Does the back to school season find your tween stomping off, slamming doors and generally radiating angst? A friend of mine recently reached out from deep in those trenches to ask for help. I thought perhaps my letter to her may serve as a lifeline to you, too. It’s my Survival Guide for Parenting the Moody, Broody Tweener. A parenting survival guide, of sorts, for getting through this particular part of the parenting jungle.
(Spoiler Alert: You all get out alive.)
Never panic over a phase.
If it’s been going on for multiple months and you notice increasing areas of concern (school work, lack of interest, etc), then it’s time to pursue outside help. But if she’s just started dramatic exits to her room, developed a newfound affinity for rolling those baby blues, or opting out of family time, then try a few of the following tips and rest assured it’ll probably pass. It may pass like a kidney stone…but it really will pass.
Give her as much control as possible.
Our first reaction when kids act up is to wrangle back our position of power. But kids crave being in control of something – anything! – in their own lives. Identify areas where she can have total control.
Need ideas? Let her:
- pick out her own outfits all the time, even if it’s sneakers at church or a tutu to the movies (If this includes school attire which violates the dress code, explain the consequences in advance and don’t rescue her if she gets dress coded! Pro Tip: Have her throw a compliant back-up into her bag. She leaves the house feeling like a total rebel, and you get street red for being an accomplice. Risk-taking is an important part of development at this age. Let her scratch the itch when the stakes are low and she can get herself out of a jam with a simple change of clothes.)
- pack her lunch once a week, even if it’s just candy and pickles
- choose the restaurant for dinner, no one else gets a vote
- pick the flick for family movie night (bonus points if you let her pick something edgy she doesn’t think you’d let her see)
- paint her walls any color she wants, or her nails/hair if you’re on a budget
Wherever she can safely be allowed to “drive the bozo bus”, let her.
Give her a day of rest from feedback or critique.
Both parents should agree on one day during which you will not correct her about anything. Don’t show her a better way to fold towels or comment on how much milk she poured into her cereal or suggest she fix something on her homework. Kids are corrected and taught all day long. Let your home be a place of rest for a full day, and see what happens. If she does something truly awful, you can follow up the next day with timely dialogue. It’s more likely that – after a day of perspective – you’ll realize the irritating thing you’d normally squawk at her about actually doesn’t even warrant conversation. Repeat this step on a regular basis. Don’t tip your cards on which day it’ll be, or she’ll try to get away with everything. You want respite, not The Purge.
Does she have another adult to confide in?
Does she have someone she can complain to…about you? If not, find one! I suggest someone who’s not family, but that YOU trust as much as she does. Be sure to position it with the nominee and define the rules of engagement – can they keep her confidence and secrets as long as there is no real danger? Maybe they can take her shopping, or to cuddle animals at a pet store or get a pedicure. It’ll give her a fresh perspective and guidance that differs from yours, which in turn gives her the power to choose whose advice she wants to follow.
Is she an introvert or extrovert?
Have you figured it out yet? The right answer isn’t always obvious. Introverts can be friendly and outgoing. Extroverts can be rather quiet. The question is what exhausts or energizes her – being in her room alone for a while, or being around people?
- If she simply needs quiet space to recharge her batteries, let her have it! You can establish guidelines, like the door staying open, or she gets 30 minutes after school with no interruptions from anyone (including siblings), etc., but hold the space for her if she needs it.
- If she needs to be around people to recharge, like I do, does she have adequate chances to play with others outside of school? Although kids are physically surrounded by people all day at school, it doesn’t mean they have time and opportunities to connect with those people. Occupying a crowded space doesn’t cut it; extroverts need meaningful interaction to fill their tank.
Support negative feelings.
Let her know that mad, angry, frustrated and sad are totally acceptable emotions. They should be felt and respected and are not anything to be ashamed of. She also needs to learn to not let them totally take over for long periods of time without getting help. If they are consistently happening more often than the good emotions, she should talk to a trusted grown up about it.
- Tell her you believe in her ability to control her emotions and reactions. Point to past success at times when she wanted to throw a tantrum but didn’t. If she’s hulking out about something, get down to eye level and tell her that those sure seem like big and scary feelings, but that you’ll be right there while she gets them under control. She can feel them, then control them, then you can all move on with your day.
- Try a “parent present” time-out. Space to just be and let off steam doesn’t mean it has to be alone. Find a quiet activity of your own to engage in right outside her door. Let her know that you’re there in the hallway if she needs you, but you’ll respect her privacy, too.
How is her emotional vocabulary?
Does she have lots of nuanced words to match her many nuanced emotions? My husband has always been good at recognizing when our kids were having new emotions they didn’t understand, but they didn’t have a word to express what it was. There are some kid-friendly “emotional dictionaries” out there, which give kids descriptive words like disappointment, frustration, impatience, etc. Simple stuff for us, but your kiddo may not have felt those things before, or at least not in a way they could describe.
Build conversation into the family routine.
Consider designating time each week for a “no holds barred” conversation about whatever is on her mind. I’d suggest you don’t answer a single question, but rather answer with questions of your own. Help her solve the riddle of her own emotions with guided questions, more than answers or talking on your end. As an enthusiastic lecturer, I admit to struggling with this one myself…
This chapter of life is not for the faint of heart. But I’m quite confident you and your moody, broody tween are both up for the challenge! Cling to her tightly, even when she acts like a cold, floppy fish. In no time flat, she’ll be clinging right back. When the dust has settled, you can grin proudly at each other and carry your newfound skill sets headlong into the teenage years. That survival guide is only a rough first draft at the moment, because I’m still in the thick of it.
It’s like Jumanji up in here.