This is the Hardest Age to Raise According to Research

There’s no denying that the early weeks and months of parenting are exhausting. Babies need constant attention around the clock. Until three months of age, a baby’s body clock is not fully functioning, meaning they have no concept of day and night. They need to feed frequently and need parental reassurance and contact as much as physical sustainance. Sleep becomes a thing of the past and something you wish for in wistful, shattered moments.

Time passes in the blink of an eye and before you know it, your non-sleeping baby has turned into a boddler, not quite a baby – not quite a toddler, zooming around your living room on all fours, putting anything not bolted down into their mouth, drooling and babbling away. Then the toddler years begin and your little one becomes a real person with a real personality. “No” and “mine” feature at the top of their vocabulary, it’s a good job they’re so cute, because the tantrums can be hard to cope with at times.

The toddler years give way to the relatively easier pre-school years. By now, you’ve found your footing as a parent and you’ve probably stopped googling quite so frantically (your search history full of “how do I get my child to sleep through the night in their own room?” and “how can I get my toddler to listen to me?”) and things feel far more settled. The early school years bring a sharp learning curve, along with oodles of junk modelling, glitter (so much glitter) and hastily arranged World Book Day costumes. Once you get over the after school restraint collapse and a few friendship teething issues you start to think that the most difficult years of parenting are well and truly behind you. Onwards and upwards from now on, revelling in a little more new-found independence each year.

……but then the tween years hit. Like a freight train.

The years between eight and thirteen can leave you feeling like a parenting beginner all over again. They bring backchat, rudeness, defiance, highly emotive responses (SO many big emotions!), selfishness, “I hate yous”, sulking and door slamming. The close relationship with your child, that once felt so stiffling in the toddler years, now seems to be slipping away and you begin to question what you did wrong, why does your child now prefer to spend their time shut away in their room rather than spending time with you? Why do they prefer to spend so much time online over family time? (and what if all their friends have phones or games consoles, but you’re not ready for your child to have one?). Then there’s the first time you find porn in the search history on your child’s electronic device, the time when you notice their body changing (a slight flash of hair, or whiff of body odour, or extra curve) but don’t know the best way to approach “the talk” with them, the time you catch them looking in the mirror and exclaiming that they’re “fat” or “not pretty”, the time when they say something racist or homophobic, or the time that their friendships turn sour and your heart could break for them (and that’s without dealing with their first relationship heart break).

Add to this, the transition to secondary, or high, school, finding their footing in an environment where they are the smallest and youngest, having come from a place where they were the biggest and oldest. All this combined with anxiety about Covid, climate change and their changing place in the world, and the tween years are a hotbed of anxiety, worry and stress – and that’s just for the children.

The tween years are as much a transition for parents as they are for tweens, just as we feel truly comfortable with our place as ‘mummy/mommy’ and ‘daddy’ they start to break away from us and their childhoods in general. The first birthday, or Christmas, that you realise you are no longer shopping in the local toy store is heartbreaking. Parents are so ill-prepared to give up the make-believe and wonder they spent a decade creating for their child.

It’s no wonder then that research finds that the hardest years of parenting are the tween, (or middle school if you’re in the USA) years. They may be less physically exhausting than the early years, but emotionally they are so much more exhausting. Arguably, they are also less fulfilling as a parent than the early years. Watching your baby and toddler grow and develop and reach new milestones with big teethy grins and giggles brings much needed affirmation and pride for tired new parents. The tween years are bereft of reward by comparison.

Neither your child, nor you, has or will undergo such a huge transition again. The transition from childhood to adolescence. This journey from one land to another brings so many new challenges for both parent and child. I often thought that there should be a second period of maternity, or parental, leave in the tween years, where it is arguably needed the most, but where most parents are now firmly entrenched back into full-time employment. The teen years in comparison are easier. Yes, there are still huge emotions and they present their own anxieties and challenges (the fear of your child driving their own car, alone, is top of my list!), but things level out somewhat. A teen’s brain is a little more organised than that of a tween and your relationship with them is usually far less up and down by then. Personally, I’ve found the teen years a sweet, welcome, relief from the tween ones with my own four children.

There is no easy answer for parents of tweens, except to understand that although this stage is indisputably difficult, it’s normal and importantly temporary. You WILL get through it – together, and there are easier days around the corner.

I never understood why there was so much help, support and advice available for those with bumps, babies and toddlers, but a sheer lack of any of these for the tween, or middle, years – a time when parents desperately need guidance and support. That’s why I wrote BETWEEN – it’s the book that I wish I had read when my own four children were tweenagers, packed full of information and tips, drawn from the latest biological and psychological research – and most importantly – real world experience, I wrote it to be a ‘hug in a book’ for parents of 8-13 year olds. A guide to hold your hand as you, in turn, hold your child’s hand (on the days they will let you that is!) as you cross over the bridge with them; the bridge between the land of childhood and adolescence. I hope it helps you on your journey!

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 March 11th ’21. Available to order now in the: UKAustraliaUSA/Canada and Elsewhere in the world


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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