Archive of ‘Family’ category

Parenting the Preteen

Preteens are among one of the most difficult age groups to parent. I say this with grace and understanding to all parents because parenting is already a tough job to manage. However, the unique needs of a child in this growing stage of life are often misunderstood or neglected. Through the ages of 8-12 years old, a child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development shift tremendously; that is why I love working with preteens so much as a therapist: I get to see them grow in every sense right before my eyes. Parents must adapt their ways of thinking in order to best support this stage of life. A preteen requires respect, understanding, and open communication with their parents. I believe parents will experience positive effects from maintaining clear, reasonable boundaries, fostering their child’s independence, and respecting their identity exploration. Also don’t forget: it’s not personal!

Create a Balanced Relationship

Parenting, much like life itself, is about balance. Therefore, it is imperative when parenting preteens to create a balanced dynamic between parent and child. The common battle of this stage is control vs. freedom; the preteen wants to achieve freedom from all perceived restraints, but parents seek to control their child’s behavior. The middle ground to rest upon is a relationship where parents set clear expectations and boundaries. Preteens feel their need for autonomy is respected, but parents still hold the power to make rules and keep the child safe. Too much control will cause the child to feel like their parent holds all the power, and thus creates the dreaded power struggle. The flip side of being too relaxed in boundaries can decrease the preteen’s sense of safety, support, and understanding of expectations in the home. If a parent tries to be more of a friend than a parental figure, how can we expect the child to listen to anything they have to say? The key to limiting relationship issues with a preteen is to build a healthy balance of limits and freedom. 

Step Back to Watch

One of the hardest tasks of parenting is loosening the reins to watch your child grow. This is necessary, but of course it is also frightening! You will see a preteen pull away from family members, change their friends constantly, and ignore responsibilities that used to matter to them- but this is totally normal in the grand scheme of development. Identifying outside the home is a positive because that means the child is increasing their self-confidence and becoming more independent. Parents, please encourage this independence to show your preteen that you are happy they can create social connections and develop new interests. Emphasize that you are always there for them and that you still value times of connection and love, but that it is important for a preteen to grow outside of what they have always known. Another hugely important lesson is that failure is not unacceptable, it’s inevitable; so a parent must prepare to see their child fail on their own. Parents should try to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on achieving perfect grades, high accolades in sports, etc. unless the child asks for this additional support. Strive for greatness, not perfection, and teach that there is more to life than being the best. 

Respect is the Bottom Line

In every stage of parenting from a positive parenting lens, respect is communicated and shown at all times. Especially in the preteen stage, the child requires unconditional respect because they generally feel misunderstood by adults. When handling tasks in the home, it is important to be calm and reasonable in your requests: for example, asking a child to clean their room after first insulting how messy it looks will foster a negative dynamic with the child. I like to call upon a parenting Golden Rule: Reflect before reacting, then respond with respect. If you model to your child that yelling, name-calling, and poor listening is acceptable when you do it, then how can you expect the child to behave any differently? Show preteens respect by listening without judgment when they tell you about their day, or remaining calm and supportive when learning about a bad grade. When a child feels that their parents respect their changing identity and will still be there for them no matter what, then the relationship can hopefully remain strong.

It’s Never Personal

My final wisdom to impart on all parents of preteen children: please try to remember that the way your children treat you is not personal. Due to changing bodies and brains and responsibilities in the world, preteens experience intense challenges! So if heightened emotional expressions and increased incidents of crying, stomping, or eye-rolling start to pop up it is likely a reaction to what they are experiencing OUTSIDE the home. While that might seem confusing, it is helpful to remember that parents are easy targets because a child consciously/subconsciously knows as an eternal truth that their parent will never abandon them. Thus, they feel comfortable pushing boundaries and buttons to the extreme because they can act out these feelings without suffering a consequence of social rejection, school punishment, or public shame. It is necessary to expect resistance from a preteen and accept the forthcoming challenges as they come, like riding a wave. In addition, please allow yourself to grieve their childhood while also holding space for pride that they are growing closer to adulthood. Parenting is a wonderful, scary, messy, often thankless, but always rewarding job that never ends. Be kind to yourself, be kind to your preteen, and be okay with not having it all figured out because they will learn from your vulnerability and resilience.

I learned a lot of helpful tips and encourage following up by reading these articles!

Being Present With Your Adolescent Child

Among parents and caregivers, numerous factors can pose barriers to making time to have meaningful conversations with our children during their rocky teenage years. Parents may need to work long hours or tackle everyday chores, consuming so much time and focus that it leaves little time to be fully present with their children. After a long workday and looking forward to much needed downtime, it can become easy to focus on ourselves or our partners, resorting to “out of sight, out of mind” habits when teenagers disappear in their room for hours at a time. Adolescents naturally become more independent so understandably they can be emotionally distanced or disengaged. As I use the term “children” here, these tips can be applied to our children at any age; it is fundamentally about providing moments of positive connection.

Provide a safe space for child or teen to be heard

One of the most fundamental needs of children is feeling safe in a nurturing environment that fosters warmth, trust and healthy boundaries lasting through adolescence and young adulthood. When children experience trauma at home in an unsafe environment, especially repeated trauma exposure, this can severely impair their ability to form positive relationships in throughout the lifespan. Conversely, establishing a consistent pattern of being available and emotionally bonding with your children forms a blueprint for healthy relationships in their developing brains, providing them vital skills in forming healthy relationships for the rest of their lives.

Moments of calm connection strengthen the relationship with your child

It is important to place emphasis on the word “calm” as talking to them from a place of anger or criticism can easily bring up defensiveness and does little to foster positive connection. Of course, there are moments where we may become angry or critical with our kids, such as becoming exasperated when they fail a test since they did not study or coming home past hours past their curfew.

Positive communication teaches healthy relationships

It has been well established that children learn behaviors from social modeling and observation. As parents, we can be mindful of how we communicate with our partners and children, setting the stage for less challenging conversations with our teens. It is important to acknowledge that that there will be communication exchanges that go awry, mistakes will happen. When reflecting on these not-so-great moments, we can practice self-compassion and think how we could have handled the situation differently.

Dining together is a big deal

It can be hard to find appropriate settings to have quality conversation time with our kids. Research has shown that teens who dine more regularly with their families (seven days a week versus twice a week or less) reported less drug and alcohol use, as well as less depressive symptoms. Dining in or out together can provide valuable moments of connection that will help wire their brains toward navigating current and future relationships.

With these simple guidelines, parents can be more intentional about the quality and frequency of interactions with their children. No one approach will work with every teen and challenges vary. Many teenagers have their schedules packed, not only with school, but social and extracurricular activities that leave them away from home for most of the day. Building fond memories even in the small moments of the day can do wonders for their well-being. After all, kids grow up so fast!


Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, P. H. D. T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child. Random House.

We Parent How We Were Parented

Something that I’m consistently made aware of as a child and adolescent therapist and working with their parents is that we parent how we were parented. I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a “bad” kid, OR a “bad” parent.

Being a parent is the hardest job in the world. As a parent you are the leader of the household, and you carry a LOT of responsibility. Your children look to you to provide shelter, nutrition, safety, and love.

While being a parent and having the massive responsibility that comes along with it, you are also inevitably triggered by your child’s behavior. For example, when your child has a meltdown and begins to throw items around the house, you are triggered. When your child is having big emotions and they begin to hit, bite, scratch, kick, etc., you are triggered. When your child tells you that you are a “lousy parent”, you are triggered. When your child asks you where a loved one is who is no longer a part of your lives, you are triggered. When your child pushes their sibling around and refuses to share, you are triggered.

How do you handle those situations? The most likely answer is that you yell and punish the child. Why? Because you are trying your best to teach them what is appropriate and what is not. Also, because you are triggered and losing patience (understandably so). And finally, because this is probably how your parents parented you.

When we feel triggered, we act on high emotions rather than trying to understand the child’s behavior and what they need in that moment. What is natural to us is to parent our children the way that our parents parented us. This is what we know. However, sometimes there are things that can be adjusted.

Avoiding Shame

Something that I see a lot, not only in my practice but also with the general public, is that parents tend to use shame as a way of disciplining their children. What does this look like? This can be phrases such as, “how could you let this happen?!”, “you know better”, “why is this so hard for you?!”, “you are so difficult”. It can look like the parent yelling at the child and wagging a finger in their face, or the parent walking away from the child without any conversation about repair.

Shame is the most distressing emotion we can feel as humans. Shame tells us that we’re not good enough. Shaming a child into appropriate behavior will cause the child to feel unheard, unimportant, and that their feelings don’t matter. This leads to a bigger disconnect between you and your child, which then causes more difficult behavior.

What can help YOU have more patience and understanding towards your child during high stress moments is trying to separate the behavior from the child. If the child is behaving inappropriately, they are trying to COMMUNICATE their needs. Children don’t always know how to ask or tell us what they need, so instead they communicate through their behavior. It is our job as caregivers to TEACH them how to communicate appropriately. Kids are always learning. Their brains are under construction all the time. So, if we try to separate the behavior from the child, we can find more patience within ourselves to be able to teach them right from wrong.

Attention vs Connection

When a child acts out, people often say, “oh, they’re just doing that for attention”. The word attention has a negative connotation with it. When we think of attention, we think that it is for selfish reasons. However, the child is not misbehaving for attention; they are misbehaving for connection. When your child has a meltdown, they aren’t doing this for attention or to make you mad. They are doing it because they need connection, and they have a need that they are trying to get met.

How to Connect

So, you may be wondering how can you not yell, punish, shame, and lose your patience…

First, I encourage you to take a deep breath. Take care of yourself so you can be there for your child. Pause for a moment and think about you can effectively communicate with your child.

Second, listen to your child. Get down on their level, use a soft tone of voice, and make eye contact.

Third, reflect to them their feelings. This looks like saying, “I can see that you’re feeling really mad right now”, or “You’re feeling sad”, “that upset you”. Simply reflect what emotion they are feeling. It’s OK if you say the wrong emotion, the child will correct you.

Fourth, validate the child’s feeling and experience. This looks like saying, “I understand”, “I hear you”, “I see you”, “If that happened to me, I’d be mad too”. This helps the child feel understood by you.

Fifth, set the limit. This looks like saying, “AND it’s not ok to yell at me like that”, “AND it’s not okay to hit others”, “AND it’s not ok to steal your sister’s toys”. Using the word “and” helps to connect the limit to the feeling. When we use the word “but”, we invalidate the other person’s emotions and experience, and we want to do the opposite.

Sixth, offer an alternative. This looks like saying, “Next time you need me, tap me on the shoulder like this” and show them, “You can hit this pillow instead” and show them, “What else can you play with until your sister is done playing with that toy?” and pick out a toy if needed. It is important not to inhibit their attempt to express themselves. Find an alternative that you are okay with.

Seventh, sit with them. This isn’t always possible. But, if you can sit with them, continue to talk to them and breathe deeply you will help your child regulate their emotions. If you are calm, your child will become calm as well. This is also known as co-regulation.

Additional phrases that you can use here are…

“It looks like your feelings are in control of your body.”

“I’m here for you.”

“How can I help you?”

“Mom is going to finish dinner, I will be in the kitchen if you need me.”

“I love you.”

“I want to help you. Can you show me how I can help?”

“It’s ok to have big feelings”

“You are having a hard day. I have hard days too.”

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that managing difficult behavior with your child is not easy. I know that during times of high stress it isn’t always possible to stay calm. That’s ok! Parents are humans who make mistakes just like kids. If you are a parent reading this, I encourage you to give yourself grace and be patient with yourself! The best thing you can do after you lose your temper is to apologize to your child and accept responsibility for whatever mistake was made. You are NOT a bad parent! You are doing the best that you can.

Below is an infographic that help outline the steps in managing difficult behavior. Feel free to save, print, and share!

managing your child's difficult behavior


Axline, V. M. (1981). Play Therapy: The Groundbreaking Book That Has Become a Vital Tool in the Growth and Development of Children. Penguin Random House.

Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship. Brunner-Routledge.

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