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!