Nobody warned me how emotionally unstable tweens can be

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The other day my tween was sitting in the kitchen popping and sighing on purpose. I rolled my eyes, turned to him and said, “What is it that bothers you?” (in my calmest voice, no doubt, that was pretty much forced). The problem? His favorite mechanical pencil – which apparently is a thing – was lead free. Gathering all my strength, trying not to get a hint of sarcasm into my voice, I said, “Can’t you put more into it?”

This unleashed the beast. Apparently we ran out of mechanical pencil refills, the world was ending and my tween hated everything and everyone.

I tried to offer a simple solution. The next time we place a drive-up store order, I would sure get myself a pencil lead. You would think I would be received with a little relief and gratitude, and maybe even a quick “problem-solving” response, but no. Instead, my child exploded. I don’t know if it was hormones, anxiety, claims, fatigue, or a combination of all of these on that particular day, but I wish someone had warned me about how emotionally unstable tweens can be.

Let me get to the point here. If you haven’t had a tween but your days are numbered, you know this. Here is a full list of what tweens find difficult: everything. If you’re already a parent of a tween you, like me, are likely a little upset that no one had the decency to warn us not to worry about the teenage years because kids enter the tween phase before then . and it’s not a walk in the park.

Tweens are children aged eight or nine to twelve. This season of life is epic. In a second, a tween is a little kid who might be playing with a toy they haven’t looked at in a year or two. In the next minute they are demanding more responsibility, more material possessions, more freedoms – more, more, more. At the same time, they can melt down in no time with the smallest trigger. An example of this is that the mechanical pencil – everyone’s favorite – has run out of lead.

There is no reasoning with a tween. We have no fewer than five hundred pencils. We even have other mechanical pencils that contain lead. Can’t remove the lead from a pencil to stick it in another pencil? The answer is essentially no. That’s just too much to ask.

Tweens experience a roller coaster ride of emotions as they progress through the early and middle stages of puberty. Your brain can’t keep up with your body, and your body can’t keep up with your brain. They begin to forget how to do basic things, things they learned as toddlers and preschoolers. They snap apart for a second and then open the lid the next, over a detail that I would never have noticed. Basically, they can be meticulous or not at all careful.

I can’t count the number of times we said to our tweens, “Why did you do this?” That is, why did you wear boots to school on sports day in August? Why did you get into an argument with your three-year-old sister that resulted in you slapping each other in the hands? Why did you run the water after washing your hands?

I have learned that there is no point in asking “why”. They really don’t know why they are doing the things that they are doing. In addition, they often deny that they even did it. Maybe some of the denial is embarrassing, while most of the time I legitimately think my tween didn’t even notice what he was doing.

We all agree that the twelve years are no joke. So what are we doing about it? We can get involved in their chaos by yelling back, getting sarcastic, or even punishing – but my research and experience have shown me that this is pointless. You cannot punish a child for faster brain development. Sarcasm comes across as teasing, which just makes a tween angry, and rightly so. It makes us feel better about clapping them, but it is of no use.

First, you know it’s perfectly normal for tweens to be tweens. They are not little adults. They barely have diapers and are learning their alphabet, but their bodies and brains are trying to tell them to act as adults. You are in one of the most confusing and contradicting phases of life. The sooner we adults can keep a cool head and work with (and not against) our tweens, the better. This starts with accepting that tweens will be on the battle bus often.

Another helpful thing I did was tell my tween that it is perfectly normal how he is doing and what is wrong with his body. I remember telling this to my tween and he was telling me, “Really?” He wasn’t rude. Tweens realize that there is a lot going on inside them. They have to know that they are going through a completely normal phase of life, but that they are behind us.

I’ve learned to make lists of the tasks my tweens are constantly struggling with. Tweens don’t hear half of what you say no matter how many times you say it. Lists can be very helpful for a tween (like everyone else) who lacks executive skills. Hang it on the bathroom mirror, for example, and it will be more likely to finish. At least done more than if they didn’t have a list. Also, help them prepare ahead of time instead of fighting at the last minute. Put clothes, backpack, mask off and charge your cell phone the night before instead of panicking when the bus pulls up the next morning.

Next, reward instead of punishing. Help your tween work toward a goal instead of trying to punish them for behavior. For example, our tween struggles to save money and then gets annoyed when he doesn’t have enough money to buy what he wants. We decided to offer an incentive. If he saves his pocket money for two months (instead of spending it as soon as he gets it) we would throw in some extra money. So far, so good.

Despite the way tweens behave, suggesting the rebellion that will come in the teenage years, they need firm and consistent boundaries. One of my son’s classmates is a child whose parents have few rules (and who are never expected to be followed consistently). Frankly, the kid is a hot mess. They provoke figures of authority who appear disrespectful when in fact they are begging for adult attention (which they cannot get at home). When there are limits, children are prepared for success – when they have the support to do so.

Again, remember that our tweens are not teenagers or young adults. You are far from having the brain development or the skills to do it all on your own. Even the “no-duh” situations can be difficult for tweens.

Parents, tweens need us – desperately – even if they pretend we’re the greatest idiots in the world whose only aim is to humiliate them. Tween years are a great time to talk through situations, hear what your tween thinks, and offer help if the situation gets too out of hand or a tween can’t handle it on its own. Sometimes they just want to breathe – and that’s fine, too.

Eventually you get creative with communication. If you’ve ever had a tween you know the art of grunting, shrugging, or rolling your eyes. I have found that offering play, in writing (through a diary or even text message), or simply in bed to chat is better than offering a conversation that feels like a confrontation. The more relaxed you both are, the better the conversation will go. Also, don’t wait for a problem to arise. Ask open-ended questions that are relevant to your child’s interests. Step into their worlds.

Even if we do everything right for our tween, he will have tough days. This is only part of his growing up journey. Undoubtedly there are days when I would rather clap back or walk away than stay busy with his emotional hurricane, but I also realize that the tween years are teenage years in education for both us and our child. We have to show up and keep our heads in the game for the sake of our relationship with our child.


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