Parenting Preteens: Letting Them Grow, Keeping Them Close

Ah, parenting preteens, finally our kids are ready to stand on their own two feet. Our job is nearly done. Our children, as they grow into pre-teens, don’t need us so much. Right? Wrong! They need our love and warm attention, just as much now as when they clung to us sobbing on their first day at school. They need our confidence in them. They need our faith in their intrinsic goodness. They need our conviction that they can figure out this perplexing, sometimes hostile world and find their place.

It’s a long road, parenting.  From the moment of conception to that tall grumpy preteen standing in front of you looking for their school shoes it can seem a long, long way.  A road littered with seemingly endless rounds of washing up, washing clothes, school drop-offs in the early years, and the maddening juggle of work and home commitments.  “Parenting ends with the death of the parent,” my Mum used to say.  It’s a saying that communicates something of the commitment, protectiveness, attention and ongoing love a parent feels for their infant, then toddler, child, preteen, to young adult, to older adult.

When parenting a preteen, you may turn the corner from the early years of parenting and find you no longer have a warm bundle of enthusiastic hugs and giggles flinging herself at you as you return home from work. You no longer are in such high demand to give piggy-back and horsey rides, and you are no longer hearing the squeals of delight evoked by such simple pleasures.  This comes with a mix of relief and regret.  Finally our kids are ready to stand on their own two feet. Our job is nearly done. Our children, as they grow into preteens, don’t need us so much. Right?

Wrong!  They need our love and warm attention, just as much now as when they clung to us sobbing on their first day at school.  They need our confidence in them. They need our faith in their intrinsic goodness. They need our conviction that they can figure out this perplexing, sometimes hostile world and find their place.

So how do we parents, who have been on the parenting road now for a decade or more, unpaid, mostly unacknowledged, often unsupported, and likely quite exhausted, keep shining our light of love as we are parenting preteens?  Haven’t they now grown too big for a full-throttle, running-jump-twirly hug safe in your arms? Don't be deceived! The new-found independence you see in your preteen isn’t a sign that your “use by” date as a parent is soon up.

Indeed this is a new and exploratory time for your preteen.  They are taking their first steps in the terrain of identity formation, where peers matter much more than they ever did.  And brain science shows us that old neural pathways will be pruned in the teen years and new ones built for the path of adulthood (Siegel, 2013). Taking these first steps in new terrain means that your preteen explorer requires solid ground as their base-camp.  That solid ground is you. So don't stop hugging your preteen girl because she no longer flings herself at you as you get back from work.  Research shows that preteens who lose the warm, safe attention of a parent at too young an age are more likely to meet their needs for affection, connection, and warmth with experiments in teenage sex, drugs, and risky behaviours (Rolleri & Bean, 2005).

Parent Child Connectedness is the “super-protective factor” against adverse outcomes in adolescence (Lezin, Rolleri, Bean & Taylor, 2004). It is the single strongest indicator that an adolescent will reach adulthood without experiencing teen pregnancy or violence, become addicted to drugs or tobacco, or drop out of high school. Together or apart, parents of preteens and teens play a vital role in anchoring their growing child in emotional soil that will help them thrive. Each of the five Hand in Hand Parenting tools are designed to help you and your child stay connected over the long haul of parenting.  Each tool is designed to work in concert with the others and no one tool is a ‘cure-all’ nor more important than another.

How to stay close while you are parenting preteens

Bearing in mind that each tool works in concert with the others, here’s one of the tools that works especially well in our household with an 11-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl:

Special Time: Set aside time each day if possible, and at the absolute minimum, weekly, to clear your mind, turn off your phone, stop working, checking emails and clearing up the house.  Be fully, warmly delighted in your preteen.  Use a timer, and give the space you are creating a name: “Mum and Mo” time, or simply “Special Time.”  Follow your child’s lead with an open heart and an “anything goes” attitude.  You are still the adult, you still get to say a warm but clear “no” if your child suggests something highly unsafe.  For that time, your preteen gets to feel you, fully there, warmly present with them and for them. During Special Time, gently, warmly offer extra eye contact or a hand on their back.  Your warm attention is a healing balm for your preteen’s nervous system, often ragged from a long day of peer-group interactions and the inevitable jostling for position at school.

If your preteen resists your warm attention and pooh pooh’s Special Time, try doing it unannounced.  Let’s say they’ve just got home from school, and you are working from home. Get up from your laptop, put your phone down.  Go and warmly greet them, shine delighted-in-them attention their way.  You can glance at a watch or a clock as you begin and commit silently to giving your delighted attention to your preteen for the next five to fifteen minutes.  You’ll be surprised at the results.  At first you may get a teasing and incredulous, “What’s wrong with you?”. This is measure of the distance they feel between your warm, uncomplicated attention and those times when you are either busy, or demanding something from them.  Roll with it, respond playfully, and try to remember the ache of longing for the kind of affectionate attention you received when you were a sweetly exuberant four-year-old.

Parents Are Still Vital to Preteens

Some final thoughts about these precious tween years.  Be aware your child is changing and individuating. Individuation is not the same thing as isolation.  Keep reaching for connection despite the changing landscape.

Patty Wipfler, Founder of Hand in Hand, has an accurate metaphor for these changes.  If parenting were a game of baseball or cricket, then as the parent of a young child you have been playing the pitcher or bowler position, throwing out each ball, and at the center of the game.  Now, in the preteen years, you’ve moved to second base; peers, school, and social media are playing a bigger role in your child’s life.  But your role is just as important! Take your eye off the ball or the play for too long, and they’ll look elsewhere for the sense of connection they need. They may find it in ways that are hurtful to them. (Jensen, 2015).

And one final crucial point: your preteen or teen is not there to make you feel important or good about yourself.  More than ever before, we parents need to find other adults who we can share equal exchanges of Listening Time with. It helps to talk about what it was like for us as preteens, and how we received, or didn’t receive, our parents’ good love and connection.  We need to come with our “freshly scrubbed attention” (Wipfler, 2016) to our tween children, so that they can feel our love and safely anchor themselves through our connection and respect.

To learn more, and get some support as the parent of a preteen, we highly recommend the Hand in Hand six week Starter class. It introduces each tool in turn, and it offers you personal support as you try them out at home.  We have Starter classes running that focus on the needs of younger children and also offer classes especially for parenting preteens.

Hand in Hand is developing a new class to support parents of tweens. Learn how you can be part of the process.

References:

Geuenich. (2011) “Evaluation on the Sustainability of the Parenting by Connection Program for Community Benefit, South Australia.” Flinders Institute of Public Policy and Management, Flinders University.

Jensen. (2015) The Teenage Brain:  A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. Harper Collins.

Lezin, Rolleri, Bean & Taylor. (2004) Parent Child Connectedness:  Implications for Research, Interventions and Positive Impacts on Adolescent Health. ETR Associates.

Rolleri & Bean. (2006) “Parent-Child Connectedness:  Paving the Way for Parents to Communicate Effectively with their Teens.” ETR Associates.

Siegel. (2013) Brainstorm:  The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. Scribe.

Wipfler & Schore. (2016) Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges. Hand in Hand Parenting.

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