When children move into the preteen years, parents often struggle with the changes this new stage of development brings. Just looking at the titles of popular parenting books for this age group—like The Roller Coaster Years or How to Hug a Porcupine—brings a knowing sigh from a parent who’s experienced this challenging transition from childhood to adolescence. Maintaining a good relationship with is the best tool for navigating the future together.
Empathize with the changes and pressures your child is facing.
Do you remember sixth grade? Can you recall the self-consciousness of going to school, convinced that everyone noticed that pimple on your chin or how your clothes fit differently because your body was changing? The ricochet between wanting to be more grown up and independent and the longing for the familiarity and safety of childhood routines and pleasures is enough to give anyone a bit of emotional whiplash. The importance of one’s peer group means that every text, Snapchat and Instagram can take on serious emotional and social importance. Then there are the academic demands of middle school. Thinking about these pressures can help us be more sympathetic and understanding of how preteens are often pulled in many directions.
Work on positive communication and good listening skills.
Easier said than done! During this period children may express more negativity in their conversations with parents, and parents tend to respond in kind. It’s understandable, but it’s important to try not to let the child set the tone for the whole family. Look for opportunities for positive interactions.
Keep in mind the saying, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This strategy often involves tremendous restraint by asking non-judgmental questions rather than rushing into lecture mode. Timing is everything; if a child is upset or defensive, waiting a bit sometimes helps open up communication. When things are calm, a problem-solving discussion can then be had. Learning to problem-solve together may be part of this new stage. Set the limits and consequences clearly and calmly, but invite your preteen to share possible resolutions—and be open to them. “Let’s come up with an idea” may work better than simply giving directives, and sometimes an older child is more cooperative when he or she has had a hand in crafting solutions.
It’s important to acknowledge strengths as well: “I really appreciate how dependable you are about helping me walk the dog.” Sometimes a simple, short written note can effectively convey appreciation and unconditional acceptance.
Increase responsibilities and independence within limits.
A 12-year-old may be ready for a bit more freedom than a younger child, but parents should establish the limits of that freedom. Preteens still believe in parents’ judgement, even if they don’t say it. This is a good age to begin having discussions about trust, and how trust can be established or lost—and then rebuilt.
While children are often quick to ask for privileges as they get older, it’s important for parents to balance that with responsibilities. These can include new kinds of chores and contributions to the household, and also accountability for school work. This is a good age to resist the urge to “rescue” a child from forgotten homework assignments, etc.
When preteens push you away, they still need you.
“Leave me alone!” is not an unfamiliar phrase when you’re the parent of a child moving into adolescence. Sometimes hurt parents react by withdrawing, but this response isn’t the solution. A child may be saying, “I want some privacy and space right now. But don’t go too far.” Adult support and guidance is crucial. Continue to try to talk your child about their interests, and try to keep the humor and warmth in your relationship.
Don’t expect to be thanked for your efforts now, but remember that the payoff comes later.
Lisa Phillips is a parent educator at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital.