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Experts Share How to Handle the Emotional Changes During the Tween Years

When my daughter turned 11, she changed from an agreeable rule-follower into someone who only knew the word “no.” It didn’t matter what I asked her to do, she refused to do any of it. “Put your clothes away.” “No.” “Pick up your towel from the bathroom floor.” “No.” “Eat your dinner.” “No.” “Can you please put your dishes in the sink?” “No.” “Do you want a hug?” “No.” “Are you coming out of your bedroom anytime today?” “No.” Just when I thought she would be a grump forever, she sometimes reverted back to her more pleasant self.

According to experts, my daughter’s tween behavior was not at all unusual, and neither was my reaction to them. Swinging emotions like hers are typical for tweens and they’re not always easy to live with. Volatile moods are bound to affect family dynamics, as are any sudden changes. Here’s what experts say is going on with your tween’s emotional development and some advice for how you can successfully navigate through it.

Expected Adolescent Changes in Development

Your tween will push you away one minute, then pull you in the next.

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, the founding director of The Center for Parent and Teen Communication in Philadelphia and author of “Congrats―You’re Having a Teen!: Strengthen Your Family and Raise a Good Person” says raising a child through their tween years can be challenging.

Ginsburg says tweens pushing away from their parents is a normal stage of adolescent development when kids practice doing things on their own. Still, at this stage, it’s only practice. Your tween isn’t ready for independence, yet. Ginsburg reminds us that even when your tween is pushing you away, it’s important to remember that “you remain the most important human being in their life, even if they’re not willing to say that out loud.”

Tweens try out personalities like they’re trying on different styles of clothing.

Unless you suspect your tween is signaling that something is wrong, don’t worry too much if they want to dress differently from the rest of the family, change their hairstyle, or even act a little strangely because, according to experts, experimentation with personality and appearance during the tween years is normal.

Ginsburg says, “This is an age of trying on many different hats to imagine who you might be. And sometimes, it’s about really underscoring how you’re different from the people who are closest to you, including siblings and family members.”

Maria Sanders, a licensed clinical social worker and certified parent coach, says the tween years are when kids typically begin experimenting with identification. “It’s a time of trying on things, figuring out where you belong, and discovering who you really are.”

One day, your tween plays with toys. The next day, they declare toys are for babies.

Tweens may also switch between different developmental stages. They might act young one minute, then like an adult the next, which can be confusing to other family members. Sanders provides this example: “One day your tween is playing with their Barbie dolls with their siblings, and the next minute, they want nothing to do with them.” They may even call their younger sibling a baby for wanting to play with those same Barbies they played with the day before. Tweens don’t consciously flip back and forth from one stage to another; they don’t even know why they switch from wanting to play one day and then all of a sudden not wanting to. “They’re not doing this on purpose,” Sanders says.

Think your tween tells you everything? Guess again.

Sanders and Ginsburg both say that at this age tweens begin caring about peer relationships, and then prioritizing them over relationships with their family members. They’ll often start holding back information from their parents and instead turn to their peers for advice. 

If your tween suddenly seems oppositional or isn’t sharing as much information with you, Sanders says it’s important not to take it personally and to remember that it’s normal and healthy behavior for your tween to build relationships outside of the nuclear home.

Handling Emotional Changes in Adolescence

Your child’s middle school experience is probably not the same as yours.

If you had a difficult time in middle school, you might feel compelled to step in to help fix your tween’s problem so they don’t experience the same kind of discomfort or pain that you went through. But Sanders cautions against going into protective mode. She says it’s important for parents to recognize that your kid’s middle school experience is separate and distinct from the one you had. Even if it’s difficult to see our tweens suffer through middle school challenges, we need to remember that those same challenges provide opportunities for our kids to learn and grow. She wants parents to see these difficult moments as opportunities instead of a struggles, and she recommends that parents stand back to allow their kids to develop coping strategies instead of swooping in to save the day.

If your tween doesn’t want to talk, try giving them space. But also, remind them that they can depend on you.

Sanders says tweens are going to tell you, verbally or physically, that they need some space. They might tell you, “I don’t want to talk about it.” They might close their bedroom door. Speaking of closed doors, Sanders uses “knocking on the door” as a metaphor for how to communicate with your tween. She says, “If you fling that door wide open and start grilling them with questions, they are going to quickly want to shut that door.”

Instead of forcing a conversation, you might try inviting a conversation by starting with a question that “knocks.” Try asking your tween questions, like:

  • Do you want to talk about your day?
  • Are you able to talk for five minutes?
  • Do you need some time alone? 

If your tween doesn’t want to have a conversation right now, Sanders says you can try waiting for a time when they’re willing to talk. Or, you can try reframing your question. For example, if your child feels like you’re interrogating them, you can say something like, “I don’t mean to come across that way. How can I change the way I ask questions so it doesn’t feel like I’m interrogating you?” You might also use other forms of communication, like sharing over text messages.

Tween years can be volatile and confusing and even put a strain on familial relationships. But we can all take heart that this stage is only temporary. Our job as parents is to keep reminding our tweens that we’re not going anywhere. Whether they’re pushing us out of their rooms or closing their doors on us, we’ll continue to be present and by their side to lend support.

Cheryl Maguire

Cheryl Maguire holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She is married and is the mother of twins and a daughter. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Parents Magazine, AARP, Healthline, Your Teen Magazine and many other publications. She is a professional member of ASJA. You can find her at Twitter @CherylMaguire05

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