I’d like to share the following advice/guidelines with the parents of preteens (10-12 years old). Preteens are in grades 6-8. They are still cute and seemingly innocent, but their bodies, emotions, and minds are developing and changing rapidly. As such, parenting them requires patience, knowledge, insight, and adjustments.
One of the first things parents will notice about preteens is their avoidance of touch (ex. hugs, or touching hand, shoulders, or hair). Don't worry if this happens (or happened already). They still love you. They just need some extra space and breathing room. Yet, concerned parents might wonder, “What happened to my sweet baby? Why is she so moody? Why is he so quiet or unfriendly? Why is she so sensitive?” Well, bad news is, you will need to do some homework and research (thinking, planning, and adjusting parenting approaches) to better handle this phase. Good news is, it’s all part of their development, and there's nothing wrong with you or your child.
Parents should not treat preteens as they did before. Especially if your child was very submissive and docile up to this point, your tendency will be to continue to demand obedience and submission. But, not only is that approach ineffective--though some kids will give you the "lip service"--it might lead to confrontations and eventual breakdown in communication. So, parents of preteens need to learn about preteen characteristics and tendencies to be more effective parents. There are two overarching issues that all preteens wrestle with: identity and independence. Let me explain what they are.
First, identity. Preteens are asking, “Who am I?” So far, they have been identified as so-and-so’s child, the younger or older sibling of so-and-so, etc. But, they want to know their identity apart from parents, siblings, and relatives. They want to form different relationships and friendships to discover themselves, their worth and value. And, beyond that, they ask philosophical questions such as, “Why am I here? What is my life’s purpose?” They also raise practical questions such as, “Why do I have so many zits? How come she has clear skin? Does he know I like him? Will my friends like my new clothes?” As you can see, their questions are all over the place. But, since they are immature and lack life experiences, they cannot find good answers on their own. At this stage, school teachers, Sunday school staff, uncles/aunts, and older cousins/siblings can have powerful (hopefully positive, but negative as well) impact on preteens.
As a footnote, preteens are extremely sensitive about friends and peer relations. More mature preteens will show interest in the opposite sex, and some may even engage in dating. Parents with precocious preteens should openly and regularly talk about relationships, provide a healthy environment (ex. group or church outings), and keep the dialogue going in order to prevent major problems.
What’s more serious and prevalent are relational problems with friends in the same gender group. Usually, the problem begins with close friends growing apart. Best friends may have a fallout, or one of the 4 or 5 close friends is no longer included in the “circle," etc. As preteens become more assertive about their thoughts, opinions, and preferences, they may become more vocal and expressive which can lead to heated arguments. And, arguments can cause relational fall outs. It's important to note that friendship problems is probably the #1 stressor for preteens, and it is far more prevalent and serious among girls than boys.
If you work with preteens as I do, boy, you’ll be shocked by their drama(s). Yet, adults must bear in mind that this is a real problem for them–just because adults do not find their issues deeply troublesome doesn’t mean it should be ignored or addressed with nonchalant comments like, “You’ll get over it” or “Just ignore it.” Parents of preteens should patiently listen to their child’s concerns, hear his/her heart’s cry for acceptance and understanding, and teach them to establish new boundaries in relationships. Usually, social issues described here begin to wane at the end of 8th or 9th grade.
Second, independence. Preteens will test the boundaries established by authority figures (parents, teachers, pastors, police, etc.). They may have followed rules and policies well in the past, but now they are more likely to express their frustrations and defiance. They also use their reasoning skills (albeit not too consistent or deep) to question parents and rules and fairness. That's okay to the extent. But, the thing is, preteens lack tact, so they may come across as disrespectful. Especially to strict parents, preteens may seem as they’re challenging the parental authority. And, if the parent and child are both strong-willed or strongly opinionated, there will be conflicts and clashes. Be careful here, parents--such exchanges may leave long-lasting scars on the relationship.
Preteens seeking independence will keep running into boundaries established by parents or teachers. Hence, wise adults will gradually loosen or expand the boundary so that the child can breathe and enjoy freedom while learning more about responsibilities. Parents, when in doubt, ask yourself, “What was I like at that age? What was I thinking about? What did I want from my parents?” That will help you to respond appropriately to your preteen. Now, here are some guiding principles for the parents of preteens. If you apply them effectively, it will have a lasting impact on the child’s growth even beyond teenage years.
If your child avoids touching or close contact, know that that doesn’t mean he/she dislikes you.
Recognize the child’s cry for independence and freedom, and gradually expand the boundaries.
Spend private “alone time” with the child if possible. They can be themselves in such moments.
Rather than asking direct questions or “interrogating,” approach your child indirectly with small talks related to the topic you wish to eventually discuss.
Do not quickly and strictly judge your child’s speech and behavior.
Pay attention to your child’s interests and what he/she is watching and listening to.
Encourage your preteen to engage in sports or physical activities.
Address larger social issues (i.e, sex, race relations, pornography, politics, etc.) at home.
Read parenting books and learn from experts to apply proven parenting strategies.
Keep in mind that this, too, shall pass in due time.
Parenting definitely is not easy. It’s downright difficult and even frustrating. It never works out exactly as you planned. But, parents of preteens must remain patient and resilient. In due time, preteens won’t act like “extraterrestrials” or strangers. Soon, you'll find them as mature, grateful, and considerate sons and daughters.