Have you noticed your preteen spending more time away from you when just a few years ago they were asking you to stay longer at drop off? Now they are preoccupied with the dramas going on between friends, spending more time with each other on the computer, and telephone. (Texting of course; no one seems to talk much any more!)
While you might feel that your preteen is moving away from you, it is important to know that this is normal and a vital part of their development. Toddlers do this thing called ‘refueling’. They go back and forth, physically, from the parent. You can literally watch them move away, then come back for a hug or a sit on the lap, and then to turn back once again to the outside world after they have ‘refueled’ on comfort.
Your tween needs to ‘refuel’ as well. They need you to be able to adapt to their growing world and recognize that the ways to remain close to you are changing, but the need to do so remains the same. If you find new ways to connect, you will be able to help their growing sense of identity and strengthen their feelings of competence and mastery, all aspects of good self-esteem. At the same time, learning how to communicate and adjust to their changing needs will help you set the stage for the teenage years, when the time away from home increases, and the issues get trickier.
Staying connected requires ‘tuning in’ and ‘active listening’. By being aware of what your preteen is going through, you will know how to ask the right questions, or offer them comfort so that they can build confidence in themselves. Following are some tips to improve that skill:
- Observe your child’s face or listen to their tone of voice. If it is very upsetting to you when you see your child upset or anxious, try to calm yourself down and trust that they will be okay. It is your job to let them know that you are there to listen, while remembering that it is okay for your preteen to manage their unpleasant feelings. They need to know that you have confidence that they can handle powerful emotions. This is a big part of soothing and will help them remain open to speaking up about what is upsetting them without worrying that you can’t handle it or will need to ‘fix’ it.
- If they aren’t speaking, but you can see that they seem upset, you can say, “You look a bit down; what’s up?” Take a moment to observe their reaction. If they don’t seem to want to talk, but aren’t going off to be alone, you can ask them to help you with a task. Offer an activity where they can feel close to you without feeling like they have to talk. By doing this, you “hear” that your preteen wants comfort, but needs to work out their feelings on their own first. After some time, they may be more open to talking about what is going on, when their feelings are less hot.
- Ask open-ended questions instead of questions that end in a “yes” or “no”: “What was recess like today compared to last week?” What did you guys do?”
- We often feel that we have to “teach” our kids things. Try to listen without being judgmental. Our kids need to feel that we are their allies and understand their position. Validate their responses. You can always help them problem solve later.
- Mirroring and identifying with how your preteen feels is an important part of active listening. By repeating back what your child says, you can gain a better understanding of the problem that your preteen is trying solve and help them clarify their feelings. It often helps to start your sentences with, “It sounds like you feel…”
As we get less ‘face time’ with our kids, the challenge becomes to adapt and find new moments to connect. Here are some tips on seizing these ‘golden moments’:
- If you are the one who picks your preteen up from school, observe their face. At pickup time you will get a lot of information by simply observing their expression, tone of voice, and how they interact with their teacher and friends.
- When you take your preteen and their friends to activities be a “fly on the wall.” Listen to the chatter. Pay attention to your child’s behavior and how they act around different friends. You will get a lot of information about how they experience different people. Do they change? Do they tend to be assertive at home, but deferential to certain friends? This is a stage where it is common for girls in particular to become less self-assured as they worry about being ‘left out’ or hurting other people’s feelings.
- Mealtime is key. Even though many families can’t eat together until the weekend, try to find at least two times during the week when you can get home early enough to enjoy dinner with your kids. Rules about meals should include no television and no cell phones, adults included. Use this time as an opportunity to unwind, share a laugh, and talk about the days’ events. You will be amazed at how much comes out and how this can keep you ‘in the loop’!
- You may no longer be reading a book to your child at bedtime, but you can still spend that time together, each enjoying your own books. The bonus of a foot or backrub are ways to offer comfort and connection without talking.
Finding new opportunities to connect with your preteen and giving them space to work out their problems says that you respect and trust their growing ability to figure out their own issues while allowing you to be there if they need you. The ‘back and forth’ of “refueling” may look different from when they were toddlers, but their need for connection and comfort, remains the same.