The tween years are tough. From body changes to bullying to friendship drama and more — it can be a lot for kids to navigate. At the same time, they’re seeking more independence from mom and dad, which is a natural stage of growth for kids at this age.
But even as your tween is giving you cues to give them space, tread carefully. They still need you for support and advice during this period of change, and their mental health — now and in the future — may be stronger if you focus on open communication.
A study by Arizona State University suggests that when parents follow their inclinations to give their kids extra space and independence during middle school, kids experience higher levels of anxiety and depression in grade 12 — if the child believes their parents have become disengaged.
When it comes to staying connecting to your tweens, or trying to get them to open up a bit more, Savannah Dynkowski, LLMSW, clinical mental health therapist at Mind Wellness Counseling in Royal Oak, says there are plenty of ways to stay engaged. Read on for her advice.
Criticizing a fellow mom’s parenting style or talking about your tween’s friend’s outfit choices — right in front of your tween — might cause your child to pause before talking to you about what’s going on in his or her life.
“When tweens hear their parents talking negatively about other people or other tweens, it can really turn off tweens to talking to their parents about their own difficulties because if they already recognize judgment from their parents in others, it’s really easy to internalize that and assume that your parent will do the same thing to you,” Dynkowski says.
Aside from negative talk, not having an open relationship with your child — meaning you’re putting lots of rules, no-nos and can’t dos in place — could lead to your child being less inclined to tell you about difficult things in fear of getting in trouble. Fear of consequence equals fear of opening up, she says, so if your household is a strict one with plenty of hard and fast rules in place, it might be worth re-assessing your approach.
To help your children feel comfortable, get rid of external consequences, she suggests. Instead of saying, “if you do this bad thing, you get this taken away,” try this approach: “If these good things are happening, we are going to reward you with time on this app, or something new that you’ve been asking for.”
Connecting with your tween
Spending time with your tween is a huge part of building your relationship.
“When there’s not a lot of time spent between the parent and the tween, especially as they get a little bit older, it can be difficult for the tween to want to open up to the parent if the parent isn’t around and interested and asking questions about their child, their experience with school and friends,” and more, she says.
It just might be time to learn that new TikTok dance with your tween. If it’s something he or she likes to do, Dynkowski says parents should take part.
“That’s how you build a relationship with anybody is you do things that either both of you like to do or somebody else likes to do,” she says.
Watch a Netflix series with your child, or do something as simple as teaching them fun skills like cooking or rollerblading.
Get engaged in your child, she adds. This helps them feel like you care about them and that you’re interested in what they like — and that can really help parents connect to their children.
“I think a huge thing, especially right now, is allowing your child to have their own opinions about things,” she says.
Don’t bash them for their opinions or personal views on things. Listen to their perspective and try not to thrust your opinions on your child.
Be vulnerable with your kid, too. Let them see that every day is not good for you. Discuss the difficult parts of your day, in addition to the exciting ones, and let them know you’re human and you make mistakes, she adds.
“I think one really good thing is allowing them to talk to other people too,” she says, whether it’s a trusted aunt, teacher, school counselor or therapist.
Therapy or counseling is an option, as well, for those who are struggling. If you have ever been in counseling or therapy, tell your child about it. Normalize therapy.
Content brought to you by the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. For more information, visit flinnfoundation.org.