How to Handle a Preteen

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Secretive, argumentative, forgetful? Yup. You have a preteen on your hands. Be ready!

Twelve-year-old Rachel has started getting phone calls from a 16-year-old boy who lives in the Nashville subdivision next to hers.

She is understandably flattered and excited about the attention, and just doesn’t understand why her parents won’t let her “be friends” with him, although she’s a preteen. For their part, parents Harold and Patty are completely off-guard by this turn of events. “We didn’t expect this for at least another couple of years,” Patty says.

Last year in seventh grade, 14-year-old Adam was invited to a party given by an eighth grader. It was his first year in a new school and his mother, Julia, was thrilled that he finally seemed to be making friends.

“When we got to the house, there were no cars in the garage,” Julia remembers. “I thought that was odd, but a man came to the door and assured me he’d be there all night. It turned out that the ‘man’ was actually a physically large teen friend and the parents didn’t get home until midnight.”

According to child development experts, both Rachel and Adam are testing their boundaries and their families’ value systems, and Adam was asserting his independence by not calling his mother when he realized the party was not what it seemed. While it may frustrate parents, experts agree that these are perfectly normal signs of the transition years between childhood and adolescence.

Children grow more rapidly – physically, cognitively and emotionally – during the “tween” years of 10 – 14 than at any other time of life except infancy. Think of them as 2-year-olds with hormones, and you get the picture.

Lynn Hitner, a guidance counselor at Meigs Magnet Middle School in Nashville, explains that as all this growth takes place, parents need to know that tweens:

  • Get their feelings hurt easily
  • Try your patience frequently
  • Want lots of privacy
  • Stay preoccupied with their own thoughts and feelings
  • Are striving for independence
  • Often argue and criticize
  • Act like their friends matter more than anything else
  • Can be “up” one minute and “down” the next
  • Think they know more than you

 

It’s Normal for a Preteen to Forget!
Hitner also points out that hormones are responsible for middle schoolers’ brain lapses, including forgetfulness, inconsistent grades and rollercoaster emotions.

Fortunately, there seems to be an ebb and flow to this pattern. While 11 was turbulent for my son Travis (with lots of emotional outbursts and tentative defiance) 12 was one of the most fun years I’ve spent with him. He developed a keen sense of humor, and we enjoyed thought-provoking conversations on a wide variety of subjects. Thirteen has so far been more of a see-saw, full of ups and downs. He still lives for sports and has no interest in girls.

David, on the other hand, has been moody since the age of 10, according to Susan, a single mom in Nashville. She says her son is very aware socially, making sure he wears the right clothes and hangs out with the “cool” crowd at school. Now in eighth grade, girls have been calling him for several years and he’s attended a number of boy-girl parties.

This is very typical, according to Jim Rust, an Middle Tennessee State University professor of psychology and a practicing school psychologist. “Kids this age mature at different rates so you’ll see the same behaviors at different ages, even among the same gender,” says Rust. “And it’s true that girls generally mature faster than boys. This is because girls’ verbal and social skills are more developed at an earlier age.”


The Preteen: Kids Grow Up Fast

It’s true that today’s youth grow up faster than their parents did. “The difference is our cultural attitude – violence, drugs and sex are accepted behaviors,” explains Jodie Paul, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Nashville. “There’s more exposure to adult themes that children and early adolescents aren’t able to handle cognitively or emotionally.”

Jim Williams, Brentwood-based author of Parenting on Point (Microsoft Reader) and frequent lecturer and teacher of parenting courses throughout the state, calls this exposure to adult themes the “false star” that draws children away from the “true North star” of the family’s moral center.

“Parents have an idea of how they want their child to turn out – that’s the North star,” he explains. “Kids have another, false star – society’s wants and desires, depicted through the entertainment industry (TV, video games, magazines, etc.). Kids get mixed messages from parents and the media at the same time that their bodies are being bombarded from within by hormones.

“We nurture the heck out of elementary kids, but we need to continue even more with middle schoolers – just in a different way. Between 10 and 14 is the last real opportunity we have to cement values,” he adds.

This means we must stick to the rules and boundaries we’ve taught and, hopefully, modeled to our children from the time they were toddlers. Hitner says one of the most important things parents can do is “be consistent, be consistent, be consistent, and be consistent together.” She also advises parents to remember that tweens “will need you emotionally more often than they’ll ever let on.”

While reinforcing family values, parents “can’t assume their children’s friends’ parents enforce the same values,” says Mary Elizabeth Hickman, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Nashville. “I really encourage parents to have their kids’ friends over. And as important as it is to know your children’s friends, it’s even more important to know their parents,” she says.

“Sleepovers are big at this age for both girls and boys. Don’t assume that other parents won’t allow R-rated movies, for example, or that they’ll even be home. Ask lots of questions of your kids, their friends and their parents,” Hickman advises. “Your children will hate this because it’s embarrassing for them, but deep down they’ll love it because it proves that you’re interested in them and that you love them.”

“Kids assert their independence by doing something they know you wouldn’t let them do,” points out Jodie Paul. “We can just expect our kids to lie to us at some point,” she says. “When they’re just testing the waters, it can be a positive thing as long as it’s not dangerous.”

Minimizing Rebellion

Hickman and Paul agree that parents should choose their battles. “Most kids have to challenge, question and even temporarily reject all they’ve been taught at an earlier age. They must do this to let go of Mommy and Daddy,” Hickman says. “The danger comes when rebellion turns into something dangerous like drugs or alcohol.”

To help keep this natural rebellion from taking a dangerous course, Hitner and Williams recommend holding regular family meetings to discuss values, rules, and consequences.

With today’s tweens maturing both physically and in their knowledge bases earlier than in years past, it’s more important than ever for parents to stay involved and keep communications open. “There’s a sort of secret underground pressure that parents don’t know about,” Hickman says. “Fifth grade girls are developing physically and becoming prime prey of high school boys. The girls are being exploited. These young girls are willing to perform sexually for older boys because they’re excited by the attention.

Child development experts agree that peer pressure has perhaps its strongest influence in middle school, when tweens are so anxious to fit in and find their identity. They say that it’s helpful for children to be involved in Scouts, recreational sports, church youth groups or other activities they can enjoy with other kids whose families have similar values. In these situations, peer pressure can be a good thing.

Ages 10 through 14 can be tough for kids – a time of struggle that can be likened to that of a butterfly pushing out of its chrysalis. The struggle is necessary for the butterfly to dry its wings and be able to fly when it finally emerges; too much help cripples the butterfly. Thus it is an equally difficult struggle for parents to find the best balance of nurturing and letting go. But with patience, humor and a little luck, tweens and parents will survive to enjoy a whole new relationship as they grow into adulthood.


Parental Monitoring: not intrusive but necessary

Monitoring the actions of your children works best with parents who strive for a reasonable relationship with their children, guided by concern and respect. Be sure to always know the answers to these questions:

  1. Do you know your teen’s friends?
  2. If your teen is going to be late, does she call?
  3. Do you talk with your teen about the plans she has with friends?
  4. Do you know where your teen is and what she does after school?
  5. Does your teen tell you who she will be with when going out?
  6. Do you know where your teen goes at night?
  7. Do you know how your teen spends her money?
  8. Do you know the parents of your teen’s friends?

 

Nancy Brown is a freelance writer and mother residing in Nashville.

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