As a child and adolescent therapist in Washington, DC, a middle school guidance counselor, and a mother, I find that moms frequently ask me for tips and strategies to manage their changing (and challenging) relationship with their middle schooler. Often I hear questions like these:
“Should I get her a phone? If I do, how much freedom should I let her have with it?”
“Why doesn’t he want to talk to me anymore? He used to fill me in about everything!”
“She’s struggling with her friendships and won’t take my advice! What should I do?”
And I will share my thoughts on how to respond to those questions, but first, let’s go back about 10-12 years ago…
When our early adolescents or “tweens” were infants, we focused on caring for their basic needs. We fed, bathed, and nurtured. We watched and delighted in their every giggle and baby step of development, and eventually, there was a decent payoff of affection and cuddles. And, because becoming a mother was such a dramatic shift in our daily lives, we joined a New Mom’s Group to vent, problem-solve, and get support in stressful moments.
We watched their toddler years and childhoods fly by, and now as they grow into middle schoolers, they become hyper focused on friends, prioritize social activities, and suddenly your opinion doesn’t matter. It seems that our efforts to nurture and care for them early in life are forgotten or are rejected. And this stinks for us, because this difficult, stressful time is not only challenging for middle schoolers, it is also a stressful time for us.
This stress that you’re feeling is not uncommon. In fact, the stress of raising a tween can become so overpowering that modern research has found that mothers of tweens can feel more depressed than mothers of newborns, and that parental satisfaction is lowest when their child is in middle school:
So how should you wrap your head around this time in development?
One helpful way is to look back at your relationship history- way back when your tween was just a toddler.
First step: Understand the purpose of the behavior
Who could forget toddler tantrums? They were loud, difficult to ignore, and endless! Even now, when your tween doesn’t get what he wants, his language and behaviors seem just as loud, difficult to ignore, and endless! This happens because unfortunately, your tween hasn’t yet mastered his new feelings that arise from the hormonal changes in his mind and body. He is just beginning to make sense of his new world and has yet to learn how to effectively communicate, manage his new social relationships, and figure out how to relate to a parent from his current point of view. He or she may sound aggressive, disrespectful, and blunt. These words and behaviors will probably have you doubting your ability as a parent, fearing your child is spoiled or out of control, and you’re desperately wanting a (solo, swim-up-bar) type of vacation.
Second Step: Recognize that it is imperative for your tween to make their own choices, mistakes, and try on roles before feeling successful in establishing their own identity.
By taking steps to separate from you (and the family) to find his or her own identity, this inevitably creates stress in the family. Your tween’s job is to push against the familiar patterns of the family on to the path of (eventual) adulthood.
Summing up the work of Erik Erikson, who established the “8 Stages of Psychosocial Development,” the toddler must feel a sense of autonomy (rejecting the organic broccoli you freshly steamed, holding a spoon to feed himself yogurt), while the teen must feel that they can try on various roles to eventually find one that fits who they are (think fashion and music choices, friend choices, etc).
Third step: Understand and update your Boundaries and Limits
Establishing limits are just as important now as they were in the toddler years- they help your tween safely explore new desires and establish personal limits as they grow. Just as you explained why it’s not appropriate to color on the walls or hit siblings, explain to your teen why they can’t have sleepovers on school nights, why they aren’t yet allowed to have a cell phone, and the specific behaviors that are expected of them as a member of the family (cleaning up after dinner, speaking in a respectful manner, etc). You may think that your teen already knows these reasons for these rules, but most tweens haven’t yet connected the effects on mood and behavior of a weeknight sleepover, the pros and cons of owning a cell phone, and the effect their language and behavior has on the rest of the family.
Fourth step: Open up the conversation to build connection, not contention
As moms of toddlers, we empathized with their feelings and taught them strategies for managing behaviors. We helped our toddlers with problem-solving language: “You really want that toy! Ask your brother for a turn.” Here, we gave our toddlers language for their feeling (want/desire) and gave a solution (ask). With tweens, we can help them communicate with a modified version of the same strategy: “I understand that you really want a phone, and feel left out because most of your friends have one. Let’s talk about why our family waits until high school to get a phone.” Here, you identified the feelings connected to the phone (want/desire) and not wanting to feel left out (belonging). You also opened the conversation to discussing a family rule, which doesn’t mean that the rule will change, but by empathizing with your tween empathy right away, it reduces the chance that your conversation will turn into a confrontation that leads to anger and stress.
Looking for more relationship building tips? Continue with the next article: Tips for Establishing a Solid Relationship with Your Middle Schooler