From budding romantic relationships to the reality that experimenting with substances in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades is quite common, middle school is a strange time warp where kids feel too young for this but too old for that. Exposure to grown up issues and mature topics (both online and in-person), coupled with the natural hormone surge that accompanies early adolescence, catches many parents off guard and unprepared.
Your tween suddenly wants more independence. They begin to push back against rules or things they don't enjoy, and seem perpetually annoyed with you. But don't fear! When armed with the right communication tools and an openness to the changes associated with the tween years, parents can successfully navigate these rough waters. Here are a few communication tips to keep you on course:
Yes. Fine. Nothing... A tween is a baster of the one-word answer
For as much time as your tween spends online, texting, or talking to friends, you might find that they are much more closed off you than they used to be. You know the conversation well:
How was your day? - Fine
What happened at school today? - Nothing
The tweens I work with report that their parents are always all over their case. Meanwhile, parents feel they are fighting just to keep communication open and an eye on their kid's world. One easy way to fight the one-word utterance is to just give your kid a little space while they transition from their school day to their home life. Typically an hour to themselves is enough time to decompress and your tween will be more available to talk about the day's events.
Stop freaking out!
Tweens and teens shut down when their parents react over something they have shared with them. While your first reaction may be to yell, cry, eye roll or otherwise "freak out," you really need to keep it in. If you cannot remain calm, your tween will not feel comfortable sharing with you.
The single best way to keep the lines of communication open is to put on your poker face. When your tween shares information with you, listen and then thank them for sharing that with you. Ask them if they need any help or advice on the issue. You can approach them once the dust settles if you feel the need to discuss it further. Your tween is likely testing you to see if you will listen to them without judgment. Make it safe for them to keep talking.
Set a date... and keep it!
Make it a priority to set weekly dates with your tween and keep them. Go out to lunch or dinner and let them pick the place. Put away the cell phones, iPads and other devices and just be together. In the beginning you might feel a bit uncomfortable trying to figure out what to say, but it is critical you don't fill that space with small talk. Allow for the uncomfortable silence.
When disconnected from technology, your constantly-connected tween will feel compelled to eventually fill the silence with conversation. Suddenly you will find yourself hearing about friends, teachers and the daily dramas every tween endures.
Parents sometimes make the mistake of defining quality time as a weekend getaway or elaborate trip. While those are great, what is more important than the scope of your time together is the consistency. As your child grows older, these reoccurring dates with mom or dad will provide them with sense of foundation and is something they really do crave... even if they don't act like it.
Give a kid a break
As parents focus their efforts on keeping their middle schooler on the straight-and-narrow during the critical tween years, the majority of the parent-child interaction can end up being corrective in nature. Your tween will interpret this, perhaps correctly, as negative or critical.
So balance it out. Your kid needs to hear from you, on a very regular basis, what it is about them that specifically makes you proud. They need to know what it is that they are doing right.
If nothing comes to mind immediately, give yourself a few minutes to compose a list of your child's positive attributes or behaviors. Write them down. Be specific. Now share some of these with them at least once a week.
Read more on tweens
Learn more about Dr. Weichman
Jerry Weichman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist focused solely on teen and preteen issues. Based out of his private practice at Hoag Hospital's Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach, Dr. Jerry is also an author of a teen self-help book, How to Deal, and a noted public speaker on teen-related topics including parenting, bullying and adolescent coping skills. Overcoming a lower leg amputation as a child to eventually become a Division I college football player provided Dr. Jerry with unique perspective on coping with -- and overcoming -- difficulties during the adolescence.