Yesterday I was dropping my 10 year old daughter off after an appointment. She needed to cross a busy city and I was nervous so I coached her, “Don’t forget to look both ways. Wait for the signal.” She cut me off with a “Mom! I’m not a baby. You don’t have to say that!” She added, “But if anything happens- I love you!”
My tween’s new independence is accompanied by big feelings that confuse even her. She pushes me away: I often hear, “You don’t understand!” or “You’re not listening to me!” She pulls me back: “Can I have a hug?”
The tween and teen years… Forget the Terrible Twos. The tween and teen years can be some of the hardest you face as a parent.
Tweens and teens can be moody and forgetful. They can seem like children one minute and wise-beyond-their-years in another. They take 2 steps away and one step back. Not only is your child experiencing the physical upheaval of puberty or pre-puberty, their brain is rewiring and this can be a source of emotional upheaval. Amid all of this, your child is doing their job and separating from you. You both will experience growing pains.
As a parenting coach and the mama of two teenagers (14 and 17) and a tween, I know how hard these years can be. It’s hard to move out of the center of your child’s life- let alone be excluded from the circle. The whole point of parenting is to raise children into adults who no longer need you. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Sentences from my kids often start with “No offense, Mom…” I sometimes get karate blocked when I go in for a hug. I’m no longer the first to know how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking. But I also know certain tweens and teens (ahem) who still ask for tuck-ins and like me to walk them to the door in the morning to say good-bye, who seek me out to pour out their ideas and their hearts when they are in the mood. (And lately? My two biggest kids have been seeking me out for hugs. I NEVER let go first.)
How do we stay close to our tweens and teens when they are beginning to move away from us? We need to parent for both connection AND independence. We have to hold on so they can let go.
Here are some strategies you can use and ideas to keep in mind during the transition from child to adult:
1- Don’t take it personally.
Or tell yourself what one of my best friends used as a mantra: “It’s not about me!” Tweens’ and teens’ surly moods and dramas are very similar to the outbursts of an overtired toddler. You may be on the receiving end, but you’re not responsible for their emotional reactions.
Of course once the drama has passed, you will have a conversation about how we talk to each other in a family.
But if your child is in the midst of a meltdown, or slams down their backpack, or speaks sharply to you, react with empathy and don’t make it about you. As you did with your child when they were younger, ask yourself what is driving the behaviour and respond to that. Make an empathic and loving observation: “Hey sweetie, it looks like you’re having a bad day. I’m here if you need anything.”
2- Be a ‘potted plant.’
Be there even if you don’t think your tween or teen cares if you’re home or not. Your simple presence is more important than you know. From a recent article in the NY Times: “The studies of parental presence indicate that sheer proximity confers a benefit over and above feelings of closeness or connectedness between parent and child.”
Your tween or teen still needs to know you’re around even if they are ignoring you.
3- Remember your own tween and teen years.
Do you remember how awkward you felt? Like everything you did or said was wrong? Do you remember the absolute scrutiny (real or imagined!) of your peers?
It is such a hard time! A trip down memory lane will make it easier to understand what your child is going through and help you meet them with empathy.
4- Give your growing up child as much independence as possible- but be prepared to be a safety net.
This is the beginning of the transition to adulthood. Do a little soul-searching.
How can you give your tween more independence? Can she walk to the store for you? Walk to school or take public transit on her own? Can she stay home alone and/or babysit for for siblings?
How can you give your teen A LOT more independence? What real decisions can you give them over their life? Your teen needs to be able to make decisions and learn from them while you are still there to help pick up the pieces if need be.
In a few years they will be moving out. They need to practice “real life” with us still here as safety nets.
5- Practice ‘sideways listening.’
Give your tween or teen the opportunity to talk to you by being unobtrusively next to your child. Driving, walking, and doing chores together are all low-pressure situations in which tweens and teens will feel more comfortable initiating a conversation.
You are literally ‘not in their face’ and they feel more relaxed.
6- Connect with your tween or teen- on their terms.
Even if you’re not really interested in the latest song by your tween’s favourite band- listen anyway. Not a fan of fail videos? Watch them anyway. Your child is letting you in on what is important to them and this is an opportunity to connect that you won’t want to miss.
Tweens and teens often like to choose inopportune times to talk to us about important stuff. I’ve learned the hard way to turn away from what I’m doing when they want to talk. “Hey sweetie- I have a minute- do you want to tell me about that thing xyz?” usually gets a “No, nevermind.”
When your tween or teen comes to you- relish the opportunity to connect. The other day my middle son begged me to watch some snowboarding videos with him. I REALLY didn’t want to, but I did, and he ended up snuggling up to me with his head on my shoulder.
7- Try to ignore the attitude!
What is underneath the protective armor?
If your daughter rolls her eyes at you, it could be because she’s feeling like you don’t understand. Rather than “Don’t roll your eyes at me!” try this: “It looks like from your reaction that you think I don’t understand. I probably don’t but I’m trying! Can you explain it to me?”
If your son is storming around snapping at people about where his school work or school supplies are, he could be feeling anxious about the new and more serious pressures of school. Try saying- “Hey kiddo, looks like you’re feeling worried about school. Need a hand finding your stuff?”
8- Recognize that your tween or teen are doing the best they can.
Try to see your child in a positive light. Even though it might seem like it sometimes, they’re not trying to be difficult- they’re going through a difficult time.
Assuming positive intent- “They’re doing the best they can”- transforms your approach and shifts your attitude and the dynamic between you.
A shift in your attitude can increase your empathy and connection with your tween or teen and make them much more agreeable.
9- Have 5 positive interactions for every negative one.
Relationship expert John Gottman says that “The magic ratio is 5:1. In other words, as long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners [or parent and child] as there are negative, the relationship is likely to be stable.”
So often we get caught up in moving through the to-do list and the schedule. Homework, lessons, practices and all our responsibilities can bring out the tendency to nag. “Do you have homework? Can you put away the laundry? Let’s go or we’ll be late…” Don’t forget to give a compliment, make a joke, try for a hug. (We all need 12 Hugs A Day!)
Parenting a tween or teen requires a lot of patience and a big heart. You’ve got to hold on — by being there and not taking it personally — so they can do the sometimes messy job of letting go.
This is ‘the beginning of the leaving’- when our children will be self-sufficient, happy, healthy adults. The suggestions I’ve given you in this article will help you both navigate this period in a way that grows your connection and love for each other and sets the stage for a new relationship as your tweens and teens grow into adults.
Enjoy your tween or teen. Before you know it, they will be leaving the nest.
A version of this post was originally published here
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Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 10, 14, and 17). Sarah helps parents become the parents they want to be- with a non-punitive, connection-based approach that that feels good and works. Sarah is certified by Dr. Laura Markham as an Aha! Peaceful Parenting Coach. Enjoy your kids again! Find her at www.sarahrosensweet.com or follow her on Facebook.