting with drugs or has an eating disorder and you wait and try to initiate change after these habits have been established for a few years, they’ll question why you’re doing it now. It can be awkward at first to bring up the difficult topics, but the earlier you intervene, the better.
Handle hot button scenarios with care
While there’s no magic wand to grant your household serenity in the often tumultuous tween years, don’t despair. Dr. Rome suggests four tips on how to handle common hot button scenarios:
- Chores. The key to (at least partial) success in the battle over chores is to think like your kid. What would truly motivate them? Once you’ve figured that out, it’s a matter of behavioral modification. If they do a chore, they get a reward. And offer choices like, ‘Do you want to do the dishes or take out the trash?’
- Complaining. Listening to complaints day in and day out gets old. Combat negativity by laughing with them, not at them. Counter their complaint by saying, ‘Tell me when I make a meal that you do like.’ Also, seek buy-in up front. If they turn their nose up at a family activity you’ve planned, genuinely solicit ideas they’d actually enjoy.
- Bad attitude about school. This one’s a bit harder because tweens can’t yet understand long-term consequences. For example, a sixth grader isn’t going to care if they get into a good college. Instead, you have to make the consequences in the here and now. Figure out a worthwhile treat (within your family’s budget) for either winter or summer break if they can sustain a semester-long effort and improve their grades.
- They’re obsessed with their smartphone and computer. If left to their own devices, many tweens would seldom put down their beloved smartphone or laptop. While tough, a parent has to make rules to decide what media limits are best for your family. This may include specific bans, such as no phones at the dinner table. Keep in mind that children should have a maximum of two hours of screen time daily – TV and other devices included – according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Remember that even your best parenting tactics won’t be met with compliance, and happy faces, all of the time,” she says. “But don’t let this derail you from trying.”