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Connecting with your kids: Navigating the terrific, turbulent tween years

Dr. Laura Markham is a clinical psychologist and the founding editor of the parenting web site YourParentingSolutions.com, featuring a popular advice column and parent-tested solutions you can use every day to connect with your kids and ...

connecting with teens

Tweens are emerging teens, but they're still children. They'll astonish you with their ability to conceptualize, to argue brilliantly, and then to do foolish things.

Mom with teen

The biggest danger for tweens is losing the connection to parents while struggling to find their place and connect in their peer world. The biggest danger for parents is trying to parent through power instead of through relationship, thus eroding their bond and losing their influence on their teen.

Parenting tweens is a challenge because hormones kick in as puberty approaches, and because the pressures of the peer group magnify. Many moms and dads react to their tween's moodiness, focus outside the family, increasing independence and maturing physical body by distancing somewhat from their child. But tweens need to feel they have a secure nest as they launch themselves into the exciting but scary world. Kids who feel disconnected from their parents lose their anchor and look for it in their peer group.

Fiercely maintain a strong bond with your child, even while you encourage age-appropriate freedom. How?

1Stay connected

Stay connectedby having dinner together every night, or as often as possible. Kids who have dinner with their parents do better in school, and are less prone to problems, from drugs and alcohol use to depression. Check in with your tween every single day with private time together; many parents find that 15 minutes at bedtime is most intimate.

Schedule regular alone-time with each parent, such as monthly brunch with Dad or weekly walks with Mom. Don't expect your son or daughter to invite closeness or volunteer vulnerable emotions at each interaction, or when you expect it. But if you set up enough regular opportunities to be together, it will happen.

2Reduce rebelliousness

To reduce rebelliousness, recognize and work with your tween's need for independence. Be aware that we often compensate for feeling less powerful as parents by becoming overprotective. Instead of breathing down his neck, agree on and enforce reasonable limits (no phone calls during dinner & after 9pm, no online chatting or TV until homework is finished); be sure to offer empathy when they hate your limits.

Re-think your previous ideas about discipline. Power-based punishment strategies such as punishment/consequences will stop working as soon as your child feels like challenging them. You never win a power struggle with your child. The only leverage we really have with our tweens and teens is their love for us, which becomes a more potent motivator over time. That means the best way to get your tween to behave is to maintain a strong bond with him.

3Don't underestimate hormones.

Your child's body is changing, creating mood swings, distractibility, competitiveness, and preoccupation with the opposite sex. It can be hard for kids to focus on much else, and tweens can even find themselves in a full-blown tantrum. Kindly tell your tantrumming teen that you see how upset they are and you want to give them time to pull themselves together before you discuss it; then leave the room. They don't understand their moods any more than you do right now. Later, give them a big hug, explain that you know they're still learning to manage their new hormones, but that of course they know you can't reward such behavior by giving in to whatever prompted it.

4Don't take it personally!

When your tween yells at you to drop dead, don't over-react. When they hurt your feelings and you're tempted to withdraw, take a deep breath and stand your ground calmly. That doesn't mean you don't calmly demand civility, and it doesn't mean you can't use strategic withdrawals as a chance to regroup, but that you continue to reinforce your love for your child. Your best way to get your tween to act respectfully towards you is to extend respect to her, and to calmly insist on it in return.

5Teach values

The tween years are the perfect time to teach values, which is best done not by lecturing, but by asking questions. To get your child talking, become a brilliant listener, empathizer, and question asker. Tweens are usually curious about your own early years, those can be great opportunities to reassure them that even their parents were insecure, as all tweens are. It's also an opportunity to teach; don't be afraid to share real life examples of teens who died from drinking and driving, or became addicted to drugs. It's best, though, if your own stories set a positive, rather than negative example.

Up next: 5 More ways to connect with your teens >>

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