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4 things not to say if you want to raise healthy tweens

Being a tween sucks. Your body is flooded with hormones, there’s a crap load of rewiring going on in your brain, and just as you’re on a mission to become more grown up and independent, your parents appear to be trying their damnedest to drag you off the tween train.

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Naturally, it can be really hard for parents to accept that their son or daughter is growing up, and some amount of trepidation is normal. Like so many stages of parenting, coping with a tween really boils down to trial and error. You can’t go far wrong if you’re guided by your son or daughter. Be a sounding board and a shoulder to cry on whenever they may be required. Encourage them to ask questions and seek reassurance, knowing that they won’t be judged. And whatever you do, don’t let any of these statements leave your mouth.

1. “You shouldn’t be worrying about that”

Even if you believe the topic at hand is beyond the scope of your tween’s developmental stage, you should never tell them it’s wrong for them to have concerns about it. “That’s not something you should be thinking about” is another no-no according to clinical psychologist Dr. Stephanie O’Leary, yet it’s a phrase many parents may rely on if their child’s anxieties focus on subjects they — and you — have no control over, such as illness, death and traumatic global events like wars and natural disasters. Using these phrases gives your child “the sense that they are wrong, weird or off base for having those thoughts or feelings,” warned O’Leary. They also shut down lines of communication and send the message that sharing their ideas and emotions is something they shouldn’t be doing. “This is the exact opposite of what you want, especially when heading toward the teenage years, ” said O’Leary.

2. “That’s not true”

Awkward conversations with pre-adolescents are hard, whether they’re about something that’s going on in the world or with your immediate family. The temptation is there to say, “That’s not true,” in order to postpone that particular chat — whether it’s about a child abuse case reported in the media or rumors of infidelity in the family. But this tactic is doing your child a disservice and invalidating their opinion, even if you are coming from a place of care and protection. “For either gender, making statements that revise history can be very damaging,” said O’Leary. “During the preteen phase of development, kids are likely to believe your parental stance over their own instincts. Not only does this prevent you from answering their questions and making sense of their initial observations, but it teaches your child to abandon their ideas and hunches in favor of the strongest opinion in the room.”

3. “You’re too young to be thinking about sex”

Telling your child they’re too young to be thinking about sex or relationships is “the single most harmful thing a parent can say to a preteen” about those topics, warned O’Leary. This response “immediately shuts down lines of communication and sends your child the message that there’s something wrong with them for having those thoughts or questions in the first place.” O’Leary recommends answering your child’s questions as honestly as possible, but in small doses to prevent oversharing or overinforming. It’s also a good idea to invite your child to return to the conversation farther down the line — say 12 or 18 months — so they know it’s not off the table.

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Dr. Nicholas Westers, clinical psychologist at Children’s Medical Center and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center, agreed that the sex talk shouldn’t be a one-off, but rather an ongoing conversation. “Look for everyday opportunities and listen to what your tween thinks regarding sex and what questions they have,” he said. “For example, if a television show you are watching together implies that two characters are about to have sex or have just had sex, some questions you might consider nonchalantly posing to start the conversation with your tween could include, ‘Why do you think they chose to have sex?’; ‘Did they use condoms or birth control?’; ‘Did they talk about safe sex?’; ‘Is this even realistic?’ And then listen without judgment.”

4. “She shouldn’t have been drinking/wearing revealing clothes/walking home on her own”

Some of the most harmful things we can say to our tween sons and daughters are in response to incidents of sexual assault, said Westers: “Making comments about a victim’s clothes or her drunkenness places the blame on her and perpetuates a culture that does not deal with the true problem, which in these cases is the perpetrator.”

It’s important to teach our tweens about healthy physical and sexual boundaries without resorting to victim-blaming. “Tweens need to be able to stand up for themselves by clearly communicating to others when behavior toward them is unwanted or crossing boundaries without permission,” explained Westers. “Teach your tween that they always reserve the right to say ‘no’ and have their ‘no’ be accepted.” Equally, they need to know how to hear someone else tell them “no” and what it feels like to accept that.

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