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Parenting the 'Tween

The mere notion of impending adolescence may be enough to send the uninitiated parent into a state of panic. Raging hormones, daily conflict, unpredictable behavior, not to mention the outrageous clothes and experimental hair.

If you're not there yet, I bet you'd rather not think about what might lie ahead. Most parents of nine to twelve year olds don't. They blissfully avoid the reality that soon they'll be dealing with teenagers. Don't wait until you're desperate and depressed about an out-of-control fifteen-year old. Right now, you've got a wonderful window of opportunity to prepare yourself and your tween for a successful experience in the teen years.

Take a good look at the Parenting section of your local bookstore or library. The shelves overflow with the latest in baby-care manuals and volumes on raising toddlers and preschoolers. A few steps away, and you're confronted with many experts' advice on how to survive life with teenagers. Have you noticed what's missing? Where are the books that deal with our nine to twelve-year old's? The gap is there for a good reason. The middle childhood and "tween" years are typically a period of relative calm on the homefront. As parents we relax and start to enjoy our children's increasing skills and independence. We may finally feel like we have reclaimed our lives once they're all settled into school. It's a time when our kids are old enough to participate in fun family activities and they're not yet embarrassed to have us around. The calm before the storm? Let's look at what parents can do to encourage smooth sailing for their tweens' passage into adolescence.

Adolescence is an exciting time of learning, change and growth, for both parents and kids. Your parenting style needs to change as your children grow. Read the books on adolescence now. Understand more about the needs of your teen before they get there. Know what's normal, expected behavior before it happens.

There are four areas which parents can focus on to develop skills and resources for their tweens. The first is to encourage the tween's sense of uniqueness. One of the tasks of adolescence involves redefining identity. This is the big "who am I?" question. Parents can help their children by letting them direct their own lives in many small ways. Pay attention to what they love to do and give them opportunities to develop these skills. Every tween will benefit from involvement in activities that enhance their self-esteem. It's vital to have interests established before they hit their teens, before hanging at the mall becomes the only activity of choice.

Teens tend to define themselves according to what their friends, not you, think of them. That's a normal part of development, but it can hurt when peer relationships fall apart. Their outside interests will provide meaningful ways for them to still feel unique and happy in the midst of other stressors.

Secondly, teens need a solid sense of connection to others. Even though their investment in relationships is changing from family to friends, they still need their parents (even though they may not admit this). The foundations established in parent-tween relationships will make a huge difference to how teens will relate to their parents. One of the most important things parents can do now is to learn how to listen. Really listen, without judgement or criticism or advice. You want your kids to be able to come to you with their concerns or ideas. They won't, if you lecture them or disagree, or put down their opinions. If you've established a pattern of good communication with your nine-year-old, then you've laid the groundwork for the more serious discussions that will follow in years to come. It's too difficult to start listening to your sixteen-year-old. She won't come to you if you haven't already proven to her that you care enough to listen and understand.

Do things together. Find ways to have fun with your tween. Find common interests. The habits you establish now can easily carry on into later years. And, it's much easier to listen when you're in a positive mood.

In order to maintain a closeness with your maturing child, you'll need to be close to their friends too. Make your home a welcoming environment. Attempt to get to know the friends that you don't approve of, as well as the ones you like. Know that banning friendships will surely backfire on you, as your child will be forced to behave deceitfully in order to see their buddy. Listen to what your child likes about the other child, and let those conversations teach you something more about your son or daughter. Maybe your tween could be a positive influence on the other child?

That brings us to a third area to examine: your tween's communication skills with his friends. His peers' ideas will soon mean far more to him than yours. Can he be assertive about his values and ideas with his group of friends now? You want him to be more of a leader than a follower, to have the confidence to stand up for what he thinks is right. The stakes will soon get much higher. If he can't say no when he's nine, then now is the time to work on those skills. It won't get easier.

Likewise, if your tween has difficulty making friends, or tends to annoy other children, help them to change those patterns now. Behaviors that are obvious by middle childhood tend to entrench themselves, as do the reputations that accompany them. Peer relationships are hugely important to teens. Do what you can now to encourage their social competence.

Finally, we have the issue of TRUST. While teens are asserting their independence, parents must work on learning how to let go, to allow their kids to make their own decisions. Maturing children need to feel an increasing sense of power and control, yet parents are often tempted to step up the controls if they don't trust their teens' judgement. Set up opportunities now, to gradually present your tween with challenges he can easily succeed at. Make sure you provide him with the necessary skills first. Give him the message that you believe in him, and you'll get trustworthy behavior in return. When he's young, a trip to the park with his friends may be a first step. Agree upon a time to be back home (make sure he has a watch). When he's home on time, reward his behavior with outings that go further and longer.  

Be very clear in your family that the privileges increase with the trust. Let your tween know that you recognize when he makes healthy decisions. Appreciate and praise your child for following rules. When there is "something in it for them" (good behavior is not just expected), they have opportunities to feel good about themselves for the choices they make.

With each opportunity to build trust, avoid the temptation to treat the incident as a "test". This is so common, since parents are often primed to look for mistakes. Instead, be enthusiastic about looking for signs of maturity and responsibility. When they mess up, determine what you both can learn and how you can ensure success next time. Maybe it was too much responsibility too soon.

While adolescence may not always be a picnic, it doesn't have to be stormy either. Preparing now for adolescence will ensure a calmer journey for you and your tween.

Sharon Carlton is a mother of three and a Chartered Psychologist. She specializes in working with children, couples and families. She can be reached at 208-0886.

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