I call these the push-pull years in that our children will begin to want to push us away to try out how they want to do things more independently, but they will still want and need us to help them at times. It’s not uncommon for parents or teachers to view some of what is happening at this phase of development negatively.
Certainly, tweens can be oppositional or disrespectful, but a lot of what they’re saying and doing is also new to them; they’re trying out how to fit in, how to be confident and how to be unique between 11 and 13 and that’s a lot to take in and try to always get right. When tweens misbehave, I recommend that teachers and parents find a balance of being loving and firm in terms of correcting what needs to be corrected.
Remember that, biologically, their emotions are unpredictable. Instead of thinking of it as a child trying to be difficult, think of it as a child on a rollercoaster. Just don’t get on the ride with them. Wait until the ride is over to say what you want to say (whether it’s about boundaries or listening to what put them on the rollercoaster), because while they’re on it, they won’t hear a word you say. They’ll escalate, you’ll escalate, and it won’t lead anywhere positive. As the parent, make it your job to stay on the ground and wait for them to land alongside you.
Modeling is also key at this phase of development, since our children learn a lot about how they want to behave or be in the world from watching their parents and teachers. For example, instead of telling your child what to do when there’s a friendship rift (one of the most common dramas at this age), give them an example of how you handle the same type of thing in your life: “You know, I work with a guy who is not someone who I’d probably invite over on a Saturday night—we’re pretty different. But we do get a quick lunch together sometimes, and last time, I was surprised that we actually liked the same movies/author/football team. We don’t have to be best friends to have moments like that together once in a while.”
Open-ended questions go a long way too, “How would you want someone to treat you?” They’re able to process more complicated situations now, but may need help thinking through the steps to get to the other side.
What I tell parents all the time is just to be there. It sounds too simple to be effective, but it really is the best advice I can give. At times, your child will need an open, trusted ear to vent their upset feelings. At other times, they will need guidance. At other times, they will just need a shoulder to cry on or a hug. At other times they will just want someone to watch their favorite TV show with or to do an activity with. Northern Virginia is a busy place, and COVID-19 has created even more challenges for many of us as adults, but putting aside time every day for your child will pay back 10 fold for them in terms of their happiness and success in life. Family meals, family activities, family traditions, family vacation or staycations, family chores, family errands are all important moments, even if it sometimes seems like they don’t want to be there.