If you have a tweenager, the name given to children aged between 8 and 13 years of age, you will likely have experienced many new parenting dilemmas. These years bring unique challenges, not just limited to the rudeness, back chat, laziness and defiance that so many complain of. Parents of tweens also have to navigate puberty and all the physical and emotional changes that it brings, school transitions, screen-time usage, friendship issues and the tricky territory that is first love. While there are enough unique differences and questions about parenting this age range to write a whole manual (indeed, that is what ‘Between’ is!), there are ten points that all parents of tweens (or soon to be tweens) should know, to make tween parenting just that little bit easier:
1. They may be nearly as tall as us, but their brains are very different
When children grow almost as tall as adults, we begin to view them differently. Because they are physically like us, our subconscious expectations are that they should think – and thus behave – like us. It is what we can’t see however, that couldn’t be more different. A tween’s brain is more akin to that of a toddler than an adult. Just because your eleven year old is in size 8 adult shoes, don’t presume that their brain is similar to yours, it isn’t. It still has a huge amount of connecting and modifying to go through, in fact, at least another ten years development, if not more. A tween’s brain is just not capable of much of the adult thinking processes that we expect of them. They struggle particularly with impulse control, emotion regulation logical and hypothetical thought processes (the stopping and wondering “if I do xxxxx then xxxxx may happen” that is so important for making good choices) and risk assessment. Much of the behaviour parents of tweens struggle with (and try to change) is simply an illustration of a regular tween brain.
2. Hormones don’t have as much impact as we blame them for
How many times have you heard the sentence “it’s their hormones, they go haywire at this age” in response to a parent asking for advice about their tween’s behaviour? It’s the stock response in our society today – but it’s wrong. Yes, puberty does bring with it an increase in hormones and yes, hormones can impact behaviour, however their impact is minimal compared to what really causes the behaviour issues that so many tween parents and carers complain of. I refer you back to point 1 – the tween brain. Almost all of the tween behaviour we struggle with is a result of their immature brains, not their hormones. Blaming everything on hormones is not only naive and entirely incorrect, it causes parents and carers to miss the real issues and fail to make necessary changes (both physically and in terms of our own expectations and demands) to empower and help tweens.
3. They are naturally selfish – and for good reason
Tweens are commonly described as ‘selfish’, ‘self-centred’ and ‘lacking in empathy’ and actually, these are fairly accurate representations. The tween years bring with them a drop in empathy and an increase in egocentrism (not to be confused with egotism), while this can be exceptionally frustrating for parents and carers, this inwards focus is vital for the social develoment of our tweens. This is the age for a child to work out who they are and what their place in the world is, it’s time for them to look away from their parents and consider their own thoughts and feelings over and above those of others. In short, this drop in empathy is an important part of their personal development. This normal tween behaviour is transient you’ll be pleased to hear and absolutely isn’t an indication that your tween will remain this self-centred forever, however it often takes longer to pass through this phase than many parents expect – and hope for.
4. They are much more emotional than us in times of stress
As adults, when we are stressed we are able to engage the logical, rational thinking parts of our brain to aid us in problem-solving. Tweens on the other hand seem to get stuck in an overly emotional state, almost forgetting how to engage logic. Think of a school morning where you’re all running late. Your tween has lost their school bag. All too quickly this descends into hysterical crying, shouting and sulking. At this moment they are incapable of calming down and thinking logically about where they last had their bag. They need you – the adult – to step in with your more developed brain and talk them through logical solutions to the missing bag problem. This heightened emotional state isn’t due to hormones, or bad parenting, it’s an entirely normal part of the tween years and once again, grounded in their brain development.
5. Punishment doesn’t improve their behaviour
As a whole, we are far less tolerant of difficult behaviour in the tween years than we are of that from younger children. Discipline tends to become harsher and more combative, tweens are often sent to their rooms, stripped of their priviledges or belongings, excluded, chastised and shamed in an attempt to improve their behaviour. None of these are effective forms of discipline though, in fact, they often make behaviour worse. Punishment based discipline always presumes that tweens are in full control of their behaviour and could do better if they wanted to. The problem however, is that in most causes motivation is not the problem at all (the tween probably wishes they could do better too), it’s neurological ability and the situations they find themselves in and the expectations placed upon them. If the tween genuinely cannot behave better at any moment of time, punishing them is never going to work, but it can have a horrible impact on self-confidence, self-esteem and the parent-child relationship. Tweens need discipline that is mindful of their capabilities and neurological development and that works with them to help resolve problems and strengthens the relationship in order to make the approaching teen years as easy as possible, for the whole family.
6. They aren’t being lazy when they don’t want to get up in the morning
Do you remember when your toddler would wake up at 5am every, single, day – no matter what time they went to bed, what new gadget you bought, or whatever advice you followed? Go back to that place now. Remember the longing you had for your child to sleep in for just one morning. Now you have a tween, your wish has come true – and then some! Tweens become increasingly hard to get out of the bed (and motivated to get going) in the morning the older they get. This isn’t due to laziness (as it is often labelled), but once again, it is due to their brains. Tweens experience something known as a ‘circadian shift’. Simply put, their body clocks shift a few hours, a little like they are living in a different time zone to the rest of us. In reality this means that they start to resist going to bed in the evening (bedtime resistance in the tween years is almost always entirely cause by parents trying to get their tween to go to bed too early – 9-10pm is the most biologically appropriate bedtime for 8-13 year olds by the way) and they wake up later the next day (a waking time of around 9am is most appropriate). This all spells disaster when school starts too early, but this isn’t our tween’s problem, it’s ours as adults, for designing a system that is ignorant of their biology.
7. Trying to control their friendships is the worst thing you can do
The chances of you liking and approving of all your tween’s friends is minimal. In fact, it’s most likely your tween will have a friend you don’t like. Another child you believe is ‘a bad influence’ and somebody who always seems to bring out the worst in your child. The temptation to curtail the friendship will be strong, but try to resist. The more you try to steer your child away from certain friendships and influence who they spend their time with, the more your efforts will backfire. After raising four children through the tween years, I can say with confidence that you cannot choose their friends for them. They will learn to see what you see in their own time (or maybe not), but it’s important that this realisation occurs on their own terms in their own time. If you try to control friendships now, what you will actually do is to ensure that your child never talks to you about friendship (and potentially relationship) related issues as they grow. When they really need your help in the years to come, they will be far less likely to turn to you, especially if the problem is with another who you so desperately tried to turn them against in the tween years. This is something tweens must figure out themselves.
8. Letting them fail academically is perhaps the best gift you can give them
Yes, you did read that correctly. Supporting your child to fail is a gift that too many are deprived of. You can try to force, bribe, cajole or praise your child to complete their work on time and revise for tests and exams, but the more you try to extrinsically control their work ethic, the more likely you are to undermine it. There is one reason, and one reason only, why your tween should be motivated academically – and that’s intrinsically – or because they (and nobody else) want to. The best way to foster this intrinsic motivation is to allow your tween to experience the natural consequences of not working hard enough. That means allowing them to feel that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach when they sit a test they haven’t revised for, or the embarrassment of not having homework completed on time. The more you try to save your tween and spare them from these failures, the more likely they are to repeat them again and again unless you get more and more involved. Failure in the tween years, when it is safe to fail, is the best preparation for the more serious academic work of the upcoming teen years.
9. They may not be heterosexual/cisgender and presuming they are can be harmful
While sexuality and gender identity may be the furthest thing from your mind when you are hanging out with your 8 or 9 year old, the words that you use and the way you use them around your tween and others will have a lasting impact. We live in a hetero, cis normative culture, or one that presumes straight people who identify with their birth gender are the norm. This presumption is harmful for our tweens, whether they do – or go on to – identify as LGBTQ+ themselves, or from the perspective of raising them to be an ally. Saying “one day when you get a boyfriend” to your daughter, or “those are for girls” when your son picks up a pair of shoes in ‘the girls section’ of a store all perpetuate this mistaken and damaging norm. Being mindful of your language “one day when you meet somebody you love” and “shoes are for everybody” will help your tween to know that you accept them, whoever they do – or go on to – identify as and are attracted to.
10. If you don’t tell them about puberty and sex, they will learn about it from unreliable sources
Growing up with the world at their fingertips means that tweens no longer need to wait for “the birds and the bees” talk from their parents. A quick internet search brings them all the information they need (regardless of what parental control features you may employ at home). If they don’t find out information from the internet, they can find it in a book (remember reading Judy Blume’s ‘Forever’ at their age?), from a TV show, or from a friend in the playground. Don’t presume that because you haven’t had the conversation with your child yet that they are innocent and naive, it’s unlikely that they are. The earlier we are entirely open and honest with children about puberty and sex, the better. Because, if we don’t have those conversations with them they will have them with ill informed friends, or via information online that you can’t control. PSHE (sex education amongst other things) lessons at school can be of variable quality too – don’t leave it for your child’s formal education either.
If you have a tween, or soon-to-be tween, and you’d like to learn how to approach puberty, behaviour, education, relationships, screens, sleep, body-care, raising them to be an ally and more – then you may want to check out Between – *the* guide for parents of 8-13 year olds, out now. Available to order now in the: UK, Australia, USA/Canada and Elsewhere in the world
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