7 tips for raising an independent tween

By: Yuki Hayashi

Photo courtesy of Corbis Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photo courtesy of Corbis


7 tips for raising an independent tween

By: Yuki Hayashi
Anyone parenting a tween knows that nine- to 12-year-olds can be a challenging lot. Testing limits and pushing boundaries are what they seem to do best. “Tweens are undergoing biological changes that make them a hormonal cocktail,” says Toronto-based parenting coach Alyson Schafer. “They have one foot in childhood and one in adulthood. They can oscillate between spheres from day to day and at different moments.”

While it’s a bit of a wild ride, it’s perfectly normal, says Schafer. “Tweens have the developmental task of trying to define themselves and to find acceptance with their peers. They will experiment with personae and dress codes and various friend groups.” This is all on top of fulfilling their growing need for independence while staying connected to their parents. As our tweens struggle to figure it all out, it’s important for parents to offer support and guidance along the way.

Respect their need for space
For Vancouver mom Anna Lary, parenting a tween is about knowing when to lean in and when to back off. Anna uses fun agenda-free one-on-one time to bond with her daughter, Mabel, 10. But as her daughter becomes more independent and friend-focused, Anna acknowledges her growing maturity. “I give Mabel space to feel and process her emotions,” she explains. Anna then waits until things are less heated before attempting to talk through any issue.

Help with problem solving

Talking is one of the best things parents can do to help their tweens develop problem-solving and relationship skills. “Tweens require parental guidance when trying to solve many basic problems,” says Dr. David Worling, clinical director of the Westcoast Child Development Group, a Vancouver psychology practice. “A tween struggling to understand a social conflict with a friend will have very little precedence to go on and will need an adult’s support to fully appreciate the other person’s perspective and the impact of individual behaviour and to understand emotionalreactions.”

Dr. Worling suggests calmly talking through the problem-solving process rather than launching into fix-it mode. “Listen to your son or daughter’s logic, perspective taking and empathy, then gently guide him or her through the steps you think are important,” he says.

See each tween as unique
“There’s no playbook when it comes to raising multiple tweens,” says Toronto’s John Pavkovic, father of Jakob, 13, and twins Ilija and Zak, 11. “We saw a growing need for independence bumping against their need for comfort and love, but it’s a different progression for each one.”

John and his wife recognize that each of their sons has a different way of bonding. “We don’t pass judgment or try to shape what’s considered the right kind of connectedness,” he says. “If my 13-year-old wants to read his book next to me while I’m in bed and he falls asleep, it’s not a case of, ‘You’re too old to sleep here. Get up.’ It doesn’t happen all the time, so we assume they need the connection.”

Offer opportunities to connect

John says that his sons often can’t articulate their emotional needs, so rather than forcing conversations, he’ll use nonverbal strategies to connect. “Doing yard work together, fixing something or playing one-on-one basketball is when questions get asked or assurances are received, sometimes indirectly,” he says. Bonus: By busying your kids with a basketball or a rake, you won’t have to battle their hand-held devices for attention.

Don’t sweat the small stuff
One way tweens signal their growing independence is by proving they’re no longer children under their parents’ control, says Schafer. A messy bedroom, a unique new hairstyle and the decision to wear short sleeves in winter are just three ways kids could experiment with independence. None are high stakes enough to get worked up about. “Accept without judgment,” says Schafer.

Dole out responsibilities
Independence is developed by giving our children opportunities to explore and expand themselves, but not so much freedom that they endanger themselves, says Schafer. Help your tweens reconcile their need for freedom with your need to keep them safe. Assign responsibilities, along with rewards and repercussions for meeting or not meeting expectations.

“If they want to venture online or out into the world, share safety rules and discuss consequences and accountability in advance,” says Schafer. For example, if your tween wants to regularly hang out at her BFF’s house after school, communicate that you expect her to call or text you as soon as she arrives. Does she remember to do that? If so, she has proven to be ready for this newfound freedom. “Once children prove they can manage their expanded responsibilities, they can enjoy their independence,” says Schafer. This responsibility-reward negotiation—for curfews, car use, weekend parties and beyond—is one you’ll practise countless times in the years to come.

Closeness reduces risk
Life is about taking risks and learning the difference between smart risks (trying out for a sports team, running for student council) and foolish ones (using alcohol or drugs). While there are a number of variables that contribute to risk-taking behaviour, a supportive atmosphere—which is crucial for tweens to feel safe and grounded—is considered a protective factor. “Strong communication between parents and tweens helps encourage discussions about appropriate risks and puts true risk into perspective,” says Dr. Worling.

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This story was originally titled "Independence movement" in the February 2015 issue.
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7 tips for raising an independent tween