By Dr. Amanda Craig, Ph.D, LMFT
We often spend the years between 9-12 years old focusing on academic abilities and social concerns in elementary years and then prepare for the teen years. And we miss the explosion that is taking place right in front of us right here, right now. This is a time to lean into our children and who they are and yet to become. This tween period of development is when they are most vulnerable and we as parents can be impactful.
Three things happen during this period of time that blow parents away and shakes our tweens to their core. First, a massive reorganization occurs in the brain. This is a crucial step before the raging hormone changes of puberty begin. What this means to tweens is that at one moment they may be calm and cooperative and the next, irritable and aloof. There’s a wonderful book by Daniel Siegel that describes the tween brain changes entitled Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. In it he says the dismantling, pruning and rewiring in the brain’s neural circuitry leads to behaviors parents find most offensive such as impulsiveness, arguments and disorganization. The tween’s behavior is “all or nothing, my way or else.” There are eye rolls, sharp tongues and refusals to do what we as parents want. Leaving parents wondering what happened to their sweet child.
Additionally, with the brain changes, they feel and experience emotions they haven’t recognized before. They don’t know what to call them, how to express them nor how to regulate them and they can be very powerful. Which just makes them more unsettled, insecure and emotional. While this storm of emotions is happening they are at a loss to describe what they see or feel, so they live in a kind of I’m-the-only-one-going-through-this space. No wonder they are moody and unpredictable.
Finally, because they are so aware of what everyone else is doing, thinking, or feeling, they believe others are just as aware of them. Tweens feel as if everyone is looking at them, seeing what they are doing and judging or evaluating them and talking about them. This is why you might see your tween looking at the school yearbook for hours, identifying the best athletes, who is academically superior or popular, what video games their peers play, or noticing how others look and what they wear. They are preparing for the daily battle for their sense of self. This hyper awareness of themselves and their peers takes up a significant part of their emotional energy.
Imagine, then, what tween’s looks like inside, with all these brain pathways under construction, they are producing a tsunami of new thoughts and feelings. The tween does not have the language yet to describe what is happening, but each one feels that everyone can tell they are freaking out inside. The pressure is intense and real.
Emotional connection in the family is key to modeling and providing security to you’re your tween which will support them during teen years and adulthood. Find ways to let them know you are interested in what they think and feel and that you have their back. Feeling understood calms the nervous system. They are sensitive to our judgments, because they are judging themselves just as much. Find value in your tween.
Some parents and teens end up finding relief through alcohol and other addictions. Marital conflict and discord often erupt as a consequence of the arguing, anger outbursts or family members withdrawing from one another. In a family where there is a lack of closeness or connection overall, loneliness, sadness and loss exist. Couples do not parent in ways they feel good about and guilt, shame or a sense of failure set in. If the guilt and shame is not acknowledged and the lack of self awareness combined with leftover emotional pain from childhood, effective parenting is compromised and sometimes completely blocked.
Instead of getting stuck in the negative cycle that leads both parent and tween to dysregulation lets look at Dan Siegal’s 3 Ss. When tweens feel seen, soothed and secure they feel more seafe in the world around them. Here are 3 examples.
See Them and Their Perspective
If I had a penny for every time my son said something I wasn’t interested in (you know—“guess what happened in GTA,” “I saw this thing on YouTube,” “Today at school this kid….”), I’d be a rich woman. As trivial and insignificant as these stories can sound, they are extremely important to him. He is watching how people dress, talk, make jokes, play ball, etc. And we are lucky when he shares his thoughts and questions with us. He is sharing how he is growing, learning and the person he is becoming. That means sit down near him, look at him when he talks, soften face expression to appear curious or interested, and hear their story. Ask questions so your tween can elaborate. Above all, don’t correct his stories as it is his to tell.
TRY THIS: Sounds simple? Do an experiment and watch for a day how often you listen while you’re multi-tasking or interrupt with a directive to him.
Set Consistent Boundaries and Follow Through
Tweens would rather a parent set two rules that are always followed than many rules that sometimes apply and other times don’t. When a parent consistently clearly tells a tween what is important to them, the tween knows he is safe and secure and the parent will not let him cross the line. Tweens without boundaries feel insecure, even though they will never tell us. They don’t know we will keep them safe. So, be specific about what the rule is and what the consequence is if it’s not followed. Make consequences immediate and short. Taking away the ipad for a week only punishes you; taking it away for the rest of the night or tomorrow is sufficient.
TRY THIS: What are your two rules? What happens if they do not follow through? What gets in your way of following through?
We Teach Soothing by Self Regulating
When the tween is emotionally dysregulated, parents often feel the same way. And that’s where the tension escalates! An argument/ power struggle/war breaks out. No one wins and both parties feel guilty after. Instead of engaging, escalating, criticizing or talking back, take a breath, name what is coming up for you such as: “I cannot believe this kid talks to me that way—he cannot say that!” Realize that you yourself are offended, angry and disappointed that your tween behaves this way. Instead of quickly reacting, pause, calm your own feelings and remember what point you wanted to get across. Stick to the issue not other examples, other topics and grievances. Those are for another discussion.
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