The following is an excerpt (the introduction) from my new book BETWEEN – a guide for parents of 8-13 year olds, which is out now!
‘We were still children, for all that we thought we weren’t. We were in that in- between place, the twilight between childish things and grown- up things.’ Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook , Christina Henry
Time passes in the blink of an eye. Surely it was only yesterday when that warm, mewing bundle was placed in your arms, eyes fixing on yours with all the intensity and knowing of an old soul who has lived many times before, yet in a tiny body, so fragile and new. Through sleepless nights and weary days, you came to know each other. Your world and your priorities shifted, and you slowly assumed a new identity that centred upon your child. A child who orbited you like a satellite, with you the safety of a home planet and the constant pull of gravity keeping you tied as one. Their dependence on you sometimes felt so very heavy, so all- consuming, and there were days (and many nights) when you reminisced and wished for your carefree past.
Oh, how appealing were thoughts of being able to sleep without little limbs starfishing next to yours, to visit the bathroom alone or eat in peace. As weeks became months and months rolled into years, the sweet, busy, joyous and sometimes claustrophobia-inducing toddler years, in which a little sticky hand permanently reached for yours, gave way to the early school years. Full of glitter, junk modelling, phonics books and a plea for one more bedtime story. Then bam, before you can take a breath, you catch a glimpse of your child as the teenager they soon will be. A certain way they hold their jaw, peer through their impossibly long eyelashes or throw their head back as they laugh. And all at once, you realise that baby is no more. That child is fast becoming grown. Yet, they are not quite there. Life is now a strange dichotomy of big parenting (my term for raising more mature, physically larger children with more complex problems and emotional needs) and little parenting (raising small children with physically exhausting, yet relatively simple needs). This is the world of the in between. The bridge between two worlds. Not yet a teen, but not completely a child either.
The between years are bittersweet: the loss of early childhood and yet the promise of such a bright and open future; mourning their baby days, while enjoying the thrill of looming independence. These times can be confusing, not only for your child but for you, too. The in- between – or ‘tween’, as many refer to them – years of childhood are a unique period of development often overlooked. Advice abounds from multiple sources for the first five years of parenting, the beginning of childhood, you may say, yet it starts to tail off when children start school. It is true that once they are well settled at school, you often have a smooth ride parenting-wise for a couple of years, with the challenges of toddlerhood well behind you and those of the teen years far in the future. While ages five to seven may lull you into a false sense of security, it soon becomes apparent that around the age of eight, new challenges start to appear, as the outside world increasingly influences children, their behaviour and their relationships with others and themselves. It is often at this point that parents reach out for help and advice as they struggle to understand their children.
A year or two later, as your child’s age reaches double digits, things change again as puberty really starts to kick in, with all the emotional and physical issues that accompany it. And once puberty is well established and the teen years are imminent, the challenges of parenthood change yet again, with a new quest for independence, changing schooling, friendships and peer interactions bringing fresh concerns. The tween years finish at age thirteen, when your child is officially a teenager, and help and advice for parents picks up once again. Despite the age demographic label changing on your child’s thirteenth birthday, however, not much changes emotionally or physically for at least the first couple of teenage years (something we will look at in more detail in Chapter 1). You could argue that there is little difference between an older tween and a teen, aside from the label.
The middle years of childhood tend to be overlooked entirely, with a black hole of information until the teenage years – thirteen plus, the last years of childhood. When I was a parent for the first time, I often wondered if people thought that these in- between years – those between eight and thirteen – were inconsequential and uneventful. Did the lack of age- specific advice mean that nothing much happened in these years? On the contrary – the tween years are some of the busiest developmentally and often the most challenging for many parents. Raising a tween can often leave you feeling like a parenting beginner all over again. The child you knew so well seems to change so rapidly, fluctuating almost daily. This middle period of childhood can be difficult for both parent and child. New behaviours surface giving you the same worry and confusion you felt as a new parent all over again, only without the support that you had during the baby and toddler years. Even though we all went through this transition ourselves, it can be hard to access our memories and even trickier to recall information we may have learned in school biology lessons many years ago. Despite these new challenges and changes, there is so little information available to help you on this journey. This book is aimed specifically at filling this gap – your handbook as you cross the bridge from childhood into adolescence, together with your child. It is the book I wish I had read when I was in your position.
The problem with ‘the youth of today’
Have you ever noticed how our society is mostly kind and accepting towards younger children? So long as the child is small and cute, that is. When children approach adolescence (a term technically used to describe the period from the onset of puberty through to adulthood), acceptance and tolerance wane hugely. It is much harder to find a child cute if they are taller than you, I guess. And I think in many people’s minds, size correlates with cognitive ability and emotional development – the presumption being that if a child is beginning to resemble an adult physically, they should behave like one, too. Unfortunately, this is not the case (something we will explore at length in Chapter 1), and this common misconception can lead adults, particularly those from older generations, to frequently admonish ‘the youth of today’. Tweens and teens are often labelled as lacking respect, particularly for their elders, and as being unruly in their behaviour. But these views usually tell us more about the person holding them than they do about our children. Clearly, they represent some form of memory bias, with adults remembering their own qualities at that age with a more positive slant; and they may also tell us a lot about how these people were themselves parented.
Research has shown that adults who had a strict authoritarian upbringing are far more likely to find fault with today’s tweens and teens. 1 But the youth- of- today phenomenon is not new. Adults have been complaining about tweens and teens for cen – turies, and likely will do for many more to come. As it happens, the youth of today are no worse than their predecessors. In fact, there is evidence to show that adolescents today are considerably better in many ways than those from previous generations: rates of smoking, underage drinking, drug use, 2 antisocial behaviour and teen pregnancies 3 have fallen, while academic achievement, concern for the environment and acceptance of diversity have risen. Today’s youth are, in fact, something to celebrate, rather than lament. How exciting that we are the generation raising them!
Building a strong, secure and open bridge
My aim in writing this book is to provide you with the information you need to help your child traverse the bridge from childhood to adulthood, while being mindful of your own needs, too. Your child still needs you to help them to feel secure and to steer them on their journey. Your input will help to reinforce this bridge and to grow the independence and confidence needed for the future. Importantly, your relationship during this period will help to keep both the entrance and exit of this bridge open, allowing your child to cross back over to you when they most need you. All the backwards and forwards, toing and froing are characteristic of this stage: little parenting, blending with big parenting, dependence meeting independence, holding on and letting go. Your openness and support during these years are key to building the relationship that you will have with your child in the future.
Throughout this book, we will constantly examine your relationship with your child and why it matters so very much, especially in Chapters 2 and 3, where we will discuss common problematic tween behaviours and what tweens really want (and need) to grow into happy and secure teens and adults. The relationship you have with your tween also provides the foundation for their future relationships with others. However, as they grow, they will often encounter difficulties in these new relationships – Chapter 4 looks at friendships in the tween years and what you can do as a parent when they don’t run smoothly. Chapter 5 delves into your tween’s relationship with themselves and how to encourage good mental health, now and in years to come. Finally, on the relationship front, Chapter 6 looks at romantic associations, consent and diversity in sexuality – subjects it’s never too early to discuss with your tween, yet which are often delayed and avoided by so many. Later in the book, we will move on to hot topics surrounding the tween years and issues commonly raised by parents. Chapter 7 considers personal hygiene and how to encourage tweens to understand and take care of their own bodies (including pre – paring for menarche – more commonly known as the onset of periods). Chapter 8 delves deeper into body image and why the tween years are key to helping your child grow into an adult with good body acceptance – one who is more likely to escape the seemingly ever- growing pressures of the diet and cosmetics industries. In Chapter 9, we focus on raising tweens who will advocate for others, and how to cultivate in them an empathy for the world around them and a willingness change the world that they live in for the better (rather than changing them to fit into our cur – rent world). Our tweens are our future, so we should raise them to know that they matter, and that they can make a difference to whatever cause they choose to devote themselves to. No book about tweens would be complete without a chapter on screen time, or ‘how to get your child off their games console’ and Chapter 10 is just that. This generation is growing up online more than any before. We can’t escape the lure of screens and their influence over almost every element of our lives. Raising tweens to be screen savvy – to utilise the amazing possibilities that they present, while avoiding common pitfalls – is so important. Chapter 11 looks at schools – at motivation, homework and academic and other achievements. The transition to secondary (or high) school is a huge milestone in the life of a tween and one worthy of some discussion. Chapter 12 is all about financial literacy, which I believe it is vitally important; yet it’s something that is just not discussed with tweens in our society. Classes about how money and debt work are completely absent from the school curriculum, but may be one of the most valuable life lessons you can give them.
Chapter 13 is the final chapter, which is no coincidence. It feels right to leave you at the age when your child becomes a true teenager – the official end of the tween years. Parting is the theme of this chapter: how to let go and give your child wings to fly (especially when you feel like holding on tight) is something many struggle with. How much independence is too much, or too little? And how do you cope with your own feelings as your child reaches towards looming adulthood. Although this book is about your tween, it is also about you as a parent, and it feels fitting to end with a chapter that concerns you as much as your child. After all, you will always be standing at one end of that bridge, watching with pride as your child continues their journey through the in between, but ready and waiting with open arms should they need to return to you again.
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 check out BETWEEN – *the* guide for parents of 8-13 year olds. Available to order now in the: UK, Australia, USA/Canada and Elsewhere in the world
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