Best Tips for Dealing With Your Stubborn Tween

Solutions for 4 real-life scenarios

Mom talking to upset teen

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 Ellen Rome, MD, Head of Adolescent Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. While not every middle schooler struggles with the transition between childhood and adolescence, she reassures parents that “tweenhood” is a real phenomenon that is easier handled once properly understood.  

More than marketing hype

The word “tween” is no doubt trendy and heavily used by advertisers hoping to capture youngsters’ attention and their parents’ dollars. But pre-adolescence, roughly between ages 8 and 12, is a distinct developmental period not only physically, but also psychologically.  

Kids may ask themselves, “Am I normal?” “The middle school challenge is figuring out, ‘Where do I fit in in the pecking order at home and at school?” Dr. Rome says. This means if your son or daughter 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 (developing or achieving one’s full potential), it becomes easier for them to say ‘no’ to you at home, to behave stubbornly,” she says. “It’s appealing. On the other hand, kids who feel self-actualized at school may not need to act contrary at home.” 

And add personality to that, as well; if your child is “headstrong” and “willful”, there’s a silver lining in “success in the workplace” and “leadership potential” if you help him or her develop their EQ 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.

Behavior may have a biological basis. Early puberty can also kick up hormones sooner than you might think, Dr. Rome notes, 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.

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.

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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 son or daughter? Ask yourself not only the easy questions – like his or her best friend and favorite music. Dig deeper: What embarrasses my child the most? What’s your child’s biggest complaint about your family? What one accomplishment made my child the proudest? 

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.

Have family dinners (or any meal!). “If family dinners aren’t regular, have them most nights a week,” Dr. Rome suggests. “Or if you have regular evening activities, make it breakfast instead.”

Build a support network. The good news: “Tweens are still pretty dependent on their parents,” she says. “They don’t yet have their driver’s licenses and aren’t typically getting around independently. Build a village of parents and friends with whom you spend time who you like as support cast and good influences on your children.”

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.

Catch them doing something right. And, if you need to discipline, use the sandwich method of feedback, Dr. Rome advises: “Tell them a positive, followed by the criticism, followed by more praise.”

Put everyone (you included!) in time out. If tempers are flared, no message will be heard, she says. 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.

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Don’t let important things go. When it comes to more serious issues, act without delay. “If your son or daughter 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,” Dr. Rome says. “The earlier you intervene, the better.”

Test your tween IQ

While there’s no magic wand to grant your household serenity in the oft tumultuous tween years, don’t despair. Handle four of the most common hot-button scenarios with these tips:

Chores, smores. The key to (at least partial) success in the battle over chores, Dr. Rome contends, is to think like your kid. “What would truly motivate them?” she counsels. “Once you’ve figured that out, it’s a matter of simple behavioral modification. If they do a chore, they get a reward. And offer choices: “Do you want to do the dishes or take out the trash?”

The Negative Nelly. Listening to complaints day in and day out gets downright old. Combat negativity by laughing with them, not at them. “Counter their complaint by saying, ‘Ok, catch me doing something right!’ or ‘Tell me when I make a meal that you do like,’ ” Dr. Rome suggests. 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.

A bad ‘tude about school. This one’s a bit harder, Dr. Rome admits, because tweens can’t yet understand long-term consequences. “A sixth grader isn’t going to care if they get into a good college,” she explains. “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.

An addiction to iThings. If left to their own devices, many tweens would seldom put down the iPod, iPhone or iPad.While tough, a parent has to make rules,” Dr. Rome says. 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, Dr. Rome adds, that even your best parenting tactics won’t be met with compliance – and happy faces – all of the time. But don’t let this derail you from trying.

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