Tween years can be painful. Everything starts to change all at once. You have puberty setting in which shows up both physically and emotionally. Talking over dinner, watching them start thinking more, and conversing more can be lovely and fun even. Until it's not.
For those of us with girls, we may want to brace for the intensity and the drama of the pre-teen years. From the friendship dynamics to the physical changes that can confuse and embarrass a tween, all I can say is hang on for a wild ride when the moodiness that sets in.
Obviously, every child reacts differently, and honestly, that can change daily and within the day. For the most part, at the beginning of the tween years, kids still listen to us. Parents still can set and enforce the rules. That gets harder once they start spending a lot of time with friends and settling into new dynamics. So grab this time while you can. Do the family dinners, take a walk together, have some one-on-one time, and get them doing their chores on the regular now--before they start pushing back. Which they will. Shortly if not immediately.
So what does pushing back look like? It's when they start resisting authority, talking back, lying, and pushing our buttons. They start spending more time with friends--it's no longer the parent-arranged playdates anymore. They are beginning to develop their own personality within a social group. Now is when you'll see them build strong and complex (often tricky) friendships as well as when they start to assert some of their own personality. Again, this is normal and can be lovely. It can also get messy as they use their clothes and hair to indicate their identity.
With this self-exploration and new friends comes a maturing brain with a need for independence, a desire to separate from you. While this is developmentally a good thing, don't be fooled: Their still-developing frontal cortex and their need for acceptance can lead to increased risk-taking behavior. Some students begin to lose interest in school and learning around this age, but for many, it's a bit later, so now's the time to engage their curiosity and make learning exciting. At the same time, resist overscheduling your tween. They need downtime, as well as time to focus on homework. Pick just a couple of activities together, and focus on commitment to those choices.
PICK YOUR BATTLES
And while you're picking activities, here's something else to pick-- your battles! As your child is experimenting to find out more about themself, try to be patient. They may want to change their hair or put clothes on that you don't love. On the other hand, they could choose friends you don't like and try vaping or drinking.
I'm in no way saying to let them rule the house. Your house, your rules. But do try to keep some flexibility. For instance if your tween rolls her eyes or slams her door, that may be ok. Sneaking out or doing anything dangerous however is not. So you definitely need some non-negotiable rules around your safety and your values. But to keep the peace in these years--which go on for a while-- and to build some trust, having a few negotiable rules is also important. It's a great way to show trust and offer some mild independence.
Keep communication channels open and be a safe place for them to put their concerns and emotions. They could start running into unfamiliar situations socially that they aren't sure how to handle. They may have friendships that change, they could run into bullying, or be asked to lie to you about something they or their friends are planning to do. Even though your tween is establishing their independence, they still need to know that you are there to help and support them.
On the health front, it's important they get exercise, of course. Team sports are great for teaching responsibility, cooperation and commitment. They are also great for building friendships and self esteem. Middle school is when they need both. Why especially now? Because now is when they may form crushes, they may face peer pressure, or they may struggle with body issues.
CONFIDENCE IS KEY
While you can't stop your child from harshly judging how their abilities and bodies match up to others, you can provide support. One of the best things we can do as parents is to listen to our kids. Really listen. The issue is finding time when they will share. I found driving carpool to be a wonderful time--they forget we are there altogether. Another good time for my kids was night time--bed time really. Somehow in the dark they just opened up more.
Another way you can support them is, as i've said, encourage independence. Trying--and failing--is how they learn and how they build resilience. Resilience helps reduce the risk of anxiety and depression and honestly, we just all need it to get through life. At the same time, when they succeed--be it sports or academics or anything else, they build confidence.
When it comes to body image, our kids watch us. So if we demonstrate healthy self esteem, and take time for ourselves and what we like to do--that helps them. That means we need to try to avoid belittling comments about ourselves. Even when you think they don't listen to you, the do. They definitely do. They're learning more by your actions than by your words.
Basically, here's the deal: the tween years are a time of transition. Your child is no longer a little kid, but they also are not grown up--not quite a teenager. Maturity levels vary greatly; some kids are quite independent. They do their homework, shower and even do their chores on their own. Others may not be motivated to do stuff on their own. Now is a good time to encourage them to become more responsible so they can enjoy a little more independence.
That's a win-win, in my opinion.
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