Helping Your Tween with Separation Anxiety

Terry is a 12 year old making the transition to middle school whose worry about going into 7th grade developed into a fear of crying in public and panic attacks, which led to separation anxiety. His parents are worried sick because Terry is having a hard time now even going out to play with friends. His older brother thinks Terry is weird.

Jennifer, an 8 year old, developed separation anxiety in 3rd grade, making school mornings a nightmare for the whole family. Jennifer’s parents face screaming, crying, begging and outright, “I won’t go!” whenever they try to get her out the door to catch the school bus. Jennifer’s anxiety has generalized to play dates and parties, she’s even run out of the classroom. Her sister, in the same school is embarrassed by Jen’s public behavior.

What is Separation Anxiety and Why is My Tween So Afraid?

Parents whose tween develops separation anxiety, an emotional condition where a child experiences distress and anxiety when separated from the primary caregiver, often become worried, frustrated, and even angry in trying to deal with their anxious child’s behavior. It’s hard for a parent to understand and deal with their child who freaks out over going to play at a friend’s house. A normal occurrence during childhood development, separation anxiety generally occurs between the ages of eight months and two years old, though separation fears also develop during other life transitions such as, beginning kindergarten and entering into pre-adolescence.

Parents with anxious tweens ask, “What in the world is happening to my once happy child?” “Why can’t he go to birthday parties anymore?” “Why can’t she let go?” This is a time of explosive growth and change from childhood into pre-teen. Many children have a hard time stepping out into the world and try to cling to the safety of home. Following are some of the reasons:

  • Tween bodies are developing and awareness of body image becomes an issue; the flood of sex hormones affects emotional centers of the brain making it tough for tweens to control feelings and behaviors; areas of the brain that house impulse control and rational thought are still developing.
  • School work becomes harder, homework and testing increases; “fitting in” is suddenly very important; more individual responsibility is expected from parents and school.
  • If anxiety develops it packs a wallop with symptoms that include: racing heart, hot flush and sweating, stomachaches, vomiting and diarrhea, headaches, feelings of dread and of being trapped, the inability to concentrate, think or reason, and panic attacks.

A child with separation anxiety is a child who feels distressed, frightened and out of control. Anxiety is a complex condition, and there are many aspects to helping your child. How you communicate your concerns, respond to your child’s behaviors, and talk about what’s happening will play a large part in helping your child.

Can We Talk?

Communicating effectively can be tricky, especially when you’re trying to talk to your anxious pre-teen who says, “I don’t want to talk about it.” And who can blame your child who wants the disturbing feelings to just go away? It’s not just the words you use, but the volume and tone of your voice matters too. And your body language speaks volumes: Are your head neck and shoulders tight? Is your facial expression one of frustration, worry or anger? Is your posture sagging with fatigue about the situation or rigid with tension? Do you wring your hands without realizing it? Having trouble making eye contact because you feel like crying?

It’s hard to communicate to your anxious tween that you are in control of the situation though he feels out of control much of the time, and when you feel anxious about his separation fears yourself. But that’s what you want to do, and here are tips to help you communicate effectively:

  • Stay Calm-no matter what your child says, no matter how he is behaving you must remain calm, regardless of how you feel. Your composure communicates to your child that you are his “rock” and in control. Learning easy belly breathing will help you to do this.
  • Check Your Body Language-keep shoulders back but relaxed, relax facial muscles and hands, make and maintain eye contact to show you’re engaged and interested.
  • Ask Open-Ended Questions-you want to connect with your child and find out how she feels. To keep the conversation going, keep away from closed questions that only require a yes, no, or a head nod. Say things like: “How does it make you feel?” “Tell me more about that.” “What do you think will happen?”
  • Tone of Voice Matters- speak softly and kindly to show your child how much you care. This will ease any guilt (a common occurrence) your tween may have about his anxiety disrupting the whole family, and will help your child open up to you.
  • Listen-show your child you are interested in his feelings, his problems by: making eye contact, give your child your undivided attention, don’t’ interrupt–wait your turn to speak, nod when appropriate, lean forward slightly and keep hands still, paraphrase what he’s said to make sure you’ve heard correctly and to show that you’ve been listening.
  • Honor Your Child’s Feelings-don’t downplay your child’s fears. For example, never say things like, “It’s silly to be afraid of going to your friend’s house.” Though irrational, your child’s fears are real to him. Anxiety makes kids feel different, isolated from others-judging his feelings adds to that. Telling him it’s okay to feel afraid supports him. Say, “I’m here for you and you’re not alone in this.”
  • Make it Brief-anxiety is hard to talk about, so limit the conversation. Watch your child’s reaction, if he gets upset, end it, comfort him, and say, “Honey, it’s okay, we can talk about this later.”
  • Believe-tell your child you believe in his ability to overcome anxiety and that together you’re going to make things better for him. Your belief that he can succeed is projected onto your child (in the same way your worry is) and will empower him.

Healthy After School Snacks

By the time our children are in their pre-teen years, they’ve already developed some fairly predictable eating habits. If we’re lucky, they have ventured beyond the simple foods that appeal to most young children and are balancing junk foods with healthy foods. We can only hope.

In the middle school years, it’s fair to say that many children participate in some cafeteria program at school. Unless we do some sleuthing, it’s hard to know whether they’re making healthy choices, given the opportunity. One mother asked a teacher’s aide to take a special look at what her daughter was eating at lunch and, to her dismay, found that every choice her daughter selected was a carbohydrate (mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, french fries, etc.). Even if your pre-teen brings a lunch to school, it’s still unclear what’s actually being eaten, since they often trade food like currency!

To offset choices our tweens make when we’re not around, taking the opportunity to supplement with a good dose of nutritious foods at snack time can be a great way to ensure that healthy foods enter their little bodies! Since most processed snacks are high in carbohydrates, sugar, sodium and fats, it might be helpful to have a quick reference list of easy, healthful snacks to have on hand (in the refrigerator or pantry). While it can be fun to make them visually interesting, by the tween years, that may not be as important on a day-to-day basis as it was when they were younger children. The key is to make snacks simple and accessible for after school nibbling.

Snack Ideas

  • Spreads/dips: hummus, salsa, bean dip (equal mix of black beans, salsa, corn), guacamole, lowfat salad dressing, peanut butter, 100% fruit jam, yogurt
  • Veggies: carrots, celery, cucumbers, pepper slices, cherry tomatoes, green beans; if you have access, try peeled, cut-up jicama (in sticks) or peeled, cut-up daikon (slices) — both have a soft radish-like texture and nice flavor
  • Healthy trail mix: low-fat granola, peanuts, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, dried fruits (raisins, apricots, apples, pineapple or cranberries), whole wheat pretzels, wheat chex (or other cereal), chocolate chips/M&Ms, etc.
  • Hard cooked egg (directions: cover eggs in pan with enough water to come at least one inch above eggs, cover pan and bring to just boiling, turn off heat, let eggs stand in the hot water for 15-20 minutes, take them out of that water and run cold water over them to cool completely)
  • Single serving fruit (orange, apple, mandarin orange, banana, peach, pear, plum, etc.); if you have access, try pomegranate, blood orange, mini bananas, doughnut peaches, etc.
  • Cut-up or mixed fruit (strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, cherries, grapes, honeydew melon, kiwi, mango, watermelon, etc.)
  • Simple quesadilla (flat tortilla, with shredded cheddar and perhaps veggies, melted in microwave)
  • Apple Sauce
  • Low-fat or fat-free yogurt or pudding with fruit and whipped cream
  • Low-fat string or braided cheese
  • Raw almonds
  • Energy bars (check the labels for low sugar and high fibre)
  • Microwave low-fat popcorn
  • Baked tortilla (or other) chips, pretzels, breadsticks, flatbreads (with a dip)
  • Whole wheat english muffins, whole wheat bread, rice cakes (with a spread)
  • Smoothie (milk, banana, berry fruit, vanilla yogurt)

Other Helpful Tips

  • Make a snack chart and post it in the kitchen as a reminder of what choices there are and also as a shopping reminder. Revise as tastes and interests evolve.
  • Plan snacks as a part of the day’s menu, perhaps at breakfast time.
  • Prepare some snacks ahead (e.g., fruit salad, smoothie ingredients, etc.).
  • Identify a designated spot in the refrigerator and/or pantry for snacks and share with your tween.
  • For an occasional treat, pair a not-so-nutritious choice with a nutritious choice (e.g., chocolate pudding with strawberries and whipped cream).
  • Involve your kids in selecting snack foods if shopping together; you might have them select ingredients for a trail mix that you can make together.
  • Post the Food Guide Pyramid in your kitchen and refer to it as your tween is making a food choice.

Tween Talk: Tween Stressors

“How can you build a better relationship with your tween?” By stepping into their flip-flops or Converse sneakers. Here are some things tweens want their parents to know – with advice and solutions from parenting experts.

We feel time-crunched.

Tweens today not only carry heavy backpacks to school, they carry heavy homework loads, too. Indeed, middle schoolers nowadays have more homework each night than their parents had in high school.

Many tweens are already thinking about college. In today’s world, if you want to go to college, you have to take advanced courses, study hard enough to get mostly A’s, take the SATs (and maybe an SAT study course), and perhaps even enroll in summer school to get the needed requirements. Plus, in your “spare” time, you need to perform volunteer work and other extracurricular activities that most colleges look for in hopeful applicants.

Not quite the carefree school days you remember when a B-average pretty much assured you of getting into the college you wanted. Add in sports (or music or art), and a 28-hour day would still be too short to get everything done.

To be sure, society is continually pressuring tweens of the 21st Century to pile more and more onto their plates, and the result is busier schedules, less free time and a great deal more stress. “Tween children are becoming focused on determining where they fit in the world social order,” says Jennifer Jones, PhD and author of Three P’s of Parenting (Power, Protection, Prediction). “They likely have keen interests in certain activities such as writing, performance, sports, or maybe building things. By overscheduling themselves in activities at school, tweens are not necessarily developing those skills in a way that is fulfilling – instead, they might only be occupying time.”

And what does this mean for you as a parent?  Too often, it adds up to a tense relationship with your tween, moody conflicts and even fights.

“I frequently feel fire red because I am frustrated with my dad,” confesses Lindsey, eleven. “I am trying to do important homework and he is telling me to do the dishes. He just doesn’t get it. Things were hard enough in elementary school – now I am in middle school and life is only getting more stressful. The worst part is knowing it will be like this for a while.”

Yes, it is important for tweens to participate in family activities and help with household chores – these things help create a family bond and sense of community, in addition to teaching tweens responsibility and time management. But it is equally important for parents to help their tween find time to decompress.

“Parents must be proactive in making sure that the child’s and family’s schedules include downtime,” advises Dr. Jimmy Myers, family counselor. “Unless the parents are proactive in making sure these times are there, tweens will learn that you must fill every moment of every day. We were never intended to be engaged in activity 24/7. There is a need for us to have downtime and parents must make it happen – it’s not going to happen on its own.”

Our activities and commitments are important to us. 

How do you keep the peace with your stressed-out tween? An important step is simply recognizing that your busy son or daughter sometimes feels like he or she is juggling a dozen fragile plates.

“I used to do ballet, was on two basketball teams, practiced bassoon forty-five minutes a day, and homework,” says Mallory, a middle-schooler from California. “I used to get really stressed and my parents would just yell at me, saying that my grades were dropping and I should work harder. I was really really overwhelmed.”

Acknowledging that your tween has commitments and obligations that are important to him or her – even if these responsibilities are different than yours – can make a world of difference.

Nancy Silberman Zwiebach, psychotherapist and director of the “School Psychs on Call” program, emphasizes that it is crucial for parents to listen to their tweens. “Pay attention to not only words, but body language and the accompanying emotional expression,” Zwiebach says. “Take what they say seriously. If there is a problem, first understand – really understand – from their point of view, then ask ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ or ‘Is there something you’d like from me?’ as opposed to offering solutions.” While it may seem counterintuitive, Zwiebach says this strategy works because parents communicate confidence in their tweens’ abilities to work out problems on their own, while also remaining present to listen and help. “People don’t like to be told what to do,” Zwiebach explains, “but it is very reassuring to know that someone is there to help work out possibilities.”

Tamar Chansky, anxiety expert and parenting author, agrees. “The more we jump in with solutions, the more [tweens] – sometimes rightfully so – feel like we aren’t listening to them,” she explains. “Instead, we will get much further with our tweens if we empathize with what they are feeling.” This doesn’t mean you should agree with everything your tween says; rather, it means acknowledging and respecting how your tween is feeling in this moment. “If we can join with [tweens] about how bad they are feeling,” Chansky points out, “this then may give them just the room they need to put things in perspective themselves.”

Mallory was able to talk to her parents about how swamped she was feeling, and she has cut back on her activities. “Things are better this [school] year,” she told me.

We’re not “perfect.”

In addition to stress, many tweens struggle with the pressure to be “perfect.” Of course it is wonderful to be involved in your child’s life and help him with homework. But sometimes problems arise when parents become too insistent on every assignment being mistake-free.

“My parents are constantly on me about my schoolwork,” complains Talia, twelve. “Sometimes I’m so caught up in not making a mistake that I’m not focused on actually learning. Plus, it causes more stress and I don’t enjoy what I’m doing.”

So, as a parent, how do you toe the line between too-involved and not-involved enough? “While it is awesome that [my parents] have a genuine interest in my academics, I would like some space to make mistakes and really learn from them,” Talia says. Let your tween know you are there to help her – but don’t watch over her shoulder as she does her homework. Importantly, let her know that mistakes are a necessary part of learning and improving.

“Tweens need to fail in a safe and loving environment,” affirms Josh Shipp, motivational speaker and lecturer on teen and tween issues. “Everyone fails, everyone makes mistakes! If you deny them the opportunity to make their own decisions (even bad ones), you deny them a critical step on the path to adulthood.”

So what should you, as a loving and concerned parent, do when mistakes inevitably knock your tween down?

“Be there for them, accept them, affirm them, and help them break down what happened,” advises Shipp. “Ask them, How was that? How’d it go? Were you scared? What would you do differently next time?”

Tamar Chonsky explains that for tweens, when one thing goes wrong, it feels like everything is wrong – and irrevocably so – thanks to  the combination of high emotions and negative thinking super-sizing the moment. “Help tweens get specific and narrow the mistake or problem down to its original source,” she suggests. “If tweens say, ‘I’m terrible at math!’ empathize first, then help them identify where that idea got started – maybe they didn’t understand a word problem on the test.” In this way, you are helping your tween shrink the problem down to a size that is both realistic and manageable.

It all goes back to respecting your tweens as individuals with their own busy lives and chockfull schedules. Empathy and understanding help a great deal in minimizing tension and eliminating needless battles.

“Listen to your kids,” Mallory emphasized when I asked what her biggest advice is to parents of tweens. “Especially when we say we’re stressed. We’re not kidding! A little bit of listening goes a long way.”

Why is My Tween Afraid to Leave Home? Understanding Chronic Anxiety

It’s puzzling and scary for Ryan’s parents. It seemed as if overnight their once happy, social 10 year old did not want to leave home to go to school, or go out and play with friends the way he used to. Ryan can’t explain it himself. “I just get nervous about it and then my stomach hurts, I get cramps, and feel like I have to go to the bathroom.” Now Ryan worries about getting a stomachache whenever he’s away from home.

Tiara who is 11 was always a shy, cautious child who had separation anxiety every year when school first started, but managed to eventually adjust. But this year, she’s having a tough time with math and the homework load often overwhelms her. Tiara worries almost all the time about school and that she may be called on to go to the board to do a math problem, or that she’ll never be able to understand the homework. Though she goes to school without complaint, Tiara suffers in silence.

Symptoms of Anxiety Pack a Wallop

Both Ryan and Tiara are developing chronic anxiety. And once a child experiences the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety, and it happens over and over again, it’s understandable why they don’t want to go out the door. First the physical symptoms of anxiety are powerful and disturbing:

  • It starts with a heart-pounding adrenaline rush which includes other stress hormones.
  • Breathing becomes rapid and shallow making it tough to catch your breath, often leading to feelings of being smothered or trapped.
  • Dizziness, numbness and feeling faint are common symptoms.
  • Muscles tense causing headaches, or chest pain and body aches.
  • Voiding of bowel and bladder occurs, causing cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Sweating occurs as the body cools itself, a hot flush may occur too.

The mental symptoms pack a punch, too, playing havoc with cognitive functioning making it difficult to think clearly, reason and learn. Anxious children may complain about feeling frightened, helpless, and out of control. Some kids feel like they are having an out of body experience, others get angry or feel ashamed and isolated.

Symptoms vary from mild to severe, but even milder symptoms can be distressful. Avoiding places and situations often seems like the only option for an anxious child. Look at it from Ryan’s point of view. He says to his parents, “If I go to school or a friend’s house I may get a stomachache, but when I stay home I feel better.” Tiara feels better on Friday afternoons. . “On Friday after school I can take a break and not have to think about math or school at all.” But when Sunday afternoon comes around, Tiara begins to worry about Monday morning and her anxiety starts to build.

Worry is a Culprit

A main ingredient of anxiety is worry: thinking or obsessing about past experiences and worrying that they will happen again. When Tiara thinks about being in school she replays embarrassing moments in class when she couldn’t work out a math problem on the board, or failed a math test. Then she projects those memories into the future: “What if my teacher calls me to the board?” “What if we have a math quiz again?” Ryan worries too. “What if my stomach hurts and I feel like diarrhea in class and I can’t leave the room?” “What if it happens at a friend’s house?” And it’s worry that jump starts the fight or flight–one ounce of worry and the symptoms are raging.

What’s Happening to Me? It’s the Fight or Flight

A first crucial step in helping your tween is to explain why the symptoms are occurring. Symptoms occur because of something called the “fight or flight response” that is an alarm system located in the nervous system. It warns the body of physical danger and activates a reaction to avoid injury or death. In anxious children, this alarm goes off when a perception of danger is present, for example a math test. It’s only a false alarm though because the brain cannot distinguish between a real physical threat to life and limb, or to the fear of something benign.

The fight or flight has allowed humans to survive to this day. But its purpose is to act as a short-term response to a physical threat, not as a continuous state of mind and body leading to chronic anxiety. And when your child’s fight or flight revs up while she’s taking a test, or sitting in the classroom, there’s no outlet for this response, no relief, no running away, no battle to win. Your child has to sit there trying to deal with an internal hurricane.

The False Alarm Explanation

An easy way to explain the fight or flight is by using a home smoke detector. Show your child that you can set off the smoke detector either by frying something in the kitchen or by pushing the button on the detector. Say, “See, the detector thinks there is a fire and the alarm is going off, even though there is no fire. But the detector doesn’t know we’re fooling it. It gets the message that a fire is occurring and does its job. That’s what happens to your brain, it thinks the math test (or other fear) you’re worrying about is a real physical danger and the alarm goes off to protect you.”

When Ryan understood what the fight or flight was, and he began to make his way out to play with friends again, when he felt anxiety begin he learned to say to himself, “I don’t like the way I feel but it’s nothing more than an adrenaline rush.” This helped him to take control of his fears of the symptoms. Hearing the false alarm explanation helped Tiara too. When she felt anxious she pictured little firemen (or firegirls) running around inside of her, seeing no fire, and turning off the alarm.

In the end, for many children it’s the fear of the symptoms that turns anxiety into a chronic condition and makes kids want to feel better and safe by staying home. Also tell your child, “I know that what you feel is disturbing and can be frightening, but these are just feelings and they can’t hurt you.”

Favorite Tween Books by Favorite Authors

As the third of four children, I had the benefit – and my older siblings the misfortune – of forcing them to teach me to read at a very young age. This set me off on a childhood path filled with books, all kinds of books: classics, mysteries, fantasies, and books I definitely shouldn’t have been reading. That said, here’s a top five list of books that have stayed with me throughout my adult life, and which absolutely infuse my own fiction today.

1. Up A Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt
I read this when I was really young, probably too young to understand most of what was going on for Julie, the young heroine. That said, this book provided two firsts for me. One – it gave me my earliest image of what a writer’s life could be. (Sour and unfulfilled, for poor Uncle Haskell.) Two – this is the first time I read a passage and transcribed it mentally – in typewriter print! – as I unknowingly started my own journey to putting my own thoughts and observations to words on a page.

2. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare
Gosh, I loved this book. A young girl, new to the community, smack in the middle of the Salem witch trials. Thrilling, fresh, scary and smart – all from a young girl’s point of view. I still love rereading this one.

3. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie.
Agatha Christie is one of my personal literary giants; this particular book was my favorite, by far. I remember gasping when I discovered who the killer was – and even now, when I reread it, I still gasp even though I know who it is. It’s so good.

4. Then Again Maybe I Won’t, by Judy Blume
Like many of my peers, I need to thank Judy Blume for teaching me everything about the real world. I wasn’t learning much in South Jersey, for sure, especially compared to what the narrator of this book, a boy in North Jersey, was learning and doing. This was probably the first time I realized that my life (on a farm) and my Italian-Catholic “rules” (as set down by very over-protective parents) was not how everyone else lived and experienced the world.

5. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, by Edith Hamilton.
Today, I am a passionate fan of the Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, but then again, I am a passionate fan of anything to do with mythology. The brilliant Edith Hamilton started me on this journey way back when, and I am still in awe of how these stories, passed down through all these years, literally send my heart and mind soaring through the Olympian skies, imagining Zeus and Icarus and Athena flying by my side. Phenomenal stuff, quite literally.

10 Tips for Teaching Your Daughter Relationship Smarts

With younger and younger girls feeling the pressure to “get” a boyfriend, it’s essential that they receive clear and consistent messages from their parents about the Boyfriend/Girlfriend Zone. While the very thought of your middle school daughter with a boy may be too much to deal with, you can’t use that as an excuse not to provide the guidance she wants and needs.

  • Recognize and appreciate the pressure she’s under — Talk about all the messages your daughter receives from peers, from the media, from family, and from within to “get” a boyfriend. These conversations help girls understand what they’re up against.
  • True self-esteem comes from inside — Encourage your daughter to continue exploring her interests. Support her interests. The more direct experience she has in using her special gifts and talents, the clearer she’ll be about who she is and where she’s going, and the less likely she’ll let anyone define her.
  • Be a safe person to talk to — When teens know that you can hear and listen as they express feelings of confusion, insecurity, anger, rejection, anxiety without trying to convince them that they shouldn’t feel what they’re feeling, then you are helping them process emotions in healthy ways.
  • Where is Dad? — Girls who get consistent approval for their intelligence, humor, creativity, empathy, athleticism, etc., from their dads (and/or from other trusted adult males) are far less likely to be “desperately” seeking attention from boys.
  • The word “friend” is in “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” for a reason! — Too often girls lower their standards when it comes to boyfriends and accept unacceptable behavior just because they want a bf so badly! Help your daughter set clear criteria for what is and what isn’t good boyfriend material.
  • It’s a 2-way street — A healthy relationship (the only kind worth having) is based on mutual respect, trust, honesty, shared values and open communication. She needs to hear this from you consistently. It helps tremendously if you’re modeling this is your own relationships! She also needs to be able to give as good as she gets and vice versa when it comes to trust, respect, etc.
  • Model healthy stress-management skills — Show your daughter that even when you’re upset, you know how to take care of yourself and the people around you by calming down and reflecting instead of freaking out and reacting. Do this and you show her how to deal with feelings and problems in healthy, thoughtful ways.
  • Find teachable moments — Whether it’s discussing the Q & A in “Dear Abby,” or talking about relationships in a romantic comedy, you can use third person sources to increase your daughter’s relationship smarts.
  • Be clear about your values and your expectations — Let her know where you stand when it comes to teen dating and teen sex and why. If you’re not sure where or why, then figure it out ASAP and communicate with your daughter.
  • Be consistent in your empathy and compassion — Be honest, you wouldn’t want to be a teen again! This is a rough and emotional phase. Compassion, understanding, patience and a lot of deep breathing strengthen the bond between you and your daughter. That’s good, because she needs you now more than ever!

Classic Halloween Movies To Watch With Your Tween

Back in the glorious days when there were only seven channels from which to choose, when UHF was alternative viewing, and when those who were fortunate enough to have a TV in their room had a small black & white set, we would see an up-tick in the number of scary movies available for viewing this time of year. Wow, have times changed!

Historically speaking, every era of the golden age of Hollywood put forth a menu of horror choices. Each era and movie studio had it’s own recognizable style. The 1950’s had a fantastic share of horror pictures with not-so-hidden messages: The Day The Earth Stood Still conveyed an Anti-War sentiment; Invasion of the Body Snatchers correlated with McCarthy-ism; The Blob, appeared to be a veil for Communism (after all, The Blob is red and grows larger and more threatening each time it consumes something). In the 1930’s, during the first wave of sound pictures, we found horror movies that launched countless Halloween costumes, with most of them coming from one studio – Universal Pictures. Universal perfected the designing and telling of the gothic tale. I figured this out as a tween, watching these pictures on “Creature Feature” via Channel 5 on my 7-inch black and white Sony. I was just a little scared! In general, the message of films of this era: Do not mess with nature. Do not attempt to play God. Those who break these rules will be punished.

Dracula (1931), 75 minutes, Black & White.

After the success of the 1922 German picture Nosferatu (based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Universal Pictures decided to make its own version, referred to as “The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!” The picture was directed by Kentucky born Tod Browning. Casting Romanian stage actor Bela Lugosi as the undead, ancient Count Dracula typecast the talented Co-Founder of the Screen Actors Guild for the rest of his life. Sadly, Mr. Lugosi found that after establishing one of the screen’s greatest personifications of pure evil, his reputation rapidly declined and he ended up playing parodies of his greatest role. He was buried in his Dracula cape.

Frankenstein (1931), 71 minutes, Black & White.

A tagline for this picture was “A monster science created – but could not destroy!” We all know the story. Dr. Frankenstein’s quest to make life from something not living creates a monster and several unforeseen complications along the way!

Invisible Man (1933), 71 minutes, Black & White.

In his second appearance in the movies (the first having been a silent picture), Claude Rains took on a role rejected by Boris Karloff (because he supposedly didn’t like that he wouldn’t be seen until the end of the movie). Director James Whale wanted an “intellectual sounding” voice and discovered Mr. Rains by accidentally hearing a screen test coming from another room. Mr. Rains went on to become one of the biggest stars at Warner Brothers (and, incidentally, being one of two favorite leading men of Bette Davis). The tagline for this picture was “Catch me if you can,” which summarizes the plot of a scientist who invents a formula that makes one invisible (and goes “mad” in the process).

Bride of Frankenstein (1935), 75 minutes, Black & White.

Dr. Pretorius, a former professor of Dr. Frankenstein (and an even madder scientist) states, “To a new world of Gods and monsters.” He forces his former student to again create life from death in the form of a woman, a companion for his monster.

In summary, these pictures were on television and I saw them when I was a tween. They are scary, but in a 1930-something sort of way…but isn’t that part of the fun? It’s not surprising, and we basically know what to expect since these pictures are billed as “horror films.” I am certainly not recommending these pictures for pre-tweens (although I know a few 6 year olds that would not be phased by any of them!). I am suggesting that you know your child better than anyone and have the best sense of his/her “horror” tolerance. If you think your pre-teen can handle it, wouldn’t it be nice to settle down in the dark and watch these pictures together, allowing the fun of getting a little spooked and having a little giggle at the way a horror picture was depicted some 70+ years ago?

Family Game Time

What could be better than being together with family or friends and having a fun and simple night of game playing?   It may be trite in this day and age to speak of getting back to simpler times as being a worthy pursuit, but it might just be true.

Benefits to Tweens of a Family Game Time

Beyond the expected fun, family game time offers significant developmental benefits (both social and academic) for tweens. Some are obvious, some are not. Playing games together can:

  • Give preteens a chance to socialize outside their peer group to compromise, negotiate rules, take turns, “police” play and challenge each other (without a keyboard or anonymity!).
  • Promote cooperation and teamwork, especially if a younger child is involved and can be teamed up with a tween to work together.
  • Lead into healthy development oriented discussions, like: the importance of honesty; how to win or lose graciously; and, the value of patience as other players take their turns.
  • Offer the opportunity to strategize and problem solve through higher level reasoning skills. Game participants need to think, listen and speak to get an understanding of the game’s “landscape” and to figure out ways to win (yes, win!).
  • Show your tween that they don’t have to be “plugged in” for entertainment to be interesting and fun!
  • Give your tween the opportunity to beat you…an empowering experience!
  • Illustrate the overall value of a family bonding experience.

Making a Plan

  1. Start with selecting a time to begin, gain agreement and put it on everyone’s calendar. Even post the date in a high-traffic area.
  2. Choose a game to play; think of rotating the choice if you plan to make it a regular event.
  3. Plan what to have for dinner or snacks based on the theme of the game or favorite take-out restaurant.
  4. Turn off electronics (i.e., cell phones, TVs, computers, etc.). The goal is undivided attention.
  5. Turn on the answering machine and let the games begin!

Fun Board Games to Consider

  • Monopoly
  • Scrabble
  • Apples to Apples
  • Twister
  • Clue
  • Yahtzee
  • Dominos
  • Life
  • Chinese Checkers
  • Backgammon

Check out this link to Board Game Ratings to see what others had to say about various board games.

Cell Phones and Tweens

It seems that everywhere we turn, as technology proliferates, there are newer, better, faster, cheaper gadgets that we, as a society, “need.” Just think, a plasma television (which of course is no longer state of the art technology) that cost nearly $10,000 eight years ago, would probably sell for less than $800 today. Cell phones are a great example of a device that even a hand full of years ago, we wouldn’t have thought of providing to our tweens. Now, due to societal acceptance and phone service providers, the age that a child gets his/her first cell phone is dropping steadily. As of January, 2009, in a poll, parents stated that on average a child should not be given a cell phone until they are 11 years old. Odds are, that age would be lower if parents were asked today, less than a year later!

The use of cell phones by pre-teens clearly offers some very positive benefits in certain circumstances. The most obvious is the ability for the parent and tween to be able to communicate for logistical purposes; as plans change throughout the day, an agreed upon time may change and a quick call/text to each other can make a change easy to facilitate. Also, there’s a certain amount of relief for both the parent and child to know that they can reach out in an emergency; key phone numbers can be preprogrammed and accessible. Also, a quick call home or to your tween just to touch base can offer an added level of comfort for everyone involved.

So, rather than fight the tide of change, for parents who have crossed the bridge to provide their tween with a phone, there are several tips (with input that can help parents as they create boundaries around cell phone usage:

  • Etiquette — don’t overlook phone basics, like manners, personal interaction and good practices regarding answering the phone and sharing information.
  • Usage – set boundaries regarding on/off hours and weekday/weekend time limits. Help your tween manage the amount of time spent (including the way to monitor minutes used each month, so overcharges can be avoided).
  • “No Phone” Boundaries — ensure that your tween leaves the phone in a public place at night (perhaps in/near a charging area) to avoid middle of the night activity, which can clearly impact much-needed rest. Determine your level of comfort with your tween’s phone use while in family settings, etc.
  • Internet Connections — as phones become more and more sophisticated, they’re becoming like mini-computers. Many are now enabled with the ability to connect to the internet. Having internet access on a broad and virtually unmanaged tool like a cell phone carries a whole host of other issues. Explore internet safety rules, in general, that you might apply to a phone that has internet capability.
  • Sexting — as out of the range of possibility as it may seem, like sexual education, talks should start younger than you’d think. Since virtually every phone has a camera, the fun of sending images to friends can be very enticing. It’s important to reinforce that once an image is in “cyberspace,” it can take on a life of it’s own. And, the more intriguing (or sexually suggestive) it is, the more it will spread.
  • Bullying — like email, texting can have the feel of a degree of anonymity. Yes, the recipient knows who it’s coming from, but written words may not feel as harsh to the sender as spoken words. On top of that, sexually suggestive texts can be too exciting for a pre-teen not to share with others.
  • Health — If you have any concern about health (radiation) issues regarding cell phone use, encourage text messaging as a way of communication, rather than phone calling.

Why Does New Moon and the Twilight Series Fascinate Tweens?

Tweens and teens will be flocking to the theater this weekend to see the movie New Moon. The Twilight Saga books, the movie is based on is the second, have become a national phenomenon making fans of preteen girls to women in their fifties. So, what is all the fuss about? Kristine Gasbarre, author and celebrity editor of says, “The relationship between Bella and Edward is the epitome of young romance. They ignore all obstacles in their way because their longing for each other is so overpowering.” Add Edward’s masculine strength and his desire to protect Bella and you have the formula for a thrilling romance.

Many girls fantasize about being completely desired and adored in a romantic relationship. One of the most compelling aspects of Twilight is that Edward cannot fight his urge to be with Bella even though he knows that as a vampire everything about their relationship is unnatural and fraught with risk. According to Sari Cooper, a New York City Sex Therapist, this type of fantasy is normal. “The experience of being desired is a huge turn on for women and Edward can’t get enough of Bella.”

However, understanding the difference between fantasy and reality is key. Sari points out that the wonderful thing about daydreaming is that the person fantasizing is in control, which makes it safe. “No one is going to get hurt.” In Twilight, Edward saves Bella from a gang of men about to attack her. He is so furious that it takes all of his will power not to avenge Bella by killing them. In a book this may seem romantic, but in real life it would be terrifying. Sari recommends that parents not only read the books or see the movies, but also ask their daughters how they would feel if the situations described happened in reality. “It’s exciting to watch someone get rescued in a movie, but we would not necessarily want to experience it in real life.”

Critics of the Twilight series have raised concerns about girls confusing the fantasies of romantic love in the books with the realities of abusive relationships. Gina R. Dalfonzo writes in her essay for National Review:

He [Edward] spies on Bella while she sleeps, eavesdrops on her conversations, reads her classmates’ minds, forges her signature, tries to dictate her choice of friends, encourages her to deceive her father, disables her truck, has his family hold her at his house against her will, and enters her house when no one’s there — all because, he explains, he wants her to be safe. He warns Bella how dangerous he is, but gets “furious” at anyone else who tries to warn or protect her. He even drags her to the prom against her expressed wishes. He is, in short, one of modern fiction’s best candidates for a restraining order.

By romanticizing Edward and Bella’s relationship, girls run the risk of not recognizing signs of abuse in boyfriends once they start dating. The Twilight Saga offers an important opportunity for parents to have an ongoing dialogue about the series with their daughters. In an age-appropriate way, parents can discuss the positive and negative attributes in different types of romantic relationships.

So, what can parents do to help their daughter’s develop healthy relationships? Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl, says that girls first need to focus on establishing positive relationships with each other. “Girls first learn how to be emotionally intimate with their friends. Through their experience of love between best friends, girls can experience profoundly attached intimacy. Other than the lack of physical attraction, the mechanics are no different.”

Friendships give girls the opportunity to develop positive communication skills, have respectful disagreements, be interdependent, and share mutual empathy. Girls need to gain an understanding of themselves, their feelings and their boundaries in order to achieve these skills. To have a positive sense of self, girls need both self-respect and the respect of their friends. They need believe that their needs and interests are integral to the friendship. This involves the ability to be simultaneously proactive about their wishes while also respecting their friends’ boundaries.

Inevitably, girls will “break up” with some of their friends. Rachel Simmons points out, “Heartbreak happens in all friendships. When a girl looses her best friend she is entitled to be devastated, write bad poetry, listen to sad music, and eat ice cream. After awhile it is important for her to get back into the world and “friend-date” again.” By realizing that they have the resilience to get through the ups and downs of these early relationships, girls gain the confidence they need to expect appropriate boundaries in their romantic lives. By asserting their needs in both friendship and love, girls are more likely to find someone who fulfills their inner desire to be adored for their true selves.