Being a pre-teen or ‘tween’ is a kind of magical blossoming, but like all huge transitions in our children’s lives, it’s filled with ups and downs. Just like parenting toddlers, if you don’t accept and constructively negotiate your child's blossoming independence, you will invite rebellion, or maybe even worse, deception.
The biggest danger for your pre-teen is losing the connection with you while they are struggling to find their place and connect in their peer world. The biggest danger for you as a parent is trying to parent through power instead of through relationship. This will cause your bond with your child to erode and for you to lose your child’s trust.
Between the ages of nine and twelve, your cute, cuddly little children, who were once so willing to climb onto your lap and share their secrets, suddenly want little or nothing to do with you. A child in pre-adolescence is not the same person they were just a year or two ago. They’ve changed—physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially. They’re developing a new independence and may even want to see how far they can push limits set by you.
What they may not know is that they need you as much as ever, because a strong parent-child relationship now can set the stage for a much less turbulent adolescence. But it won’t be easy, because you as a parent need to respect your child’s need for greater autonomy, in order to forge a successful relationship with this “updated” version of your child.
Don’t feel rejected by your child’s need for independence. It’s appropriate for children this age to start turning away from their parents and relying more and more on friends, but you can often take your pre-teen’s withdrawal as rejection. All too often you may personalise some of the distance that occurs and misinterpret it as a downright refusal or even oppositional behaviour.
Be aware of trying to force information out of a resistant pre-teen. This is a time when your child really starts to keep secrets from you, and if you have a low tolerance for that transition, as in wanting to know everything, you may well alienate your child by being too inquisitive.
Set aside 'special time' with your child
It’s often tough to get pre-teens to open up and talk. Establish a period of one-on-one time once or twice a week. Time that you spend with your child, where you’re providing your undivided attention and not being distracted by your work, household chores, your other children, or your mobile phone. In doing this you’re not only improving your relationship, you’re also teaching interpersonal skills that are going to be crucial in the future. This quality time is really key and it’s something that you may overlook because your child might be saying they don’t want it and be pulling away. This can potentially cause you to unintentionally collude with that tendency.
If your pre-teen resists your warm attention, and scoffs at the idea ‘special time’, try doing it unannounced. Let’s say they’ve just got home from school, and you are working from home. Get up from your laptop, put your phone down. Go and greet them warmly. You can glance at your watch or a clock as you begin and commit silently to giving your attention to your pre-teen for the next five to fifteen minutes. You’ll be surprised at the results. At first you may get a teasing and incredulous, “What’s wrong with you?” This is measure of the distance they feel between your warm, uncomplicated attention and those times when you are either busy, or demanding something from them. Roll with it, respond playfully, and try to remember the kind of affectionate attention you received when they were a sweetly exuberant four-year-old.
Try a more direct approach with your child.
When they were younger you could ask your child direct questions. How was school? How did you do on the test?
Now, the direct approach, bombarding them with questions about school and their day, doesn’t work. Suddenly that feels overwhelming and intrusive to them, and it’s going to backfire.
If anything, you have to take the opposite approach and position yourself as mostly just a listener. If you actually sit down, without questions, and just listen, you’re more likely to get the information about your child’s life that you’re wanting. This approach gives children the message that this is a place where they can come and talk, and they have permission to say anything that they’re thinking or feeling. Sometimes you’ll be able to help and give advice, but don’t try to step in and solve all their problems. Other times you’ll just be there to empathise with how hard it is to deal with whatever they’re going through.
Don’t be judgemental.
At this age your child is watching you very astutely to hear how judgmental you are, They are taking their cues on how you talk about other people’s children, especially children that get into trouble, how that girl dresses, or that boy has good manners or bad manners. They’re watching and deciding whether you are harsh or critical or judgemental. For example, you might have said-
‘I can’t believe she posted this picture on Facebook! If we were her parents we’d be mortified.’ Or ‘I can’t believe he sent that YouTube video around!’ You are commenting on behaviours that need commenting on, but the intensity, and the rigidity of your judgment is what will backfire. It would be better to open up a discussion and talk about what they think might have been a better way to deal with it. This would teach them the importance of taking accountability for their own actions.
Sit down and watch what they’re watching.
Beginning in Grade 3-4 start watching the stuff that your child wants to watch and be able to laugh at it and talk about it. This is an important way to connect and to be able to discuss subjects that would otherwise be taboo. Don’t get too intense in how you critique the value or point of the program.
It’s our job as parents to help both boys and girls to recognise how the media instils the ‘gender code’— the barrage of cultural messages that tell kids what it “means” to be a boy or a girl, and to help them identify when something crosses the line from teasing to being mean. But tread lightly and use humour!
Don’t be the parent who, in a bad situation, makes things worse e.g. Your daughter comes in crying that she wasn’t invited to a sleepover and that she’s seen a photo of it on ‘Instagram’ or ‘Snapchat’. You might have said, ‘Oh I can’t believe you weren’t invited! That’s horrible! I’m going to call the mother.’ This only amplifies the drama, throwing fuel on your pre-adolescent’s already hyper-reactive flame, potentially making them even
Don’t underestimate hormones.
Your child’s body is changing, creating mood swings, distractibility, competitiveness, and preoccupation with the opposite sex. What's more, their brains are undergoing an extensive re-wiring, which can make them emotionally volatile. They can even find themselves in a full-blown tantrum without understanding how it happened. Tell your pre-teen that you see how upset they are and you want to give them time to pull themselves together before you discuss whatever the issue is. Ask them if they want you to stay, or to leave the room to let everyone calm down. Your pre-teen doesn't understand his or her moods any more than you do right now. Later, give them a big hug, and really listen to what they have to say. Even if you can't agree with their position, acknowledge your child's perspective, and work to find a win/win solution.
Finding just the right balance with your pre-teen probably won’t be the easiest parenting job you’ve ever had. It will take some trial and error, but keeping the channels of communication open during these years is well worth the work you’ll have to put in.
If you develop trust with pre-teens you can offer them a safe place to come back to no matter what happens in the new world they’re inhabiting. In doing that you’ll also be setting the stage for a much smoother adolescence.
And one final crucial point: your pre-teen is not there to make you feel important or good about yourself. It can help to talk about what it was like for you as a pre-teen, and how you received, or didn’t receive, your parents’ love and connection. We need to come to our pre-teen children, so that they can feel our love and safely anchor themselves through our connection and respect.