Parenting tweens is no easy task. Moods, eye-rolls and sudden outbursts can seem to appear overnight and long before we expect them. Each new change is a reminder our beloved babies are growing fast. There can be a sense of worry, that this is a last chance to cling to our younger kids and set them on a stable track as they approach their teens.
Often, tweens rebuff our willingness to connect.
Our tweens no longer laugh at what they used to. Their tastes change. Parenting strategies that may have worked earlier no longer seem to work as well.
And this is hard on us parents. It can be a hard, frustrating and lonely time.
Here are three examples from moms raising tweens. Do any of these sound familiar?
Hannah, mother of a ten-year-old girl:
“She would keep asking and asking and I kept providing. But she never seemed
happy. Just to give you an example: she asked for a cat, as a birthday present. I
agreed, as I knew how hard she worked to be accepted in this secondary school. I wanted her
to feel seen and appreciated for her effort. But then she decided that cats are not her type of a
pet, and that what she really wanted were rabbits, two of them, as a matter of fact, so they
wouldn’t feel lonely.
We have a big yard and I thought to myself: why not? So we got the rabbits.
But only one month later she changed her mind once again: what she really-really wanted was
actually a dog.
And this is really just one example. In fact, she is never satisfied with anything
anymore. I am at my wits’ end: not only that I do not know what to do anymore, to keep her
happy, but neither can I stand this ungrateful attitude any longer”.
Mila, mother of a twelve-year-old boy:
“He lost his interest in most of the things he used to be passionate about: Legos, puzzles,
walking the dog, riding his bike or swimming. As for his friends? He doesn’t even mention
them any longer.
He is now spending his afternoons locked into his room.
I asked him what’s going on, but he wouldn’t say a word. I feel so left out. What’s wrong? Could it be something that I have done?
Is this my fault? Am I failing him as a parent? Why has he withdrawn? And what can I do to make this better?”
Emma, mother of an 11-year-old girl:
“When it comes to homework our home turns into a battlefield. I keep reminding her that she needs to do her assignments because that is her job. This is when she gets angry and starts shouting bad words at me.
This constantly pushes my buttons and I end up, more often than I would like, flipping my lid. I feel so sorry thinking that this is going to be our relationship from now on. Time literally flies by and she grows up so fast. And this is really so sad, because all that I want is just to make the most of our time together.”
What these three moms of tweens have in common, aside from their undeniable love for their children, is the fact that their children’s choices and difficulties cause them understandable upset.
Shielding our tweens now before teen years set in
- Hannah’s daughter seems to be endlessly dissatisfied with what she’s got and, consequently, her mom’s frustrations keep growing and growing.
- Mila’s son has lost his interest in those things that once made him happy and has become withdrawn, which leads his mom to think that she is at fault, so a sense of helplessness keeps building up, along with insecurity and guilt.
- Emma’s daughter fights tirelessly with her mom over homework and, although Emma gets triggered at times, she is acutely aware that time is passing by quickly and her daughter is growing up fast. She is already mourning their missed moments of closeness, affection and connection that they could have shared.
What happens when our little ones become tweens and then teens can often take the wind out of our sails.
No longer do we feel most important in their lives. No longer are we so involved. And as our kids grow and seek independence, as they should, we as parents watch on, often from what feels like rocky ground.
And there is much to concern us and genuinely frighten us. We are all aware of the threat of dropout rates, drug abuse, violence, and suicide.
We want to shield and protect against this, starting in the tweens.
Research proves that a solid parent-child connection builds children’s social, emotional and cognitive functioning. Hand in Hand Parenting is one of the few programs around the country, and in the world, that focuses solely on building that vital kind of parent-child connection.
Children raised with this understanding, make smarter choices, not out of fear of punishment, but because they are less stressed, more connected, and better attuned.
They build confidence in themselves, which allows them to act from their own values and not those of their peers.
But, how can we help? How can we stay close while feeling increasingly frustrated, baffled and pushed out?
How can we build this connection when so many days seem filled with drama or disillusionment?
The answer to helping your tween or teen is not about teaching or fixing
While trying to help or fix a behavior may seem the natural way to connect with your tween, it really isn’t. Why?
Well, if we bring our baffled, frustrated, rejected selves to problems, we are not in our best position. It’s hard to parent from a place of longing or desperation. And because this is the natural time for our kids to seek more independence and to look to friends or even other adults, like teachers or sports instructors, for guidance, they may hear our concern as criticism, nagging, or sticking our nose in their business.
We should not give up. But there are some things we can do so that we come to our kids with our true selves—as concerned, loving parents.
The good news? We can do this in a way that tweens and teens can see and feel that warmth.
Read on and I will share four tips you can use to stop butting heads and keep bonds strong through the tween years and beyond.
Five ways to parent with connection through the tween years, stop butting heads and keep your bond strong
Unfortunately, when we are worried, upset, or feeling rejected, we are not in the best position to focus on helping our children. When our attention is really focused toward our own feelings, fears, and discomfort it’s hard to be open and responsive.
So, before even attempting to try and support and hold a safe place for our children, we, as parents, need to factor in our own good support as well.
That's right. Start with you.
Check in on how you are feeling. What emotions come up when you think about your growing child. What are you battling against or raging about?
Yes, you'll be surprised at this simple, effective tool
At Hand in Hand we use a tool called Listening Partnerships. A Listening Partnership is a mutual listening exchange, where each person has the same amount of time to listen and to be listened to. If you haven’t experienced this level of support before you’ll be surprised at how something so simple can be so effective.
This time gives you a space to evaluate your feelings and how they originate. It gives you space to unclog all the emotions and feelings that contribute to getting reactive, for instance, when your offer to help with homework gets rebuffed, or your tween throws attitude back when you merely asked if they want a snack.
Having this support allows you to take these reactions from your tween more in your stride, recover from them more easily, and respond in line with your values.
One of the things that I love the most about this practice is the exchange of warm attention, trust, and respect between the people engaged in the process.
Listening Partnerships also allow us to acquire a dual focus, taking into consideration the child’s point of view, together with our own.
Once we move out of blame and judgement toward ourselves and our children and become able to compassionately look at and understand our own emotional baggage, as well as our children’s experiences, we put ourselves in the right frame of mind to reconnect and start supporting our children.
In a Listening partnership, we are not trying to “fix” each other, we are not offering advice and we are not judging. What we do is to keep believing in each other’s goodness and ability to recover, gain clarity and think well for ourselves and our families.
This support gives you the space to fill your cup, and, in turn, offer something similar to your tween or teen.
How to meet your tween right where they are and reach them
It goes without saying that tweens and teens are flexing independence. But, while they clamour to make dates and meet friends, what they may be less likely to admit is that they really want time with you too.
As they grow and try on new identities you and your home life can be good, safe anchors.
But so often it will seem like they throw your ideas for fun and togetherness right back at you.
Here’s a tip you can use to switch that.
Ask what they most want to do with you and, to the best of your ability, do it, without distraction.
We call this Special Time. Really, it’s a one-on-one form of listening through play, that is child led. You set aside a short, limited period of time, free of interruptions of any kind and during this time commit to being focused 100% on your child.
Do anything that your child wishes, within the limit of safety and reason. Set a timer up, according to our your own availability. (It can be as little as 5 minutes if this is new, or time is short, and you can work up to longer).
This short video “One Tool For Raising Happier Tweens”, shows the process in a simple and compelling way.
This invitation to meet them on their own terms and for them to lead has been shown to build confidence and warm your connection to each other. It is often a route into their trust, although it shouldn't ever feel coercive. During this time, take delight in their presence, appearance, creativity and genius, and you will feel the warmth flow.
Responding to hurtful comments, moodiness and drama rather than reacting
Now, here’s the thing. It would be wrong for me to paint these moments as 100% bright and positive. Because your attention can magnify your child’s feelings, often ones that they may have buried for a while, they may become upset.
As Hand in Hand founder Patty Wipfler explains, “Sometimes, this special effort results in some relaxation and real fun for both people; sometimes, one-on-one time becomes a pretext for the child’s feelings of disappointment: the parent tries hard, and the tween is openly dissatisfied.”
One of the common outcomes of giving one-on-one attention to our children is that their feelings, brought on by your warmth and attention, come bubbling to the surface. Know that this is just fine.
While you listen, and express caring and love when your child is ranting, complaining or upset, you really work at being their anchor by welcoming their feelings. You’ll see in these moments some similarities in the way you listen during Listening Partnerships. See yourself in the same support position as your tween works through their difficulties.
“This is the way closer contact is forged: we do our best to care; our tween tells us about their feelings of not being cared about well enough; we listen and continue to care. Our listening prompts our child's feelings to erupt into tears or storming; those feelings that stood between us and them dissolve as they are expressed, and closeness again becomes possible,” Patty says.
Why do parents become the target of tween moods, complaints and fury?
This form of listening, so beautifully described by Patty, is what Hand in Hand calls “Staylistening”. And, as the name suggests, it involves staying close to your tween when they are having really big feelings, paying genuine attention, offering warmth and saying very, very little.
While the child pours out hard feelings, we pour in our trust that a child has good reasons to feel how they feel and has the ability to recover. Often you, as the parent, might become the target of your child’s upset.
Patty Wipfler explains, “When they feel deeply hurt, most young people feel like their parents are part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
While you are not to blame for your tween’s troubles, it’s common that the upset gets pinned on you. This isn’t personal. Rather, you are the vehicle to place and explore it.
And, says Patty, “If you can listen without reproach or correction, they will gain a clearer perspective on what made their feelings flare.”
Again, work at being the anchor here as your tween works through the upset. When you have cared when it was tough to care, and helped your tween drain those feelings, you’ll find the separation between you dissolve. Having this understanding, and empathy, helps. When you don’t attack back, or retaliate harshly, your tween hears and feels you as an ally.
Staylistening is also a part of the Setting Limits process, which consists of three steps:
- Listen: gather and process info from inside and outside and locate the needs: yours and your child’s.
- Limit: stop the unwanted behavior while staying calm. Move in close and bring the limit.
- Listen: this is in fact the Staylistening process. Allows your children to have their distress as you anchor them.
This very clear and decisive way of setting the limit avoids endless nagging, pleading or bribing, which you may have already discovered, rarely works for any long period of time.
This post by Madeleine Winter shows how this process works.
With tweens and teens, it’s good to know that if a limit isn’t urgent, both sides can be more responsive if you talk about it at a later time when you are all calm. Let your child know in advance what the topic will be and when you plan to meet.
While talking about limits it is important to avoid criticism or attacking the child. Keep reminding them that they are loved, cherished and appreciated, and that you trust them to be smart and capable.
Be thoughtful about what limits you uphold and why. Naming the principles involved and emphasizing them is both respectful and helpful for your child.
Why you are way more powerful as an ally
Yes, your child still wants – and values from play
Despite what looks to be a racing urgency to reach adulthood, tweens and teens still love to play.
When you think about it, it’s easy to see why.
A playful attitude makes things feel lighter, it removes the stress. It builds connection. Where words or lectures get shut out, a playful response can reach your child. When tweens initiate play it helps them release layers of fears or tensions when they are upset. You can read more on how to play when your child is upset in this post.
Pillow fights, water fights, wrestling and chase play help tweens and teens remember that life is good, and that we are on their side.
If you really want to maximise the benefits of play, put up a good fight, but be careful not to win.
“They enjoy a good, active contest, but they must be safe from humiliation and defeat when they play with us. Young people face threats aplenty in the world outside our families. Playing with us means they will be found strong and clever,” Patty says.
You can see that each of these tools has much less to do with teaching or imposing conditions. They are not to do with arbitrary rules or quick punishments. They let you step out of the enemy position, away from constant power battles, or feeling confused, closed out and rejected.
You are much more powerful as an ally, and anchor, in your child’s world. A place for them to unburden from the stress of the outside world they cannot and should not avoid. A place where they can come to find warmth, protection, love and understanding.
These tips set you up to meet your tween or teen right where they are, and to be responsive and supportive.
It's never too late to connect with your tween
When it comes to the three moms, Hannah, Mila and Emma, we talked about earlier in this post, the course of action that I would recommend them to take, would be to use all these tools together.
Create a strong support network for themselves, through Listening Partnerships, and use Special Time, Staylistening, Setting Limits and Playlistening to pour their love, care and attention toward their children in the way their children will most appreciate.
Although these three moms have never practiced “Hand in Hand Parenting”, and maybe you haven’t either, I want them and you to know:
It is never too late to start practicing the tools.
In this video, Dr. Dan Siegel explains how adaptable our brains are and how they change after new experiences.
Our brains, as well as our children's, are not set in stone and can actually adapt, develop and remodel at any age. By repeatedly choosing new ways and then practicing those, we actually create and embed new patterns that better serve us. So don’t ever think that you are ‘too late.’
We can literally redesign the neural connections in our brain, attuning them for more affection and connection in our life.
Begin now, and these tips will help you stop butting heads and parenting with connection through the tween and teenage years.
Meet a community of parents raising tweens and teens with connection
I hope you find these ideas for parenting with connection with your tween or teen helpful. If you'd like more guidance as you begin to use and practice these tools, we have a Facebook Group just for you. Join today and meet a community of parents raising tweens and teens with connection.